Thursday, 3 May 2012

Report: April meeting - Viewing of Fitzsimon's snake paintings

Viewing Snake Paintings at Wits

It was quite awesome to visit the booklined halls of the Africana section of the William Cullen Library at Wits University. We got excited just seeing desirable books (with paintings by South African Botanical Artists) amongst all the other books. And then librarian Peter Duncan brought out the snake paintings!

These paintings by Rev PJ Smit ( 1863-1960) are lifelike with incredible detail and are wonderfully well done. Some 74 of the 105 paintings were used to illustrate FitzSimons'  Snakes of Southern Africa (1962). Such a number of paintings on this subject could only be done by a passionately dedicated person. What makes it even more remarkable is that Rev. Smit reportedly did most of the paintings between the ages of 80 and 94!

The paintings were initially commissioned for a book on venomous snakes and he was paid four pounds per plate. His work method was cumbersome but gave very accurate detail and excellent results. The Port Elizabeth Museum would inform him whenever they received a good specimen. The snake specimen was placed in a large box with glass sides in good light. Using an archaic camera he photographed it at close quarters. He developed the whole plate celluloid negatives himself and often pasted several negatives together to capture the complete specimen. He then, with a sharp metal probe, meticously scratched each scale on the negative. A soft lead pencil was rubbed into these little scratched grooves, and the excess graphite removed. The negative was then inverted onto watercolour paper and gently rubbed leaving a faint pencil impression of the scale pattern. Rev. Smit would then return to the museum and do the watercolour painting from the actual specimen.The paintings are scale perfect making them most suitable for the classification of snakes.

Looking at these paintings I was amazed to see every scale, however small, perfectly painted - and the minute colour detail in the eyes. The highlight on the eye along with highlights and shading on the curves of a snake makes it compellingly real to the viewer.

Entering another hall we gasped at the sight of bookcases from floor to ceiling (double storey) lined with antique leatherbound books. The exquisite gold leaf and tooling on these leatherbound books is reminiscent of another era. Here we had the oppportunity to look at the charmingly beautiful  botanical illustrations (with detailed dissections) of Ericas by HC Andrews published around 1805. The colours in this aged leatherbound volume looked bright and fresh as could be.

This visit was a wonderful opportunity to see the admirable artwork of these artists on subjects that certainly require infinite patience and dedication!  Our thanks to Peter Duncan for his time and input, and to Gill Condy for arranging this visit.

By Helene Joubert

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