The historical collections of painting and sculpture within the Art Collections Department of Iziko Museums embrace a wide range of works for art that are both South African and foreign in origin. The founding of the South African National Gallery (SANG) in 1871 during the British colonial period initially established an emphasis on British art, as well collecting works of art from South Africa’s other “founder” nations, such as the Netherlands. Almost all of the works of art in these collections were acquired either by presentation or bequest.
Early benefactors such as the South African-born Alfred de Pass added works by British and international artists between 1926 and 1949. The gallery’s holdings were expanded by gifts from Sir Edmund and Lady Davis in 1935-38, and the Sir Abe Bailey Bequest, which has been on long-term loan to the SANG since 1946. Over the years, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, more modern works augmented and updated the British collection.
The British holdings include works by JWM Turner, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, George Stubbs, Daniel Maclise, William Orchardson, Edward Ward, Edward Burne-Jones, George Fredrick Watts, Charles Shannon, Charles Ricketts, Frank Brangwyn, CRW Nevinson, Paul Nash, Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Gillian Ayres, Alan Davie, Ronal Kitaj and Gary Wragg.
It was De Pass who initiated the collecting of work by South African painters and sculptors from the 1930s, a policy which was pursued more vigorously from the early 1950s, thanks to the State making a small acquisitions budget available from 1949. This saw the purchase of modern South African works by Walter Battiss, Alexis Preller, Irma Stern and others.
Atlas Eric Broadbent (British, early 20th Century). Bronze. Presented to South Africa by Mr AO Edwards, March 1936. Iziko South African National Gallery 197
The collecting of South African works dating from the 19th century was minimal because of a policy decision that deferred acquisitions in this area to other “Africana” museums in South Africa whose chief area of collecting this was.
The SANG nonetheless has select examples of works by Thomas Baines, Thomas Bowler, Heinrich Hermann and Frederick Ions.
A remit to collect work of Dutch and Flemish origin was also followed by the SANG in the colonial era, and 17th-Century works by Willem van der Velde, Adriaen van Gaesbeeck, Jan van Kessel and others were presented by various donors. In 1948 a substantial gift from Henry van den Bergh via the National Art Collections Fund of Great Britain (NACF) of Dutch 19th-Century works by Josef Israels, William Maris and other Dutch “Impressionists” were added to the collection. In 2001, with the amalgamation the Sang and the impressive Michaelis Collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings into the Iziko Art Collections Department, a larger pool of historical works was created.
The Iziko Michaelis Collection, housed at the Old Town House (1755) on Greenmarket Square, is Cape Town’s equivalent of The Mauritshuis in The Hague. Presented to the South African people by Sir Max Michaelis in 1914, it comprises of works by Frans Hals, Melchoir d’Hondecoeter, Jan Steen, Frans Snijders, Willem van Aelst, Abraham van Beyeren, Nicolaes Maes, Jacob van Ruisdael, Dirck van Santvoort, Paulus Moreelse and Caterina van Hemessen.
It is perhaps the most significant collection of its kind outside of the European-Russian and American spheres, and is wholly unique in Africa.
The historical art collections of Iziko Museums serve as a basis for thematic exhibitions that explore broader themes in South African art. They have also served as the basis of interactive works made by a number of contemporary South African artists.