Live Virtual Auction, 11 - 13 April 2021
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About this Item
Accompanied by a copy of the book, A D Keet Jr (1981) Briewe van Anton van Wouw aan A D Keet, Cape Town: Nasionale Pers.
Few, if any, South African sculptures are as eloquent, absorbing and moving as Anton van Wouw’s Boer War-era masterpiece, Slegte Nuus (Bad News). Conceived in 1907, during a hot streak of creativity, the work catches two crestfallen Boer soldiers, broken in body and spirit, but brave and ever-hardy, resigned to the loss of their Republics’ independence, or their own impending imprisonment. The moment is heart-breaking and inspirational: one man rests his head on the other, his right ankle snapped and useless, his physical pain buried, and his bandolier empty but for two last rounds; the other’s stare is dogged and fixed forward, his soft veld hat throwing shadows across his gaunt face, his rifle temporarily downed, and his expression haunted by suffering. The work is a breathtaking tribute to brotherhood, and an enduring image of courage, grit and patriotism.
This particular casting of Slegte Nuus has a compelling provenance. It was ordered directly from Van Wouw by the poet AD Keet in 1926. Remarkably, the logistical arrangements around moving the sculpture from the Nisini Foundry in Rome to Senekal in the-then Orange Free State, via the artist’s studio in Doornfontein, are recorded in one side of the correspondence between poet and sculptor. While Keet’s notes are lost, 22 letters from Van Wouw were found amongst Keet’s papers, and published by the poet’s son, in 1981, under the title Briewe van Anton van Wouw aan AD Keet. The matter-of-fact correspondence begins on 2 December 1926 and ends on 13 August 1930; all Van Wouw’s letters were sent from the artist’s home on Sivewright Avenue, except one, dated 14 November 1928, which was written in Rome. Most importantly, the letters confirm that Keet’s casting – and all others of Slegte Nuus up to that point – had come from the furnaces of Nisini, at 63 Via del Babuino, a stone’s throw from the Spanish Steps.
The present lot arrived at Van Wouw’s studio early in January 1927, and was forwarded to Senekal on 9 January. The extraordinary Roman foundrymen and patineurs certainly did justice to Van Wouw’s touching figural composition and his staggering attention to detail: note the iron sights on the Mauser rifle, for instance, the crumpled jacket sleeves, the matted beards, holes in soles, and the lizard behind the soldiers, perhaps emboldened by their long, melancholy stillness.
While Slegte Nuus remains one of the most recognisable mini-monuments of the Boer War, quality castings are desperately rare: only a handful of irrefutable Roman castings have appeared at auction over the last century.
A D Keet, and thence by descent.
A D Keet Jr (1981) Briewe van Anton van Wouw aan A D Keet, Cape Town: Nasionale Pers, illustrated in black and white, unpaginated.
University of Pretoria (1981) Anton van Wouw 1862-1945 en die Van Wouwhuis, Pretoria: Butterworth and Co., another cast from the edition illustrated on page 27, plate A5.
Hans Fransen (1982) Three Centuries of South African Art, Johannesburg: A D Donker, another case from this edition illustrated on page 327.
A E Duffey (2008) Anton van Wouw: The Smaller Works, Pretoria: Protea Book House, another cast from the edition illustrated on pages 53 to 55.