“Awfully Weirdly” – the short, sad life of Aubrey Beardsley

In his short, sad life he was controversial. More than 100 years after his death, he seems  not much less controversial. But he still manages to weave a spell for anyone interested in art, particularly Art Nouveau and the art of illustration.

Beardsley by Valloton

Beardsley by Valloton

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, dubbed by his contemporaries, often not too kindly, “Awfully Weirdly”, was born on 21 August 1872 in Brighton, England. His mother, Ellen, was the daughter of a Surgeon General of the Indian Army and his father, Vincent Paul, the son of a tradesman.

Aubrey’s family moved to London in 1883 and he was soon thereafter sent to Bristol Grammar School where he wrote and performed in a play with some of his fellow-students. He also at that time started to draw, and some of his cartoons were published.

In 1892 he began to study art at the Westminster School of Art, having been advised to take up art seriously by Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones and French artist Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes.

Two things which made Beardsley so controversial were his strange, unconventional drawings and his intense interest in sex, at a time when the society in which he moved was still extremely Victorian, prudish in matters of sex, to say the least. His style flouted the norms of “decent” society, society which could accept art which amounted to the erotic so long as it was cloaked in conventional, usually “classical”, forms.

As critic and editor Derek Stanford has written (in his introduction to Aubrey Beardsley’s Erotic Universe, Four Square, 1967), “Working in black-and-white, he brought to this narrowly limiting medium an immense resonance of suggestion; and it is this power of suggestion which makes him the superb eroticist that he is.”

Stanford explains why Beardsley was, and still is, a haunting, perplexing artist, whose images still have the power to hold the viewer’s attention, and stay in the memory long after they have been looked at.

The reason is that Beardsley is an eroticist par excellance, but not a pornographer.

There is always debate around the difference between the two, and Beardsley is an excellent subject with which to explore the difference, as he produced works which could be called erotic, indeed, the bulk of his output tends to be in this category, but he also produced a small number of clearly pornographic images, mainly in support of a play, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata which was published in 1896.

Stanford explains the difference between erotica and pornography thusly: “The pornographer’s business is solely to state; even in his fantasies he must be literal. In contrast, the erotic artist conveys his effect largely by suggestion. And what he suggests must be more than the erotic fact itself.”

In 1997, William J. Gehrke, then chairperson of the MIT Lecture Series Committee, explained the difference between pornographic and erotic films in this way: “Pornographic film has as its primary purpose the graphic depiction of sexually explicit scenes. It generally depicts these scenes in a way that is degrading to women or, less frequently, to men. It tends to perpetuate the myth that rape and sexual assault are appropriate forms of behavior. Erotica, on the other hand, seeks to tell a story that involves sexual themes. Sexually explicit scenes in these films serve a secondary role to the plot. Erotic film displays sexually explicit scenes in a more realistic and equal fashion that is not degrading to either gender.”

Beardsley’s work provides nice examples of the fine line that exists between the merely obscene and the high art of the erotic.

Beardsley contracted tuberculosis at age seven, and his struggle with ill health dominated his life. As Matthew Sweet wrote in The Independent of 15 March 1998, “Sex was a profound influence on Beardsley’s work, on the company he kept, and on the progress of his illness.”

Beardsley died in France on 16 March 1898, having been received into the Catholic Church the year before. He was 25 years old, and as far as anyone knows, still a virgin, despite his intense interest in all matters sexual. There was a rumour that his sister Mabel and he had had an incestuous relationship, but this was never proven.

Oscar Wilde by Beardsley

Oscar Wilde by Beardsley

Although he kept company with known homosexuals, including Oscar Wilde, it is fairly certain that he was not himself homosexual.

For one who was so sickly and whose life was so short, Beardsley managed to produce a large number of works of art of unquestionable value and great, if sometimes strange, beauty. And in his short lifetime he managed also to have a great influence on Art Nouveau and the art of illustration.

Yellow_book_coverBeardsley was associated with various publications including the Yellow Book, a famous British literary and artistic journal of the 1890s. Many of the leading artists and writers of the day were published in this journal, including Max Beerbohm, Arnold Bennett, George Gissing, Henry James, H. G. Wells, and William Butler Yeats .

