Press Office

The Icon Project

  5 December 2009     Archived

Forthcoming Auction in Cape Town: Monday 15 March 2010

Important South African Paintings, Furniture, Silver, Ceramics and Jewellery


Basil Humphreys, son of William Humphreys, principal benefactor and after whom the William Humphreys Art Gallery in Kimberley is named, had an abiding interest in Greek and Russian icons which he collected avidly. As they became harder to acquire, particularly in the mid 1960s, he came up with the novel idea of inviting prominent South African artists to paint an ‘icon’ for his collection.

Accordingly on 25 October 1966 he wrote letters to a number of artists making precisely the same offer – he would provide a uniform piece of hardboard , 12 by 10 inches, and would offer a payment of R50 per painting. The artists who responded positively included Gerard Sekoto, Gordon Vorster, Alfred Krenz, May Hillhouse, Alexander and Marianne Podlashuc, Jan Buys, Frank Spears, Frans Claerhout, Iris Ampenberger and Walter Westbrook.

Sekoto, in a letter dated 28 April 1967, expresses his pleasure at being included in the list of artists. His monumental Christ-head crowned with thorns, dated 1968, evokes, through dramatic line and mauve tones, Christ’s Passion and by extension, the sufferings of Sekoto’s fellow South Africans. In contrast, Iris Ampenberger draws on medieval iconography while Marianne Podlashuc offers a modern update of the traditional Via Dolorosa theme. Gordon Vorster was so enthusiastic that he produced six icons. Regrettably not everyone was taken with the idea and there were some rejections from, amongst others, Ephraim Ngatane, Claude Bouscharain, Bettie Cilliers-Barnard, Maud Sumner, Gregoire Boonzaier, Alexis Preller, Eleanor Esmonde-White and Ruth Prowse. Walter Battiss, then Head of the University of South

Africa’s Department of History of Art and Fine Art, replied, “Unfortunately, I am that awkward, embarrassing kind of artist who can never carry out a suggestion made to me by others as my art springs fertilised from within me.

I promise you one thing, though: if from within I get to wanting to paint an ICON I’ll let you see it first. Of course I’m certainly not an ICON-oclast!”

This collection of some eighteen icons which has lain undisturbed in a tin trunk for the last 32 years, is to be offered for sale, together with the correspondence from all the above artists, at Strauss & Co’s forthcoming auction of Important Paintings, Furniture, Silver, Ceramics and Jewellery at the Vineyard Hotel, Newlands on 15 March 2010.