KOPJIES, DWALAS, WATER, SKIES, TREES.
The Paintings of Peter Fletcher (1903-1994).
A Matabeleland watercolourist.
Peter Fletcher was born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia, in 1903. His parents
lived in Suburbs, and his father, a land surveyor, had lived in the town
since 1893, although by the nature of his business he was often away
Peter first went to Eveline School, and when a bit older to Milton, where
he credited the woodwork master with arousing an interest in drawing
and also in woodwork, His senior school years were at Rondebosch
Boys High in CapeTown, a period about which he spoke mostly in terms
of rugby, and regret that they should ever have come to an end.
From this period are some drawings, mostly pen and ink caricatures in
the style of Punch cartoons of the day. It cannot be said they show signs
of notable talent or originality. Why he should later have thought to paint is
not explained. There were no family antecedents; only that his older sister
did a bit of watercolouring at school, in which, she said, Peter took some
When he expressed a desire to paint his father discouragingly said "Why
don't you do a pretty picture of a dickie-bird on a tree?"
His"first painting" is possibly the small oil of The Heads at Knysna. There
is a photograph of the subject, and the painting was done from that. There
is a story it was painted while he was still at school. but that is not certain.
What is certain is that his farmwork diary for 192?records a list of paints
ordered from London. About this time too he ordered a number of art
publications from England and enrolled on a correspondence art college
course. Some of his work, mainly pen and ink drawings, from this course
survive. They are entirely academic exercises in illustration technique.
While many of them might have been done anywhere, a number are
illustrations of local trees, and identified by their Ndebele names. Anyone
who knows them will recognise their characteristics.The tree trunk pencil
sketch is typical of many he made out of doors.
He never tired of these subjects. They were for him a sort of haiku, and
appeared in one way or another in all his landscapes. As did kopjes, and
the smooth granite rocks known as dwalas. And the water running over
them, and the trees growing among them.
The next definitely "early" painting is one which could be called "The Message
Stick". It is signed "PF 1931". A coloured drawing which "tells a story", - one
from the Colonies. The aloe is carefully drawn, a little stylised almost. The
running figure is naturalistic. He runs across open sandveld, perhaps east
of the Umlungwani range. Soon he will come into mangwe woodland, and
a bit later reach the Insiza river!
While clearly painted at home, in this work we already see in some of the
trees small level nervous brushstrokes, a sort of shorthand which appear
in a number of other sketches made in the veld, a drier brush technique
than the one he was later to perfect.
"Robbing Bees", 1932, is yet another old fashioned storyteller, more carefully
done than The Message Stick. But in it, in the background, can be seen for
the first time a motif which Peter was to develop, perhaps unconsciously, but
with increasing mastery: a Matabeleland treeline.
From this early period a number of small paintings were made in and around
the Matopos. They are without figures, and no longer need to tell a story. Not a
story to do with human or animal life, that is. They seem to view an older world,
seen through pristine, childlike eyes. Which in a sense they were.
Some were inspired by scenes in the Diana's Pool area, which Peter always
spoke of as being a Garden of Eden in the early days, before a TTL. The small
Tree & Granite Rockpool and "Camping Site Above Diana's Pool" belong to this
group. In them we begin to see his essential granite and water. As we do in
other undated works such as Round Rock (detail) and a finished version
"Round Rock, Grazing...". The practical was never far from mind.!
A number of small panoramic sketches are from this period. Most are of the
Matopos, on cartridge paper with a fairly dry technique, and using the small
level brushstrokes mentioned earlier to suggest the canopies of gonde, mangwe
and mountain acacia. A more finished one of these, dated 1933, shows a
sandy river bed. Not in the granites. Most likely the Insiza or one of its tributaries.
A similar style can be seen in a sandveld sketch, one of the only ones ever
made on the farm where he lived. On it are noted pigments he used.
It seems from about 1933 for a period he painted nothing at all, or very little.
Probably because of the Depression. Rhodesian farming in those days
was quite a tenuous existence. To keep things going Peter turned his hand also
to brickmaking and wood contracting for the Mayfair Mine in the Filabusi area. In
the same area in 1936 he was involved in the erection of plant and machinery on
the Little Wonder gold smallworking, with his brothers. And on Zimbile Farm at
Bembesi he was busy with a grain milling and irrigation project.
So a vague line can be drawn about 1933, marking the end of his early
period of painting.
The subject was probably not far from his mind, for when he did resumein about
1938 his paintings, few in number, show a subtle change in outlook and technique.
Probably reflecting an assimilation of things seen and read in a few books he got
from England: The landscapes of early English School painters such as Cotman,
de Windt, Cox, Turner and others, as well as more recent stuff by the Edwardian
The technical books by such teacher-painters as Hullah Brown and Birley Brughl
Until now it is doubtful if any of his paintings were done out of doors. But from now
on, for a period at least, all were painted sitting in the veld. This imposes a different
set of rules. Time available, changing light, moving shadows, wind, insects, the
heat of the sun, the drying of the paint - and so on. These all force a painter to come
to the point. And to find ways of doing so.
