It‚Äôs a big jumble of a painting, and you‚Äôre never really sure where your eye‚Äôs meant to fall first ‚Äì the rainbow arcing from what looks like Molteno Reservoir to where Lion‚Äôs Head should be, the mix of white Edwardian and faux-Oriental spires and pleasure domes lining the promenade where Strand Street used to terminate, the foregrounded holiday makers ambling along faux-Venetian jetties. It doesn‚Äôt do that great-paintings-thing where your attention is gradually dragged from one thing to the next, or it doesn‚Äôt do it well; you need to look at it for a while before any of the good, strange details make themselves apparent ‚Äì so it‚Äôs a little like looking at a Where‚Äôs Wally? page, or if you‚Äôre feeling a little kinder, like a toned-down Hieronymus Bosch. (and so to the obvious joke)
Some strange good details: there are some dime-store trompe-l’≈ìil curtains painted on the edges, to no real effect; the left curtain is held by an extremely-inexpertly-painted child‚Äôs hand, and the artist knew this, because the right curtain is held by a red tieback. Standing on the promenade on Strand is a Khoisan woman gazing through blue binoculars at white men skinny-dipping between the piers. There is a ‚ÄòHome For Fallen Women‚Äô at the back end of the city, behind which some apparently fallen women appear to be soliciting. There is a horse with a weird face cantering down a pier, clearly painted with some care, clearly out of proportion to the figures around it. There‚Äôs a maybe-shark-maybe-dolphin cut off by the frame, a guy in a giant hat suit outside of city hall, advertising hats, a dog striking out on its own carrying a knapsack. The longer you look at it, the more dumb little quirks pop up.
Which would make James Ford‚Äôs Holiday Time in Cape Town in the Twentieth Century seem a little like an imperialist farce ‚Äì grand vision of High Victorian confection at the foot of Africa, undercut by odd, distorted details ‚Äì except Ford spent nine years working on it. He gambled his entire career and livelihood on the success of that painting. Bad bet; the piece sold for far less than it had cost to produce, and when the thing was eventually exhibited, it was to raise funds for the Anglo Boer war. Ford died in a Cape Town poor house, not too long after. He doesn‚Äôt seem to have made anything else, or anything enduring in the twenty-two years between leaving Kensington for Cape Town, and then leaving Cape Town for ‚Äì well. Wherever. And this isn‚Äôt exactly a well-known bit of work.
But it‚Äôs interesting. I‚Äôm not sure why.
You can look at the thing and see something pathetic ‚Äì doomed vision of empire, what with the train station advertising the Cape to Cairo route, painted by a doomed artist ‚Äì or see something prescient; after all, maybe the details are a little off, but are the Fillis Circus and the seaside walkways festooned with advertising and pleasure-seekers that far off from what we see at Century City, at the V&A Waterfront? Or so the argument goes.
Both readings seem a little worrying to me, and a little trite. Sympathy for Ford‚Äôs dashed hopes for his career can slip into sympathy for Ford‚Äôs vision of empire and then you‚Äôre sitting with imperial nostalgia ‚Äì false nostalgia, as if there were any other kind, since Ford takes the extra step of replacing any Dutch colonial architecture with the Victorian bit, and his geography seems wonky. And the prescience line runs the risk of eliding, as Ford elides, as a particular mostly-wealthy-mostly-white-subset of Cape Town which tends to think of itself as all of Cape Town elides, a huge chunk of the city. Ford‚Äôs vision is at once doomed and prescient, yes, but not that doomed, and not that prescient. And more to the point, I don‚Äôt think either explain the thing‚Äôs appeal, or the thing‚Äôs appeal to me. Not quite.
It‚Äôs possible that standing in Cape Town‚Äôs National Gallery and looking at a thing that gestures towards a version of the city that never existed is a little like standing anywhere else in Cape Town – where the scars and bones of apartheid urban planning still show us what the old, but not that old, regime had wanted the city to be. The effect here is not, I hope, nostalgia; it‚Äôs more like parallax. Looking at Ford‚Äôs bonkers city bowl at the National Gallery, then stepping outside to look at the one that exists, neatly replicates the double vision that obtains here anyway. And maybe that‚Äôs it.
But then ‚Äì I keep coming back to how long Ford spent on this. Nine years; nine years and he couldn‚Äôt have known that this thing would be interesting by mistake, couldn‚Äôt have predicted the knowing smiles about the rainbow hovering over the port city of the Rainbow Nation.
Nine years just happily trying to realise a deluded vision of empire? He wouldn‚Äôt be the first. And the vision came true, in a few small ways; there‚Äôs the italianate City Hall, with blueprints that were scarcely altered once they left London, a roof expensively engineered to hold heavy snowfall, every stone of cladding imported from Bath. So he wasn‚Äôt the only one thinking like that.
But nine years! Convinced that this was going to be his meal ticket, a laurel he could finally rest on. He was an artist, an art teacher, poor; poor and white was easier in a racist colonial port than was being poor and black, but it was nobody‚Äôs picnic. And then he spent nearly a decade imagining an opulent, brocaded future for the site of an uncomfortable existence ‚Äì which would seem like an obvious hunger fantasy, but he‚Äôs hidden a self-portrait along the left of the promenade, still a shambling poor artist in this weird future of his. So what was the deal, James Ford? You didn‚Äôt let yourself feel at home, even in this maybe-utopian vision?
I don‚Äôt know what the deal is. Projecting backwards onto the anxieties and madness an artist might have undergone to make something is a cheap way to elevate mediocre art, but even so. The fact that this thing exists bothers me.
Penny-ante insight, but let‚Äôs try this: again with the triangulation between Ford‚Äôs Cape Town, the Cape Town that exists, and the space between those things. You try and find that last point ‚Äì where exactly the prescience stops and the pathos begins ‚Äì but it keeps sliding just out of view, you keep missing it. There‚Äôs the rich white people people-watching, that makes it an easy yes, but then there‚Äôs the low-cost housing and industry along the mountain‚Äôs lower slopes, and we know that was a promise never to be kept, so an easy no, and then there‚Äôs the crush of people and classes spilling out of the train station and it‚Äôs somewhere between a yes and a no that leaves nothing resolved.
And maybe that‚Äôs how you look at the painting; maybe that roving attention is what it feels like. You try and see your city there, and try and see what exactly this obsessed Victorian idiot pauper was trying to do, and you look, and you look, and you can‚Äôt see it, can‚Äôt be sure that you‚Äôre looking in the right place, even as the whole thing reminds you of something. You can‚Äôt pin it down; you don‚Äôt know where this thing belongs in your city, where you belong in it, any more than Ford had a clear handle on where he was supposed to go, or what horses look like.
But you keep looking.