MISFIT DOC: John & Irma

Scans courtesy of the University of Cape Town Libraries, Special Collections & Archives

There is very little respite from Rondebosch, short of leaving it altogether; wherever you go, the traffic and its criers doppler murderously by, the smoke and the brewery and the second-tier fast food smells claw at the throat, the shadow of the mountain looms. It isn’t a place designed to calm anxieties. Hiding in your apartment, hiding in a bar, helps, for a little while. But you always end up having to emerge, eventually, and there it is; just as you left it. Rondebosch.

One of the more effective hideaways – one that lets you carry a little of itself with you when you go – is the Irma Stern Museum, up on Cecil Road (which feels like half a joke); set far enough from Main Road that its noises become ambient, like weather or the sea, stocked with enough curios to keep the eye and the eye of the mind from turning in on itself, bright walls and big windows. A sort of refuge, a sort of solace; it isn’t uncommon to see students mulling around the garden around exam time.

It was built to be a sort of refuge; John Parker, architect and first mayor of Greater Cape Town, bought and extended the place, then called ‘The Firs,’ back in 1898, when houses could still have names and not collapse under the kitsch. The property extended down to Main Road, then, contained an orchard, room for some livestock; as its boundaries receded, higher gates were built and thicker foliage was planted to keep the world at the same remove.

Parker and his family lived there until his death in 1922; five years later Irma Stern bought it and moved in; when she died, she had the place turned into a museum to herself. That the place holds very little trace of Parker, and is saturated with Stern, is of a piece with their respective ways of going about their world; if it’s hard to tell which parts of The Firs were there when Parker bought the place, and which parts were his extensions, it’s harder still to tell which parts of the museum are the doings of the Irma Stern Trust, and which simply reflect how Stern had her house arranged; Parker blended in, Stern insisted that you notice her, and applaud.

Parker’s a weird case because, even if you know Cape Town architects, he’s not high on the list; folk know about Herbert Baker’s colonial monuments, or Sophy Gray’s churches, or if they’re going for deep cuts, Roelof Uytenbogaardt’s brutalist peccadilloes, but Parker’s stuff barely registers most of the time – though most of his buildings are buildings people would recognize, once you remind them to. The Presbyterian church in Gardens, opposite the Orange Street Engen; the building housing the Pan-African Market and Timbuktu, and the old Purple Turtle opposite; the Gardens shul, and the Spes Bona residence next to it; a couple of churches and schools, a dozen little buildings in the inner city that were bars that were apartments that became, inevitably, boutiques, would be by Parker and Forsythe.

Thing is that there’s nothing special about them. I have, for months, been convinced that an excellent old bar in Maitland is one of Parker’s, based solely on the evidence that Parker is on the books as having designed a bar by the same name, somewhere, and that this bar’s design, while pleasingly old-timey, is utterly unremarkable – which is as close to a signature style as Parker seems to have had.

So it’s a little strange that his ghost is sharing digs with Irma Stern’s.

Because – look, here’s my favourite story about Irma Stern: her brother built a cottage in Betty’s Bay in 1952, and had all of the walls stippled to keep his sister from painting on them. Except the stipplers missed a spot, leaving alcoves on either side of the fireplace smooth; Irma painted angels in the vacancies. She would’ve been around 58 at the time.

Which – clearly there had been conversations about this, beforehand. At some point Irma Stern was asked, politely, by her family, if she would please stop smearing paint on their houses. And Irma Stern would not. Major South African artist Irma Stern will cover your surfaces with her major South African art and you will be grateful, you worm.

The kicker is that the Betty’s Bay angels were scrubbed away by a cleaner a couple of years ago, who assumed that the scrawled angels were something some previous owner’s children had done.

Because where Parker was unremarkable but, for the most part, competent, Stern’s output is recognizable and recognizably all over the place; wandering around the museum, one sees evidence of projects tackled with intense but rapidly-diminishing enthusiasm, which are then displayed as if masterworks. I’m not sure Stern ever threw anything out. Immaculately depilated Eves rub shoulders with cartoonish streetside sketches. And maybe that’s for the best? It’s hard to spend any time at all in Cape Town’s galleries without getting at least one of her pieces – usually the portraits – getting lodged irrevocably somewhere in the mind; maybe getting to see the streetside sketch will matter to somebody, some day.

Still, it wasn’t all greatest hits. The door to Stern’s studio is made up of six panels, each decorated with cutesy but nothing-special floral borders – except, looking at the brushstrokes, which are careful enough in the middle two panels, about at Stern’s shoulder-height, a little strained in the top panels, and barely embarked-upon in the bottom panels, it’s clear that Stern didn’t care to take the door off of its hinges when painting the thing, or, apparently, to bend at the knee to deal with the lower panels. But it’s on display.

And I mean look, it’s not like the Irma Stern Trust doesn’t get the Irma Stern vibe; there’s a letter of hers from 1940 – with her own Wes-Anderson-type letterhead –  framed in the hallway, which reads in its entirety,

Are you still alive?

Why do you never write to me?


It’s nice knowing that petulant attention-demanding 2am texts have a precedent; nice knowing too that Stern was unashamed about it.

And where Stern made her mark – and continues to make her mark, at least partially out of her apparent conviction that everything she made was gold – evidence of Parker is fading pretty quick (granted, most of the peninsula’s water supply system got put in place because of his lobbying, but plumbing museums aren’t what they used to be); most of his buildings sort of blur in the memory, or have been repurposed beyond recognition, bricks and mortar of the city’s background though they may be. So they’re kind of an odd couple, the practically invisible, but workmanlike, architect, and the ineluctably self-confident, but haphazard, artist.

Which, while I wouldn’t wish an afterlife on anyone, is more or less what my solace consists of these days, when I’m bumbling around the Firs; wondering about how much Irma Stern and John Parker, ghost roommates, hate each other, and what they fight about, while Main Road’s ongoing catastrophe trundles by just past the tree line.


Liam Kruger has had stories, essays, and poetry in places like The RumpustheEEELBrittlepaperAerodrome3AM, and PrufrockSome of that writing’s ended up in anthologies like AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers (Storytime Press), The Ghost-Eater and Other Stories (Umuzi), and Bloody Satisfied (Burnet Media). 

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