In this article I will discuss only ten of Beardsley’s works, drawing on comments by Stanford.

rosegarden_eThe first of these is the lovely Mysterious Rose Garden, which, according to Stanford, “conveys a sense of Beardsley’s elaborated gospel of sin.” The drawing, “is eminently successful, depending on the contrast between the naked, slender figure of the woman and the voluminously full figure of the ‘Dark Angel’ clad in a swirling loosely skirted robe and bearing his long-tipped staff and glowing lantern.” It is indeed a haunting image of great beauty and not a little disturbing for all that.Venus_between_Terminal_Gods

In “Venus between Terminal Gods” Beardsley’s use of what Stanford calls “disguised or concealed eroticism” is so subtle that it could easily be missed. Stanford draws attention to the floral pattern creeping up the gown of Venus “which terminates just where her thighs meet.” This illustration was to have been the frontispiece to Beardsley’s unfinished novel Venus and Tannhäuser which was published posthumously as Under the Hill, in 1907.

The_Black_CapeOne of Beardsley’s most famous pieces is “The Black Cape”. In this work the influence of Japanese print makers is clear, even to the mark that Beardsley used as his signature. The balance and swirl of this piece is ravishing to the eye, in spite of its being in sober black and white.

Beardsley had, even before his reception into the Catholic Church, a strange relationship with religion generally, and the Church in particular. His attitude was expressed in two drawings, the “Large Christmas Card”, which was a loose insertion into the first issue of the Savoy, another literary journal with which he was associated, and “The Ascension of St Rose of Lima”.christmas card

The “Christmas Card” shows an insipidly pretty Virgin holding the Holy Infant, who looks more like a very young Anglican choir boy than a new-born child. The drawing is rich in typical Beardsley-fashion floral draperies against which the face of the Virgin and the figure of the Child stand out in stark simplicity. The Virgin is given more “holy” attributes than the Child, but in spite of them her prettiness leads one to thoughts of rather more mundane than sacred love. It is, to say the least, ambiguous.rose of lima

Less ambiguous is the image of love in the St Rose drawing. Here the love is clearly profane which makes the picture almost blasphemous. Indeed, in Stanford’s words, “the saint’s closed eyes and smile, in the embrace of the heavenly bridegroom, speak more of sexual than celestial levitation.”

Beardsley did a series of illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé, of which we will consider six here, the Toilette of Salomé I and II, The Eyes of Herod, Stomach Dance, the Dancer’s Reward and the Climax.eyes of herod

“The Tetrarch has a sombre look. Has he not a sombre look?” the first soldier in Wilde’s play asks.

“Yes, he has a sombre look,” says the second soldier. Meanwhile Herodias is becoming quite unsettled by the way Herod the Tetrarch is looking at Salomé: “You are looking at my daughter. You must not look at her. I have already said so.” This is the scene depicted in the drawing “The Eyes of Herod.” Beardsley does not leave the viewer in much doubt as to what Herod’s eyes are taking in.toilette I

The two Toilette scenes show Salomé getting ready to dance for Herod: “I will dance for you, Tetrarch.” Then, “I am waiting until my slaves bring perfumes to me and the seven veils, and take off my sandals.”toilette II

The voice of Jokanaan is heard, saying “Who is this who cometh from Edom, who is this who cometh from Bozra, whose raiment is dyed with purple, who shineth in the beauty of his garments, who walketh mighty in his greatness? Wherefore is thy raiment stained with scarlet?”

Herodias is horrified by the prophet’s words and tries to get Herod to go back into the palace: “I will not have her dance while you look at her in this fashion.”

But Salomé dances and Herod, entranced, asks her “What wouldst thou have?”

Then comes the fateful, terrible answer: “I would that they would bring me in a silver charger … the head of Jokanaan.”The_Dancers_Reward

The Reward” is brought to Salomé, dripping gore, and in “The Climax” she makes to kiss the gory head: “Yes, I will kiss they mouth, Jokanaan. I said it. Did I not say it?”

climaxA really horrifying climax in which the illustration, by its starkness captures the horror and strange fascination of it. There is in Salomé’s response the horror of necrophilia, the wild abandon to the lusts of death: “If thou hadst looked at me,” she tells the dead head, “thou hadst loved me. Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me, and the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.”

A few minutes later Herod’s slaves kill Salomé on Herod’s order. A fittingly gory end to a gory, sadistic scene.

Is this pornographic or erotic? Is there more than a hint of sadism here?

By his juxtapositioning of the beauty of his drawings and the ambiguousness of what they appear to show, Beardsley is confronting the viewer with questions – what is good and what is evil? What is sacred and what profane? His drawings challenge us not to accept things at face value, but to dig deeper. At the very least the simplicity of medium is contrasted with the richness of what is portrayed and this causes us to look more deeply at the images.

