In an official ceremony held in front of the white-gabled house in Paulet Street, Somerset East in 1981, Walter Whall Battiss bequeathed a large collection of his own art works to "the people of Somerset East and South Africa." This was the largest Battiss collection in South Africa before the Jack Ginsberg collection was given to Wits Art Museum, in June 2016, to be exhibited for three months and then to form the nucleus for a definitive Battiss collection which will be available for study and research.
The two storied house with its long shaded verandah was built as an English officers' mess in the early days of Somerset, and was hired by the Battiss family, who ran it as the Battiss private Hotel between 1914 and 1917, when the recession which followed the First World War forced them to close, and move to Koffiefontein. It lies under the benign gaze of the Boschberg Mountain, and is a familiar landmark in this small Karoo town. It still functions as an art museum housing the large collection of Battiss' work, as well as family items, books, letters, and some of Prof. Battiss' clothing and personal items. The Museum was fully restored when serious deterioration of the building was identified in 1999, and it reopened in 2004.
Battiss's father, from a family of "vigorous hymn-singing Methodists" wanted him to be "a strong man" - while his mother wanted him to be an artist. His talent as an artist was obvious from a very early age.
At the opening of the Walter Battiss Art Museum in October 1981, Battiss, at 75, still looked every bit as much the "strong man" as the artist. His large frame, neatly dressed in pin-striped shirt and suit, contrasted with his long white hair and goatee.
"MY FATHER WAS A WATERFALL AND MY MOTHER WAS A BUTTERFLY" is an oft quoted phrase which Battiss first wrote in the preface to his book "Limpopo". It refers to the strength of the waterfall of ideas tumbling out of the highly creative imagination; the butterfly was ever seeking new places and new possibilities for expression.
"I found it easy for my father and the waterfall to be one and the same manifestation of paternal energy. My mother was small and flitted around, delicate yet supermobile, the abstraction of a butterfly." Butterflies appear on innumerable occasions in the canvasses and sketches produced throughout Battiss's long and varied career.
By 1917, when Battiss was 11, the family had moved to Koffiefontein where an engineer on a local mine stimulated an interest in archaeology in the young Battiss. Expeditions in search of ancient art followed. The elegant images which had been carved onto rocks had inculcated themselves deeply into the young artist's mind, for they were to compose a major part of his own iconographical repertoire. The family later settled in Fauresmith, where his education was completed.
Battiss acquired an art teaching diploma and a Bachelor of Fine Art degree in 1941 from UNISA. In 1938 he paid the first of several visits to Europe where he met various successful poets and painters. During this time he forged a lasting friendship with Pablo Piccasso. Back in South Africa, Battiss turned to Rock Art to find the "soul" of his paintings. To pay tribute to the source of his inspiration he published "The Amazing Bushmen" in 1939.
FOOK ISLAND was the imaginary world Battiss created - his "Island of the Imagination". "You will seek in vain on maps for the location of the island, for it eludes conventional cartography. It is not a place you arrive at, you are either there or not there." Fantasy and reality merged in Battiss's vision, so this world produced concrete artifacts such as real stamps, real money and real passports.
FOOK was a serious philosophy, to be taken seriously by the poets, artists, and writers who gathered around him at his Menlo Park, Pretoria, home. Abstract ideas, he believed, not only exist in the minds of their creators, but can also live on to become an essential part of reality.
In essence, Battiss was the loveable "King Ferd the Third". The Fookian flag flew proudly in the garden when he, Rex Insular Fookis, was in residence. Around him he gathered the results of his fertile imagination - like his own Fook language.
From 1976 until his death, joyous images of abstract symbols, to more representational landscapes, emerged from his prolific brush and pen. Themes and subjects vary greatly in his work - as, at times, does the quality - but all found unity in his expression of joy of life.
Walter Battiss was working at a winter retreat at Liesure Bay on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast when he was struck down by a heart attack. He died in Port Shepstone on 20th August 1982, aged 76.
In November 2006, the centenary of his birth, and the 25 year anniversary of the opening of the Walter Battiss Art Museum were celebrated, with poetry, song, and readings in Fook by his old friend Walter Saunders at a suitably decorated Gallery. The gentle spirit of Walter Battiss would have enjoyed the occasion, attended by family, friends, and art lovers.
The Walter Battiss Art Museum now houses the Blue Crane Tourism office. Museum hours 8.30 until 13.00 and 13.00 until 17.00 weekdays. Visits can be arranged between 10.00 and 12.00 on Saturdays and Public holidays, by previous arrangement.
Walter Battiss Art Gallery 042 243 1448 / 073 698 6539
Somerset East Museum 042 243 2079