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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
from home. 

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 
as possible.
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.

Tree Sketches

Granite dwala, pencil

"Robbing Bees", 1932

Camping Site Above Diana's Pool

Peter / Madge

Peter . Madge

Sandveld Zimbile (?)

Little Gem




Tree Study

October Veld

Inyangombwe Falls (1945)

Main Falls

Matopos veldt


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"

Flapper cartoon


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)

Matopos Panorama

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

Antelope drinking




Blyde River canyon






Erosion, Fingo location


Numerous paintings given to family friends, whereabouts unknown

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