Because of the depth of the questions raised by Beardsley the images have the power to linger in our minds far longer than the insipid acceptable paintings and drawings of the time, which have little power to hold us because in the end they are so literal. So which images are pornographic and which erotic?

Top 10 Jazz CDs â?? Tony’s Picks

A list of ten top jazz albums chosen by Tony McGregor

One Man’s take on the Jazz Audience Discussion

The contributor of this piece is jazz activist Ron Washington.  Besides being a stalwart jazz diehard and tireless observer of the scene, he is proprietor of Ron “Slim” Washington Productions, which provides jazz and other music for festivals, clubs and restaurants.

How Can a “Music of the Spirit” Die?

Jazz is dead! Here we go again; i.e. the recent Wall Street Journal article by Terry Teachout declaring that no one is listening to jazz and featuring a prominent cartoon of a “black Jazz musician” being wheeled out on a cart speaks volumes to a continued bourgeois, arrogant Eurocentric lack of understanding of jazz.

Mr. Treachout’s methodology is the classic case of someone going out to investigate the flowers, but never getting off the horse to “smell the flowers.” Hence the article is so “lightweight” I had to keep a paper-weight on it to keep it from elevating and floating away on its own. Put another way, as Amiri Baraka in his latest book “Digging” would say, “The lack of knowledge about America’s richest contribution to world culture is a reflection as well of the deadly ignorance which stalks this country from the New York City Hall to the halls of Congress to the corporate offices to academic classrooms, like a ubiquitous serial killer…”

Treachout uses a number of useless (without context!) numbers from a National Endowment of the Arts survey to conclude that only those with their head in the sand cannot see a larger picture of “lack of mass support for jazz” leading to its demise. There were fewer people attending a jazz concert; the audience is (graying) growing older; older people are less likely to attend jazz performances today than yesterday; and the audience among college educated adults is also shrinking. On the surface, this kind of approach can scare or misinform a great many people into following the ever present “jazz is dead” attacks upon the music. This kind of approach is not the approach of someone who wants to help jazz survive, but one that serves to drive people away from exploring and learning about jazz.

How about we come at the non arguable “less than healthy’ state of jazz another way? Once again we call on America’s foremost jazz critic for guidance. Why not investigate and raise the question as to the “domination of US popular culture by an outrageously reactionary commercial culture of mindlessness, mediocrity, violence and pornography means that it is increasingly more difficult for the innovative, serious, genuinely expressive, or authentically popular artist to get the same kind of production and the anti-creative garbage that the corporations thrive on.” (Digging, Amiri Baraka). I suggest that this is the inquiry that the Wall Street Journal should be making into the subject matter, the health state of jazz. But when you’re part of the problem, it’s difficult. From the standpoint of the WSJ, jazz’s mystery can/cannot be solved by market forces. “Look here are the numbers!”

From the great work “Blues People,” to his other book, “Black Music,” and the latest contribution from the peoples’ critic, “Digging,” there is one thing that stands out. Amiri Baraka insists that the music, from blues to jazz, is a creation and reflection of the struggles of the Afro-American people. The music is an expression of a people’s culture and cannot be separated from such. Jazz, Afro-American in origin, universal in content and expression, is nonetheless tied to a people, expressing their greatest fears and joys, hopes for the future and repository of the past, that it can said, “the music is the people.” Hence the music can never die, because the people live. Bill Cosby is quoted in Digging as saying, “There’s a wonderful story I like to tell. It’s the end of the world…gray, blowing, turbulent… and there is this tombstone that says, ‘Jazz: It Broke Even!’ The music has its high and lows, but it can never die.”

Art is a reflection of a people’s culture. As Baraka says, “Whether African Song, Work Song, Spiritual, Hollers, Blues, Jazz, Gospel, etc., no matter the genre, the ideas contained in Afro-American art, in the main, oppose slavery and desire freedom.” (Digging). For jazz to die, the entire history and Afro-American people would have to die. This is the content that an interloper like Treachout cannot understand.

But since jazz is what the great trumpet player Ahmed Abdullah calls, “the music of the spirit,” it can never die. While the WSJ declares jazz dead, refuses to get off the horse and smell the flowers, the music continues to thrive and fight for its life, for its expression. In New Jersey , new small clubs are opening up all over the place, anchored by Cecil’s in West Orange . You have the work of Newark’s own Stan Myers, who has run a successful Tuesday night Jam session at Crossroads for years;  Papillion, Skipper’s, the Priory, Trumpets, John Lee’s annual concerts in South Orange, and countless other venues all testify to the fact that the “spirit” is alive.

