Birds and Boats: Maggie Laubser’s Most Charming Painting

Offered at Strauss & Co’s auction at the Vineyard Hotel in Cape Town.

Strauss & Co’s upcoming auction offers exceptional works by major South African artists from JH Pierneef, Hugo Naudé, Walter Battiss, Gerard Sekoto, Gregoire Boonzaier and Erik Laubscher to Robert Hodgins, William Kentridge, Sue Williamson, Athi- Patra Ruga and Ian Grose. Amongst these, Birds and Boats (R700 000 – 900 000) by Maggie Laubser is one of the most charming paintings by this much-loved artist to appear at auction in recent years, according to Strauss & Co Senior Art Specialist, Emma Bedford.

Maggie Laubser standing with hand on Johanna Wicht's shoulder.
Maggie Laubser standing with hand on Johanna Wicht’s shoulder.

We know from her correspondence with friends listed by Dalene Marais in her monograph on the artist, that by 1929 Maggie Laubser had already visited Langebaan and adjacent coastal areas near her family home at Oortmanspost in the Malmesbury District of the Western Cape. In 1937 she communicated her desire to establish her own studio in Langebaan. Birds and Boats may be a view of Langebaan lagoon. The sails are billowed by the characteristic West Coast breezes while a glorious sunset bathes the scene in a rosy glow, no doubt fuelled by memories of idyllic experiences shared with good friends.

Of Laubser’s paintings from the 1930s onwards celebrated author Johan van Rooyen has said, ‘New vitality and a fresh spirit of exploration buoyed her work. Sketch tours to Arniston, Langebaan, Gansbaai and Elim, broadened her thematic field of reference. The close-knit communities of the fisher-folk of the Cape coast resembled the lifestyle of the familiar farm labourers. Memories of happiness were stirred as boats of joy set their sails… Often present are gulls as agents of freedom.’

Birds and Boats has a special provenance as it was acquired directly from Laubser by her life-long friends, Colonel and Mrs Wicht (née Claasens). Johanna Claasens had come from Victoria West to Stellenbosch to study for her licentiate in piano and singing. She founded a musical club in Stellenbosch with Professor Hans Endler and organised regular evenings at which celebrated musicians and singers such as Cecilia Wessels performed while staying in the Wicht’s family home. It is during this period that Johanna Wicht made the acquaintance of Laubser, with whom she remained firm friends throughout her life.

Birds and Boats: Maggie Laubser’s Most Charming Painting
A festive celebration at Schoongezicht

The Wicht family lived on the farm Schoongezicht, which had been acquired by Johan Hendrik Wicht in 1887. Sold in 1922 to Mrs Elizabeth English, it was later to be developed into the renowned Lanzerac wine estate. Johanna Wicht herself was an adventurous and independent minded woman – the first in the Cape Province to obtain a driver’s licence. After the war, the Wichts retired to their Gordon’s Bay house, ‘Af-en-toe’, where they regularly entertained their friend, Laubser who, by this time, was living at her home ‘Altyd Lig’ in the Strand. It is here, that Johanna Wicht acquired this painting from her beloved friend, Laubser, and it has remained in this family ever since.

‘I want to express joy and give joy and happiness. ’ So reads an annotation on one of the artist’s sketches found in her studio after her death. It perfectly expresses Laubser’s approach to life and to art and is encapsulated in this joyful work.

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