Traditional dress recorded from the catwalk of life

The South African National Gallery in Cape Town is running an exhibition Iqholo le Afrika (Her African Pride):  A ­Centenary ­Celebration of the Life and Work of Barbara Tyrrell. It is ­honouring the veteran artist and author, and more than 150 of her decorative, accurate visual recordings of Southern African costume are on show.

It is a mild autumn morning in Fish Hoek. The remarkably vital centenarian Barbara Tyrrell is dressed in a crisp blue-and-white checked shirt and navy slacks, and she walks towards me unaided, but under the watchful eye of Louisa, her solicitous carer.

The colour of her hazel eyes might have dimmed with time, but light and humour blaze behind them. She leans back in her favourite chair and responds spontaneously to every question. You sense a life fully realised.

“The exhibition has brought great joy,” she says. “It makes me feel that the life one has been living is worthwhile. I never worried about recognition, but my work has always been kindly recognised. I started drawing at the age of three or four; I never wanted to do anything else.”

Tyrrell was born in Durban and brought up in Zululand. Her father died when she was three. At the time, they lived at Eshowe.

“I don’t remember him, but my mother told me a lot about him. I always liked to hear that he was six foot four inches [1.93m] tall”, she says, smiling. “What she told me made me feel I would have loved to have known him.”

Her earliest memory of tribal culture, a topic that became her life-long passion, is rooted in Eshowe. Her father worked for the department of native affairs as an assistant magistrate and isiZulu interpreter in the courts. It was a language her mother and the four children all spoke. Her father had insisted that she learn a pure isiZulu, rather than the common “kitchen” isiZulu used by most other people of European descent.

“I was really a white Zulu,” she says with an almost girlish laugh, a delightful sound that was heard often during our time together.

Tyrrell trained as an artist at the former University of Natal during the 1930s, when the fine arts department was still linked to that of the former technical college.

Recording history

When she realised that tradition was fast disappearing under the influences of modernisation and Westernisation, she decided to create a visual record of the symbolically rich traditional costumes and adornments worn by the peoples of Southern Africa.

To get around, she bought a car, something women did not do then, let alone drive. Her first was an Austin 10, paid for with the proceeds of art sales and teaching. Later she acquired a 1934 Chevrolet van, previously used to hawk vegetables in Port Elizabeth.

She converted it into a kind of caravan, named it “Nixie” (a nixie is a wild spirit, the way she saw herself) and set out on her first field trip to the Amangwane of the Drakensberg.

Armed with an “eye”, precision fingers, paper, pencil and watercolours, her mission was to paint landscapes and record tribal dress. But, she says, she drew her subjects as “living creatures”, whose dress reflected who they were.

She had to observe the etiquette of the people she wished to draw and could not ask them outright to sit for her. She would engage them in conversation, talking about the weather, the crops or any other topic that came to mind. When they appeared shy or self-conscious, she would suggest that she would like to draw their beadwork, of which they were always extremely proud. They would end up posing for hours while she made her sketches. The fact that the human element gradually crept in did not worry them at all.

Studying her drawings and the mood emanating from them, Tyrrell’s sensitivity, her respect for her subjects and the extent of her connection with them is clear.

She says that her fierce independence, especially as a young woman, was unusual in her day and caused much comment. But her mother, who was also an artist and believed in self-expression, encouraged her.

“My sisters were real ladies. I was known as a bit of an odd woman,” she says. Her “work uniform” was a khaki shirt and slacks.

Was she was ever scared of travelling alone?

“I don’t know the word ‘scared’. If anything made me feel fearful, I would become indignant that I had been placed in that position. As long as I could put down what I saw and felt, I was happy. It was important to me and I loved it.”

Intimate knowledge

After her first excursion, between 1940 and 1960 she drove thousands of kilometres alone to remote areas, sometimes to places not frequented by white people, in Natal, Transkei, Pondoland, Basutoland, Swaziland, South West Africa and Rhodesia.

The outcome of it was a fund of absorbing stories about secret initiation and puberty rituals, as well as a vast knowledge about the habits and customs of about 21 indigenous tribes.

The result is described online in “Barbara Tyrrell and the Campbell Collections”: “Barbara Tyrrell as artist-recorder is a rare combination of outstanding ability as a draftswoman, and the courage and vision to seek out and record a sincere fascination with the character of her African subjects.

“The fact that she always drew from life gives her work, particularly her field sketches, an integrity seldom found in the work of artists who use secondary sources, such as photographs, as reference.

“If one realises that her original field sketches (of which there are some 1 200) are probably the only authentic record of real people who once lived and went about their traditionalist lives at a certain time and place, then one can appreciate Tyrrell’s work as an historical heritage of great value.”

Tyrrell married Pete Jurgens, an engineer and later a filmmaker, in 1950. She raised their son Pete, born in 1952, in Richmond.

Besides dealing with family life, she organised solo exhibitions and the sale of paintings through the Tate Gallery in London. She started work on a thesis on tribal dress, which would lead to several important books and an honorary PhD degree, which was bestowed on her by the University of Natal in 1965.

It has been said about Tyrrell’s art that she was a law unto herself.

“I trusted my own reactions. But I also listened to the important artists.”

She speaks with great warmth about the late Killie Campbell, a well-known Africana collector, whose collections were bequeathed to the University of Natal after her death in 1965.

“She inspired me. She understood my dream and had confidence in me from the beginning. She bought almost all my work and made it ­possible for me to finance my travels. In turn, I paid the subjects of my drawings.”

Speaking the language

Asked about the interpersonal challenges in multicultural South Africa today, she says: “We ought to learn each other’s languages. It is very important.”

Jurgens died in 1963, 13 years after their wedding and, in 1998, she lost her son, then 46 years old.

She looks down for a moment and then says softly: “I suppose it’s love — love of people — that helped see me through. There’s a rhythm to life .”

Louisa pipes up from the kitchen: “She’s a happy chappy — she’s my sunshine!”

The show, curated by Vusi Buthelezi and Yvonne Winters from the Campbell Collections at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, is on until July 4. Also on display, complementing the strong design aspect of her work, are adornments and costumes from the gallery’s own African art collections. Website:

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