Dorothy Kay was best known as a painter and portraitist, producing numerous quirky self-portraits, family portraits and 23 official portraits of the Mayors of Port Elizabeth, but she was also an expert etcher. She acquired her initial art training at the Royal Hibernian Academy in her home country of Ireland, but on settling in Port Elizabeth in South Africa, she enrolled at the city’s Art School to study etching under Frank Pickford Marriott. He taught Dorothy the processes of etching, aquatint and dry point using copper and zinc plates, and she revelled in ‘the thousand and one difficulties’ of the process and the powerful smells of ink and nitric acid.1 Kay became a master printmaker, producing more than 44 plates over the course of her career. The present lot, Song of the Pick, one of her most popular prints, was etched in 1938, before she began numbering and limiting her editions.
A number of Kay’s works focus on groups of men at work, for example, The Tanning Pits (1920s), The Fish Market (1930s), Gold (c. 1936) and Salt (1940s). With reference to the tannery workers, in particular, she records being fascinated by ‘the rhythmic actions of lifting and moving’ their sticks and their own bodies in ‘unvarying beautiful movements’. In Song of the Pick, Kay makes the rhythm of work the overriding compositional device, the repeated arms and pick handles setting up a visual rhythm that implies a matching vocal rhythm as the men accompany themselves in song. The repeated pose is reminiscent of the work of British post-Vorticist artists Sybil Andrews and Cyril Power, whose work depicted speed and movement through similar repetition of form and manipulation of scale. The source of the title of the present lot is unknown, although Kay may have been familiar with the Australian construction workers’ song of the same name that dates from at least the early twentieth century. It goes: ‘Click, click, the song of the pick; A bolt in the socket, a bar in the brick; Lay well the foundation, a miniature hell; A prison perchance, therein someday to dwell’. A similar repetition of form was later used in a work of the same title by Gerard Sekoto, first in a watercolour (c. 1939) and later in the iconic oil painting now widely regarded as his masterpiece (c. 1946).1
1. Marjorie Reynolds 'Everything you do is a Portrait of Yourself': Dorothy Kay, A Biography, Cape Town: AMR, page 55.