Jazz is not popular culture. To compare and demand that Jazz be equated with the lowest common denominator cultural expression, packaged for the most extreme exploitation by monopoly capitalism is to have no understanding of the music. By its very nature it is “rebel” music. Treachout complains that it is not the music of the masses, of the youth, as determined by corporate measuring sticks. Well of course. I like hip-hop but I’m not going to any concerts. That’s youth music. Not particularly challenging.

When we say jazz is “a music of the spirit,” sitting in on a jazz program has the possibility of elevating the listener to heights never experienced by a poplar culture event. For many it is a shared communal experience, as witnessed by the common clapping in appreciation of a musical interlude, or the strictly individual experience of the music. Some can appreciate the full recipe of musical virtuosity on display, some may connect deeply in an emotional way with the music, some relate to the democratic display of the skills of the musicians, and some may not have liked the particular performance.


Ron Washington, September 10, 2009


Art and the search for meaning

“A picture is worth a thousand words” – this is a popular and frequently-heard saying. And yet it cannot be taken at face value. Philosophers and artists have during the past hundred years or so argued about the purpose and content of art, ever since art theoreticians like Roger Fry, Clive Bell and Herbert Read contended that art should not convey any message other than the formal contents of the work of art itself, the form, line, colour, texture of the work itself.

These three philosophers of art were reacting to the extreme sentimentalisation of art of the Victorian era, where art became the servant of “prettiness” and bland subjects that did not require any depth of thought but just a superficial reaction of pleasure, much like what we would today call “comfort food” gives us when eaten – no nourishment for body or mind, just a pleasant taste.
Which brings us to the question of the “purpose” of art – or does it not have any purpose outside of itself? What would life be like without beauty around us? What is beauty?

Painting of bisons in the caves at Lascaux

Painting of bisons in the caves at Lascaux

Indeed there is also the question, “Is art good for us, or bad for us?” The Puritans and some fundamentalists would argue that art is a distraction which takes our minds of the serious business of life, and feel this so strongly they would ban it from any places where this seriousness is pursued, like places of worship or work.
The answer given by such people gives us a clue that art has an impact, quite a big impact, on our lives. The earliest people made paintings and drawings of sometime haunting power on the walls of caves, depicting the life around them and their responses to that life, practical or spiritual. They clearly needed to surround themselves with these images, the images enriched their lives in some way, they invested these images with meaning which could not be gained in any other way.
Likewise mediaeval monks in their monasteries created works of art in the manuscripts that they wrote out, embellishing the words with exquisite miniatures of scenes from life or myth, which added to the meaning of the words themselves. Clearly these monks in the otherwise austere lives found these embellishments not only added to the manuscripts but to their own lives as well.
With the dawn of the modern era in the 19th Century art became more and more separated from this kind of context and came to be pursued as “art for art’s sake.” This is a concept which would have been unthinkable to the cave artists or to the monks creating those magnificent manuscripts.


From the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

In the 20th Century this was taken to extremes, but perhaps necessary extremes, when one thinks about the poor, meaningless stuff that was favoured by the Victorians, the “comfort food” type of art.
magritte26The ultimate challenge to the “comfort food” art was the art of the modernists like Hans Arp and the surrealists like Rene Magritte who painted a tobacco pipe and then labelled it Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe) and did the same with the painting of an apple. This is a direct challenge to the viewer’s normal interpretation of such a painting, or image. If asked, “What is it?” the viewer will naturally respond, “It’s a pipe.” However, clearly it is not a pipe. Asked about it the artist said “Try stuffing it.” It is an image and can be read in many different ways – it can be appreciated for the colours, the lines, the texture, the “feel” of it. But it cannot, ever, be used. Likewise the apple could never be eaten, only looked at.
So what is meaning in art? Another artist, Paul Gauguin, painted a huge canvas which also took on the issue head on. This painting is frankly philosophical in intent: “I have completed a philosophical work on a theme comparable to that of the Gospel,” he wrote to his friend Daniel de Monfried in 1898. He called the painting “Where have we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” and the painting was large, like its theme. It measured six metres in length and almost two metres in height.
Gauguin had high aspirations for the philosophy expressed in this painting, which he saw as having a definitive and moral result, “the liberation of painting, already freed from all its fetters, from that infamous tissue knotted together by schools, academics, and above all else by mediocrities.” It is a painting dense with meaning, but the meaning needs to be teased out, it cannot be simply assumed. It is, in Herbert Read’s words, “a correlative for feeling and not an expression of feeling.”

