Writing Art History Since 2002

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Jillian Carman’s book Uplifting the Colonial Philistine: Florence Phillips and the Making of the Johannesburg Art Gallery is an engrossing and informative read. Meticulously researched, it presents the reader with a cogent portrait of the fascinating and complex period in South African history, which led to the birth of the Union of South Africa as well as South Africa’s first actual public art collection (both in 1910). Adopting a neutral tone throughout, Carman sets out to contextualise the various parties that had vested interests – public and private – in the establishment of a public art museum in what was then perceived by many as a colonial backwater. She observes that the Johannesburg Art Gallery grew out of a matrix of conflicting issues leading to Union, and that it reflects them. She lists some of these as: “[T]he assertion of British superiority and growing awareness of resentment of it; the increasing affirmation of Afrikaner identity; the ruthless drive to resuscitate the wealth of the mines through indentured labour; growing criticism of those who reaped their riches from the mines; the confrontation (in the way of strikes and public criticism) between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’; the simultaneous Boer resistance to imperial reconstruction and pragmatic acceptance (even appropriation) of the status quo; and the participation by British and Boer political leaders in the process which resulted in the proclamation of the Union of South Africa on 31 May 1910.”The idea for a South African public art museum began with Florence Phillips, wife of the wealthy Randlord Lionel Phillips. A woman with considerable drive and personal ambition, Phillips managed to canvas support for her plans by force of will alone. It can be seen as no small achievement that a woman could drive a project many men regarded as less than important: compared to science, art was seen as frivolous; hence the fact that museums in South Africa prior to 1910 were by and large natural history museums.Phillips’ idea for an art museum that would ostensibly educate and “uplift” the supposedly uneducated South African people (that is, the colonial British as well as the Boers; blacks were seen by both groups as less than human), gained momentum when she acquired the curatorial services of the Hugh Lane. Lane had achieved some fame for initiating the Dublin Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, and he was seen as an expert on modern art. His personal ambitions coalesced with Phillips’; both used the Johannesburg Art Gallery to further their social standing.Using an art museum “to consolidate the cultural infrastructure of an emerging civil society” found some favour with wealthy Randlords, without whose financial backing the project would have been doomed. Carman notes that “[a] Randlord could be condemned for being Jewish, for being alien, for not being British enough, for being too imperialist, for not caring about South Africa, for spending too much time out of the country, for importing cheap labour to sustain the mines, for being too wealthy, for not having enough ‘old’ wealth, for spending too much on cultural accoutrements, for not being learned and cultured enough”. Investing in a public art museum was aimed at alleviating some of these resentments.In the end, Phillips’ idea was appropriated by economic and political powers (by and large British). In turn, Carman argues, by appropriating the largely European collection as their own, the local “cultured elite” “showed their cultural sophistication, and sought to debunk the British-perspective myth of their ignorance”. This positive note tends to gloss over some of the uglier aspects of life in South Africa between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For one, the atrocities of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), such as the razing of Boer farms by the British, which led to intense poverty and bitterness, could have been acknowledged. Civilisation all too often translates bloody acts of violence as cultural objects of veneration.Gerhard Schoeman is a lecturer in the Department of Art History and Visual Culture Studies, University of the Free State

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