Important South African and International Art

Live Auction, 7 November 2016

Evening Sale

Sold for

ZAR 522 928
Lot 207
  • Dorothy Kay; Variations on a Theme

Lot Estimate
ZAR 200 000 - 300 000
Selling Price
Incl. Buyer's Premium & VAT
ZAR 522 928

About this Item

Irish/South African 1886-1964
Variations on a Theme

signed and dated 1959; inscribed with the title and artist's name on a South African National Gallery label adhered to the reverse

oil on board
85 by 61cm excluding frame


Dorothy Kay married and settled in South Africa in 1910, and is perhaps best known for her closely-observed figure and portrait pictures painted in an academic mode. Bearing in mind her signficant ouevre of private, society and mayoral portraits (many of the latter sadly lost in the Port Elizabeth City Hall fire of 1977), as well as her traditional, early-century training at the Metropolitan School of Art and the Royal Hibernian Academy School in Dublin, the regular comparison between her rigorous style and the more expressive approach of her contemporary, Irma Stern, comes as little surprise. Kay's deliberate and studious hand was certainly well-suited to formal portraiture, while her attention to detail lead to numerous industrial commissions that more often than not relied on the accurate depiction of medical, mining and military equipment. But in the final two decades of her career, Kay produced a remarkable group of eccentric portraits and absurdist still-lives to which the present lot belongs. Variations on a Theme, painted in 1959, shortly after her iconic Deck Chairs in the Wind, and in the same year as the very witty Three Mirrors, was chosen for exhibition by the Eastern Province Society of Arts and Crafts in 1959. The work had been inspired by the site of a group of family umbrellas hanging from a recently acquired stand:

'look what I've found...Variations on a theme would be the best way of explaining it - a group of umbrellas & the theme is really a straight line - which comes in to it too - lots of them & six umbrellas -...My old Aunt Annie parasol (wedding present) Jeffrey's black brolly - 2 of Joan’s, very elegant! & 1 I bought from C.T. - I mended it - & an old beach brolly of mine - & a stick!'1

The composition of Variations on a Theme is wonderfully complex. What appears at first glance to be a group of casually stacked brollies is rather a sophisticated arrangement of angular and overlapping planes, spindly and crisscrossing lines, and strong, bisecting bands of colour. On close inspection, whatever depth the artist suggested in the flapping and pleated fabric canopies is consistently undermined by the interlocking shards of flat colour, not to mention the scored lines cut into the veneer of the board. Moreover, lines and painted edges beginning out of frame end as wire rib tips or ferrules, while others simply disappear altogether into the painted surface. These lines, together with the inflexible steel shafts, crook handles in cane, delicate steel ribs, the clean folds of waxed fabric, and the other more recognisable umbrella components, make certain that the picture is held firmly together by a grid that is elaborate and subtle, but always pleasingly decorative.

The artist was thrilled with the painting: 'the umbrellas is a delightful picture to look at & add to: on & on, always something else to do...more colour - more line, more imagination - such Heaven!’2

1 Marjorie Reynolds. (1989) Everything You Do is a Portrait of Yourself: Dorothy Kay, A Biography, Rosebank: Alec Marjorie Reynolds. Page 361.

2 Ibid. Page 362.


South African National Gallery, Cape Town, Dorothy Kay, June 1982, catalogue number 67

Eastern Province Society of Arts and Crafts, 42nd Exhibition, 13-24 October 1959


Marjorie Reynolds (ed.) (1991) The Elvery Family; A Memory: Dorothy Kay, Cape Town: The Carrefour Press. Illustrated in colour on page 182.

Marjorie Reynolds (1989) Everything You Do is a Portrait of Yourself: Dorothy Kay, A Biography, Rosebank: Alec Marjorie Reynolds. Pages 359,361-365 and 378. Illustrated in colour on page 361.

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