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

This painting would seem on the surface at least to be light years away from paintings such as those of Piet Mondrian, which are simply grids made on the canvas by lines of grey or black, with the spaces between filled with white or primary colours, seemingly at random. These paintings cannot be “read” like a story, so what are they about, what do they mean? Mondrian called his style “neo-Plasticism” and it related to the neo-Platonic “positive mysticism” of Dutch philosopher (Mondrian was also Dutch) M.H.J. Schoenmaekers and the teachings of the Theosophical Society. This philosophy was an attempt to penetrate the reality behind nature and to give it expression. As Herbert Read said of Mondrian’s approach, “Art becomes an intuitive means, as exact as mathematics, for representing the fundamental characteristics of the cosmos,” (in A Concise History of Modern Painting, Thames and Hudson, 1959).
Mondrian_Composition_II_in_Red,_Blue,_and_YellowSo while the surfaces of the two paintings are worlds apart, the meaning coming from the intentions of the artists can be seen to be related, in that both artists saw their works as having a spiritual dimension, the meaning was external to the painting, though neither literal nor literary. The paintings referred to no external “Gospel” or myth, but to the understanding of the artist.
The viewer’s life and understanding is therefore enriched by contemplating the work of art and connecting his or her experience and situation to that of the artist. This is no “comfort food” but good, wholesome, hearty fare, well-cooked and needing to be thoroughly digested for the goodness to be available to the consumer. And like such wholesome food, time and effort put into the contemplation is rewarded with a sense of completion, of healthy and lasting fullness, quite different from the quick and transient satisfaction which comes from “comfort food”.

Nature’s fragile bounty and our insensitivity

Recently I spent a week with my family at a resort on the shore of the Hartebeespoort Dam, that lovely stretch of water in the valley of the Crocodile River in the North West Province of South Africa.
It is a beautiful part of the country nestled in between mountains thought to be among the oldest in the world, the historic and beautiful Magaliesberg range. This is a range of mountains which stretches from the Pilanesberg in the west to Pretoria in northern Gauteng province and was formed about 2 billion years ago. It forms a dividing line between the cooler Highveld region to the south and the warmer, lower Bushveld to the north. The mountains are criss-crossed by valleys formed in the geological upheaval of the formation of the range, with some high cliffs and many crannies, wonderful sites for rock climbers to do their thing.
It is also a historic area, being the home of the World Heritage Site, the Cradle of Human Kind, which includes the famous Sterkfontein Caves in which fossil evidence of the earliest humans has been found, including the famous “Mrs Ples” and the more recently discovered “Little Foot.”
So the range has been the site of human habitation for some 2 million years, but only in the last 20 or so years of that time has the environment of the area been so threatened as it is now.
Indeed the Dam itself is threatened by water hyacynth and algal blooms which are formed by toxic cyanobacteria, making the water unsafe for swimming and hazardous for other aquatic activities, as well as blocking irrigation canals and drainage systems.
While the problems of the dam are caused by run-off from agricultural land and effluent spillage, the insensitivity of people to the environment around them was evident in the resort we were staying at.
The greater area of the resort is taken up with an 18-hole golf course crossed here and there with fairly deep water courses which were for the most part dry at the time of our visit. My daughter and I walked along a number of them, spotting some of the rich variety of birds living in the fairly dense indiginous vegetation, consisting mostly of various varieties of acacia thorn trees.
We found several lost golf balls, to my daughter’s delight, but also found less delightful things in these little wooded valleys: human faeces, bits of plastic, broken bottles, both glass and plastic. The macro-level lack of care evidenced by the deterioration of the water quality in the dam was echoed in the micro-level in these places, which could have been charming.
So on every level during our stay we were confronted with the contrasts of the incredible, sometimes very subtle, beauty of nature and the rather ugly side of human despoliation of nature’s fragile bounty.
I hope the accompanying photos will give some idea of this contrast.

A tranquil part of the dam overlooked by the Magaliesberg

A tranquil part of the dam overlooked by the Magaliesberg

A bushbuck and young in a wooded part of gthe resort

A bushbuck and young in a wooded part of gthe resort

Early morning reflections on the water look inviting, but there's trouble in that water

Early morning reflections on the water look inviting, but there's trouble in that water

Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) and water hyacynth make the water toxic to humans

Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) and water hyacynth make the water toxic to humans

The reality

The reality

Our insensitivity to our surroundings is sometimes breathtaking!