So to be capable of near completion in just a few hours the paintings had to be
quite small. Peter had also been strongly influenced after seeing the paintings of
William Russel Flint. This Scottish journeyman, who began his careeras an
illustrator for The Illustrated London News, had a remarkable facility in drawing,
and a peerless, multi-faceted watercolour virtuosity. His subjects were mostly
females, often nude bathers, in settings which gave him the opportunity to display
not only his figure painting skill , but in the surrounding detail, - water, trees,
buildings etc. - his negligent and beguiling mastery of the medium.
His technical capability ranged from drypoint, if required, to the most watery effects,
in which he was able to suggest most detailed impressions.
Peter quickly realised he could apply some of these procedures to his landscapes.
In particular he now began a painting with a very wet technique, on fairly rough paper,
encouraging granulation effects from the very beginning. On a hot day in the veld
the copious amount of water used allowed a looser, less hard-edged build up of a
scene. He painted with the paper completely horizontal, and tried to cover it with
washes as quickly as possible.
"White paper is the enemy", he used to say. He saved some of the enemy by
masking them with the red rubber solution used for mending bicycle punctures.
Similarly he also created highlight details with a candlewax pencil.
But in general his methods in this new period were the most simple and direct
possible. The painting was taken to the most advanced stage permitted by
circumstances, and then taken home and the finishing touches made as soon
In 1940 he made a small number of such paintings in the veld. In them he said pretty
much all that could be said of the veld in the Matopos using this medium, This period
of painting was to last until 1948. It should be stressed that this output, if averaged out,
amounts to only three or so small watercolours a year. They were nearly all done on
a few separate occasions when he had a short break from farm and other work.
These small pictures show not the slightest spirit of storytelling or reference to
human or animal life. No figures, no buildings, not even a road. There is nothing
happening. It is just the veld. They probably say nothing to outsiders. A bit like haiku.
Five years were to pass before he did any more painting. In August 1945 he visited
Inyanga for a few days. Here he made three or four outdoor sketches. Two of the
Pungwe Falls, and one of a well known view of the Inyangombwe Falls. One feels in
this small painting he did for waterfalls what he had earlier done for Matopos dwalas
in "Silozwe from the West.".
Three further years passed before he did a single painting. In 1948 his father died
and he took a short break from farmwork and went to Victoria Falls. He had am
ambition to paint them. He said most paintings of them, mostly in oils, looked like
spaghetti slipping from a table. His effort, a very small thing, is very watery. Even
so it can dominate a room, and should be viewed at a distance. From where it will
remind Rhodesians of a postage stamp - and other things too.
For the next twenty years nobody imagined - not even Peter himself - that he would
ever paint again. Even if this had been the case the few paintings mentioned above
would have adequately and completely defined his talent.
The period that followed the painting of the Falls was one of greatly increased
expansion of farming activities. He was completely absorbed by them and although
he might now and then have wished to paint a bit, .......
It was not until the late Sixties that he again took up painting. He even tried oils, but
soon realised he had left it too late, or that his talents were elsewhere. Was it a
mistake to have again put brush to paper? A question people answer differently.
Most agree it would be a matter of regret had he not made a considerable number
of them, even while signs of declining powers can be seen in many of the others
as he approached his ninetieth year.
To this new period of painting he certainly brought one or two problems of his own
Most notably a concern about what people thought of his work. - that his muse,
the existential veld scene, was boring and meaningless to most people. If he feared
this about people living in Bulawayo, how much greater must his misgivings have
been about people in the wider world?
His response to these concerns was to paint bigger paintings, and to include human
figures in some, and animals in others.
There was a hidden danger for him with bigger watercolour landscape paintings.
His style and technique had fully developed in the earlier smaller works. In them strove
to represent scenes "realistically ". Paradoxically, with a loose and "impressionistic"
technique. In them he had said all that could be said. Saying it bigger could not add
anything. Something often was lost.
But even those who have the most reservations about his later works - he painted to
almost the age of ninety - would regret a number of them had they never been made.
Granite dwala, pencil
"Robbing Bees", 1932
Camping Site Above Diana's Pool
Peter / Madge
Peter . Madge
Sandveld Zimbile (?)
Inyangombwe Falls (1945)
Manganese blue & kudu
Elwyn at the falls
Mt Mclleray, Inyanga
From Bill McKinney
| Click images for correct proportions
pen & ink
"Mina blala to tikit ka wena"
Ndebele with headring
Heads at Knysna
vase of roses
Pool tree reflection ink
Dwala_aloe trees ink.jpg
Tree trunks - Ndebele names, time
The Message Stick
Tree & Granite Rockpool
Peter / Madge
Round Rock (unfinished, detail)
Insiza (?) Riverbed
The spreading tree
Madge's spreading tree, painted whilst engaged
Near Diana's Pool 1938
In The Matopos
Silozwe From The West (1940)
Above Pungwe Falls (1945)
Pungwe Falls ?
Aloes and cattle
Umgusa River, unfinished
Umgusa River revisited
Blyde River canyon
Erosion, Fingo location