Botanical Society of South Africa - Kirstenbosch Branch
Know, grow and protect South Africa's indigenous flora

Full Circle: Lady Tait returns to Kirstenbosch

Cynthia Tait, née Grenfell, was born in 1894 in England. Her first husband, Admiral Sir William Eric Campbell Tait, was commander in chief of the Royal Navy, SA Army and SA Air Force for the South Atlantic station from 1942, with headquarters in Cape Town. He was later appointed Governor General of Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

During the War and afterwards, Cynthia spent most of her time in South Africa and Rhodesia. While living in Africa, Lady Tait pursued her hobby of painting and, while her early paintings were mostly landscapes and seascapes, she started to come into her own as an artist as she focused more and more on native flowers and plants of the areas where she was living.

After the death of Campbell Tait, Cynthia returned to the Cape Town area where she met and married the widower, Lancelot Ussher, whose home, Luncarty, bordered Kirstenbosch. Luncarty itself had extensive gardens, giving Lady Tait beautiful subjects for her native flower paintings. The Royal Horticultural Society awarded her the silver medal in 1956 for an exhibit of Cape wild flower paintings, and a bronze medal in 1961 for an exhibit of South African Gladioli species. The gladioli collection is now held in the Compton Herbarium at Kirstenbosch Gardens.

Cynthia and Lancelot Ussher were great supporters of their neighbour, Kirstenbosch Gardens, and she produced copper plates from which post cards were printed to be sold in the gift shop. They also donated plants to Kirstenbosch from their own gardens. One of the last commissions she undertook was for Kirstenbosch Gardens to commemorate a conference there. It is a circle of wildflowers of the Cape with a centre space which was signed by each member of the eminent group of botanists and horticulturists from all over the world who were attending this special conference at the Gardens. The painting is framed and can be seen at the exhibition.

Cynthia frequently visited Kirstenbosch to paint wild flowers but her watercolours were almost forgotten until recently when Lady Tait’s granddaughter, Cynthia Cormack was chatting with the eminent Guernsey horticulturist and clematis grower, Raymond Evison. Cynthia told Raymond about her grandmother’s flower paintings, a number of which had been stored in Cynthia’s home in Guernsey for many years. Raymond expressed interest in seeing them, and was so impressed that he called the Guernsey Arts Commission and Gateway Publishing’s attention to them. From that casual conversation about flower paintings came the idea for an exhibition of Lady Tait’s paintings and the publication of a selection of the paintings in a book, the Tait Florilegium.

The exhibition of these vibrant watercolours of South African wildflowers was hosted by the Guernsey Arts Commission in June and July 2018 and included some 66 paintings inherited by Cynthia as well as those inherited by Lady Tait’s grandson, William Astley-Jones.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Society Chairman, Keith Kirsten attended the opening of the exhibition on Guernsey and was so enchanted by Lady Tait’s paintings that he was determined to bring the exhibition to Kirstenbosch where many of these delightful illustrations were painted. Thus, the Kirstenbosch Branch of the Botanical Society brought the same 66 botanical paintings on loan to South Africa with generous sponsorship from Duncan Spence of Gateway Publishing and Rickety Bridge Winery. The exhibition, curated by Mary van Blommestein of the UCT Irma Stern Museum, is currently in the Richard Crowie Hall, situated at Gate 2, Kirstenbosch, until 15 March 2020.

The exhibition also includes botanical art by the Western Cape branch of Botanical Artists Association of Southern Africa (BAASA), many of which are for sale. These paintings can be viewed by clicking here.

Luncarty - home of botanical artists

Intrigued by the beautiful old photographs of this house and garden on display at the Full Circle: Lady Tait Returns to Kirstenbosch Exhibition, I found myself compelled to find out more about the house and its early occupants. The gabled house was designed for the original owner, Commander Sereld Hay, by Francis K Kendall of the firm of architects originated by Sir Herbert Baker, and was built in 1901.

In 1920 the house with its vast grounds, at the foot of the great Fernwood Buttress and looking out over an uninterrupted view stretching as far as the Hottentots Holland Mountains, was bought by Edith Struben (1868 - 1936). 

Edith Struben was the eldest daughter of Harry Struben, one of the early gold miners in the Transvaal. Harry Struben and his brother Fred had a number of gold claims and were looking for alluvial gold on the west Rand. As a young girl of sixteen Edith ‘kept house’ for them at their mining camp at Wilgespruit, also looking after and schooling of her two younger siblings. Edith’s mother was not well and was staying with family members in Pietermaritzburg. It is in this mining camp that we first hear about Edith’s delight in painting, capturing images of their mining camp and surroundings, including the local flora. 

The Struben brothers discovered alluvial gold at Wilgespruit (now the Kloofendal Nature Reserve) and in 1888 sold up all their claims (collectively known as Crown Mines) and moved to Cape Town as extremely wealthy men. In Cape Town they built a grand turreted family home in Rondebosch. The house was named Strubenholm. In 1925 Strubenholm became part of the University of Cape Town and has been the home of the South African College of Music ever since. 

With her father’s wealth behind her Edith was able to develop her passion and study fine arts in Paris, Rome and London. She returned to South Africa in 1901. 

Edith Struben was an early member of the Botanical Society, established in 1913 at the time of the founding of the Botanical Gardens at Kirstenbosch. It is believed that it was under her influence that the stonework and stone pathways in the earliest parts of Kirstenbosch were built, reminiscent of the pathways she had admired during her time in Italy. She was a longtime active and influential member of Botsoc, having been a Council member for years, and having served as vice president. 

She undertook long journeys into the countryside searching for new flora, and became an ardent amateur botanist. Two plants were named after her by her friend Louisa Bolus, namely Ruschia strubeniae, a Mesembryanthemum from the Piketberg area, and Watsonia strubeniae, from the then Transvaal. 

In 1920 Edith bought the house Luncarty, which was described at that time as being next door to Kirstenbosch. The watercolour she painted of Luncarty at that time shows the side of the house and hardly any garden, except some agapanthus along the side of the house and some pots on the stoep containing what could be pelargoniums. 

Edith is described in her obituary as ‘a vigorous advocate for wildflower preservation’ and not only did she develop the elegant terraced garden on the slopes below Luncarty, but she devoted the slopes above the house to indigenous plants. Here she combined her two passions and produced many beautiful paintings of the precious flora she had so enthusiastically collected and preserved. 

In a short article in Veld and Flora, March 2018 Rod Kruger, historian at Kloofendal Nature Reserve, describes his quest for Edith Struben paintings. He tells us that when Edith died she left ‘200 plus paintings in her home, which were sold by auction. Her descendants have two, while most of the remainder are apparently unaccounted for and have simply vanished into history’. 

He goes on to describe his delight when the (then) curator of the Compton Herbarium at Kirstenbosch, Chris Cupido, was able to show him three albums of her work, depicting not only her beloved fynbos, but also many birds and insects. These examples of her art are fairly well preserved, allowing for the inevitable ravages wrought by the acid in the paper. A framed painting of Gardenia thunbergia hangs on a wall in the Compton Herbarium. 

The Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden posted some Edith Struben paintings on their Facebook page on 9 November 2016, with the promise of more to follow, so one presumes that some of her work must be in their possession. To date there seem to have been no more postings of her paintings. 

In her will Edith Struben bequeathed £200 to Kirstenbosch ‘for a special piece of development and for the preservation of wildflowers in danger of extinction’. But she also left the legacy of her wonderful garden at Luncarty for Lady Tait to become her successor in recording the riches of our precious Cape Flora. 

Jill Mountfort
BotSoc member and volunteer