Our insensitivity to our surroundings is sometimes breathtaking!

A black flycatcher finds a perch at sunset

A black flycatcher finds a perch at sunset


Sweet the rain’s new fall

garden-112The past few days in Pretoria have been rainy, not the torrential rain that has plagued the Western Cape and caused such disruption, but good rain has fallen nevertheless. As always, such rain brings new life to a garden, new leaves and flowers and insects. Our small garden has become a joyful place, a place of little joys and delights that recall for me the words of Eleanor Farjeon’s popular song “Morning has Broken”:
Sweet the rain’s new fall
Sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dew-fall
On the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness
Of the wet garden
Spring in completeness
Where his feet pass.
garden-093The grass underfoot has indeed become springy, and a wonderful vibrant green. The trees surrounding the garden have taken on a new look, as though they have put on new clothes in honour of the arrival of summer.
Birds, especially the masked weavers, have become very active in the garden also. The weavers collect long strips from the palm tree leaves to weave into their intricate and beautiful nests, many in a small area, to try to please their picky wives.
Hadeda ibises dig great holes in the lawn in their search for earthworms and other delicacies. And on every leaf and petal shiny drops of rainwater glisten in the sun.
I took out my camera and wandered around the garden just clicking away at anything that looked interesting to me and the accompanying photos are the result. I’m not sure of the aesthetic value of the images, but for me they are eloquent testimony to the arrival of summer.
Tony McGregor
12 November 2008

From the Algarve to the Cape of Storms

“There is nothing – absolutely NOTHING – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
From Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows

One of my favourite books as a young child was The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. My father had a passion for ships and all things to do with sailing and the sea. He particularly loved the quote at the beginning of this article, using it often in both formal talks and informal conversations.

We had a bed-time routine of him reading to me some story, preferably an uplifting one, before I went to sleep.

The Manse at Blythswood where I lived with my parents from 1955 to 1960

The Manse at Blythswood where I lived with my parents from 1955 to 1960

At the time we lived on a Church of Scotland mission institution in the Transkei region of the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa called Blythswood. It was relatively far from most amenities and there was no electricity supply there so when the sun went down candles and paraffin lamps provided light for meals and reading.

So some of my earliest memories are of going to bed with a hissing Coleman or Hurricane paraffin lamp beside my bed and my father reading stories to me from Arthur Ransome, A.A. Milne, Fennimore Cooper and sundry others of the “Boys’ Own Paper” sort.

From these came my fascination with small boats. Where my father was really keen on the big ships, especially of the naval variety, I was fascinated by small craft, rowing boats and dinghies and the like. I was always interested in boats that could navigate small bodies of water, rather than the wide open sea.

Boats in Sagres harbour

On a visit to the Algarve in southern Portugal some years ago I found the small boat culture there very interesting, especially the colourful “paint jobs” many of the boats had, which contrasted strongly with the rather drab paint of the boats with which I was familiar from holidays in Cape Town and other South African sea-side resorts. The boats I knew were mostly painted green or black or a combination of those two colours.

Of course the maritime culture of Portugal, and in particular of the Algarve, is of interest to anyone who studies South African history, as the first white travellers to our shores came from this area, in all likelihood. While in the Algarve the party I was with spent a good deal of time at Sagres, the small fishing village on the south-western-most point of Europe (the Promontorium Sacrum, or Sacred Promontory, from which the village derives its name), where the man well-known as “The Navigator” lived and died more than 600 years ago.

The Navigator (o Navegador in Portuguese) was one of the “Illustrious Generation” (Ínclita Geração in Portuguese) of Princes of the Royal House of Avis, whose mother was the English Princess Philippa, who was in turn the daughter of the famous John o’ Gaunt. So a link was forged between England and Portugal which has remained strong until now.

The Navigator, whose full title was The Infante Henrique, Duke of Viseu, was the third child of King John I of Portugal and the Queen Consort Philippa, and in spite of his honorary title of “Navigator” did not himself do much in the way of exploration. Rather he set up a school of navigation and other seafaring skills on Sagres Point, which inspired the explorers Bartolomeo Dias and Vasco da Gama to sail around the southern-most tip of Africa, Da Gama eventually continuing to India, thus cementing Portuguese dominance early in the colonial race, a dominance which was, however, very soon challenged.


This bold exploration of seas uncharted and unknown to the Europeans was celebrated by the great Portuguese poet Luis Vaz de Camoens in the epic poem Os Lusiadas:

The entrance to Hout Bay on the Cape Peninsular

The entrance to Hout Bay on the Cape Peninsular


“I am that mighty Cape, occult and grand,

Stormy by nature, and ‘Of Storms’ by name:

Geographers have never mapped this land,

Into these seas no old explorers came.

Pointing south, last sentinel I stand

Of Africa’s long coast. Who comes to tame

This seagirt spine of crags till now unknown?

Your challenge puts a tongue in silent stone.

After setting sail from Lisbon in August 1847 Bartolomeo Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in late January 1488. He and his ships anchored in the bay they called Sao Bras, now known as Mossel Bay, and there occurred the first violent clash between Europeans and African indigenes in South Africa. This was a fateful day which foreshadowed many, many more to come in the centuries which followed. The clash resulted in the death of one of the indigenes who thus was the first African in South Africa to be killed by a white person. It was 3 February 1488.

When Dias and his men left Portugal they took with them four African women taken from West Africa, who “were to be put ashore at various places on the African coast with instructions to fo into the interior, there to sing the praises of the Portuguese king and the ‘grandeur of his kingdom’” (This from the book Frontiers by Noel Mostert (1992)). One of these women was put ashore at Algoa Bay, near the present city of Port Elizabeth. Mostert notes of her: “Few figures in the African story strike me as being more dramatically sad than this pitiful wretch, taken from her world in West Africa to Lisbon, possibly as a slave, taught the Portuguese language and the mercy of Christ, embarked upon that incredibly vile and arduous voyage into the unknown, and then summarily abandoned within sight of natives of unknown disposition towards strangers. They would be back, the Portuguese assured her, to hear her news. In this bizarre fashion the story of European contact with southern Africa began.”

Dias and his men and ships sailed on for a further three days or so before the men forced Dias to turn back to make the return voyage to Portugal. Along the way they went ashore west of the Bushman’s River mouth, at a place now called Kwaaihoek. Here Dias erected, on 12 March 1488, a padrão, a limestone cross, of which three had been brought with them from Portugal. He dedicated this padrão to St Gregory.

Great South African poet and author Guy Butler wrote a narrative poem called Pilgrimage to Dias Cross (Cape Town, David Philip: 1987). He describes the scene thus:

“And there beside his pillar of stone

The swarthy discoverer stands

“His truculent men who sweated to raise it,

Tightening, easing ropes through palms,

Are snoring long since.

Is his sleepless mind

Still on the East, his Prince’s hunger

For spices and converts? Or does he foresee

His cold homecoming, demotion

To third in command? About him cling

Silent conspiracies. Records are lost.

The name of his ship? No soul knows.

Mere scraps of gossip, disguised facts.”

And later in the poem Butler writes:

Dias drew away from that pillar

With pain and passion, as much as if

He’d left a son in exile there for ever:

Remembering the peril to his person,

To all his men and ships; embittered that

Their voyage should yield no other fruit

Than a branchless little tree of marble planted,

Its name soon lost on the charts.

So ambiguous was the first recorded encounter between Europe and southern Africa, so fraught with meaning in the light of the subsequent history of the sub-continent.

The brightly coloured boats of the Algarve are symbolic of the cultural riches that are the birthright of everyone, European and African, who have been touched by the maritime exploits of the people of the Algarve. Picturesque they might be, but they carry a weight of history and memory for me.

Where I am now, the person I am, is made up of all these strands of history and memory, culture and genes, threads that weave a pattern, a rich tapestry, full of colour and life, that make up my consciousness, my awareness.

To quote Butler again:

“No culture is large enough to contain

The fullness of being of those who comprise it.

History’s noise seems endless like the sea’s.

“We are the traffic on its surface,

The life that sweats and labours,

The singing voices on the shore.”


(All photos above by the author)

Two photographs span five generations and 160 years

My father (the baby!), with his father and grandfather

My father (the baby!), with his father and grandfather

The two photos accompanying this article are of McGregor men in my line of descent; from my great-grandfather to my son they span five generations which stretch from 1829, the year of my great-grandfather’s birth, to 1989 when the second photo was taken.

The heavily bearded man in the old photo is the Reverend Andrew McGregor, born in Golspie, Scotland, the son of prosperous local businessman Alexander McGregor, whose tombstone still stands in the Golspie graveyard with the inscription: “Alexander McGregor, merchant, of Golspie.”

The Reverend McGregor answered the call made by the Rev Dr William Robertson, who was the Dutch Reformed Church minister in Worcester, Western Cape, for ministers of the Scottish Church to come to South Africa to help the local Dutch Reformed Church which was at the time struggling to find ministers to look after its parishes.

He came to South Africa in 1862 and became the minister in the town of Robertson shortly after marrying Dr Robertson’s eldest daughter Elizabeth. Robertson was named after the great Dr William.

Near the town of Robertson was a little village, at the time known as Lady Grey. The Rev McGregor ministered to the people of this village as part of his parish, although it was some distance away. He became much loved by the people of Lady Grey and he felt that the village should become a congregation in its own right. He worked hard to make this happen which it did in 1902. The village’s name was subsequently changed to McGregor.

Andrew and Elizabeth McGregor had ten children, of whom four died in childhood. The fourth oldest surviving child of this marriage was Andrew Murray McGregor who was born in 1873 and died in 1943. He was, like his father, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church.

Me, my father (now the old bearded man!) and my son Zak

Me, my father (now the old bearded man!) and my son Zak

Andrew Murray McGregor married Maria Hofmeyr, who was always known as Miemie, and they had five children, the second youngest of them also called Andrew Murray, born in 1908. He is the baby in the old photograph and the elderly bearded man in the new photograph!

Andrew Murray McGregor Jnr married Margery Morris of George in the Western Cape and they had two children – Chris and Anthony, who is usually known as Tony. He is the middle-aged man in the second photo.

Tony Married Joan Christopher in 1969 and they had two children, Christopher, now known as Zak, and Sarah. Zak is the young man in the second photo. This photo was taken in 1989 in Johannesburg.

Blue Notes to Brotherhood – a Celebration of South African Jazz

Address to Johannesburg Arts Alive Festival 2007 opening event

The story of jazz in South Africa is one of ups and downs, highs, lows, laughter and tragedy. In fact it is much like the lives most of us live day-to-day.

Out of this mess, every now and then, something very special arises. What we celebrate this evening is one of these special things.

In 1964 seven brave people started out on an amazing journey of faith, hope and daring. Six young men and a young woman left the known of home and went off to the unknown in Europe. Of these six young men only one is still alive today: Louis Moholo.

Thankfully the woman is still alive and is indeed with us this evening – Maxine McGregor. We are honoured to have you with us this evening, Maxine.

Of the five who are no longer with us we celebrate in a special way the music of Chris McGregor. And it’s good to celebrate it because it is very special music which has not been heard much back here in South Africa.

But at the same time we should not forget, Chris would want us to remember, that what he did he did because of the support and friendship of the others. So tonight we should not forget Nikele Moyake, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Mbizo Dyani, and of course, Dudu Pukwana, whose relationship with Chris was not unlike that between Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges.

While it could be argued that other South African musicians took South African music to the world, Chris and the Blue Notes took South Africa to the world in their music.

Their music was an expression of the pain and the joy of South Africa, not a direct political statement but a lived experience which touched the hearts and minds, not to mention the dancing feet, of those who heard them in those cooler northern climates.

The music we celebrate tonight is particularly that of the Brotherhood of Breath. Chris had long had a desire to express himself through the medium of a big band and the Brotherhood became, as some have remarked, Chris’s true instrument.

We do well to remember, though, that the Brotherhood was rooted in the South African experience as mediated through the Blue Notes.

The Brotherhood always had at its rhythmic heart South African rhythm men: Louis Moholo and Gilbert Matthews on drums; Johnny Dyani, Harry Miller and of course Ernest Mothle on bass. We are very grateful that Bra Ernest is still very vibrantly with us and has so ably directed the music for this celebration tonight. Bra Ernest – we salute you!

This evening is in a way completing a circle. Chris started his big band career here with the Castle Lager Big Band back in 1963. And what a blast that was!

So tonight we are bringing the music home again. And like many homecomings this one is bitter-sweet. The music is home again but our brave compatriots are not. So we rejoice in the music and the spirit of love and joy it brings. And we say thanks to those brave spirits who created it. They live on in this music.

And of course for me personally, if I might be allowed to bring in a more personal note here, I am here to remember and honour my brother. Chris was a great big brother, big in more ways than one, and I still miss him.

Finally – thanks to all of you for being here to honour Chris, Dudu, Johnny, Mongezi and Nikele, and the spirit of the Brotherhood of Breath.


Tony McGregor


31 August 2007.




Some recordings:

The Chris McGregor Group: Very Urgent.

This was the first album recorded by the Blue Notes in the UK.


















Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath

The first album by the legendary big band.