Port Elizabeth of Yore: John Roland Brown

Adversity never deters the determined individual and John Roland “Dummy” Brown had to face much adversity in his truncated life. Hence his life would be somewhat out of the ordinary.

Main picture: Painting of the Baakens River Valley by John Roland Brown

Born in Port Elizabeth in 1850, John Roland Brown came into the world with a severe infliction being both deaf and dumb. This is reflected in the hurtful sobriquet of “dummy” with which he was labelled. Knowing Brown, he would have dismissed it and perhaps even embraced it. Compounding this anguish and adversity was the fact that that he and his brother were orphaned at the age of 5. In the wake of this tragedy, both John and his brother were placed in a Dutch Reformed Orphanage in Long Street in Cape Town.

Painting entitled Cattle by John “Dummy” Brown

Not knowing what to do with the two children, the Principal gave them some old issues of the Illustrated London News, with pencil and paper and left them to copy the pictures in order to while away their solitary hours. John soon developed an extraordinary talent and by any measure this forte convinced his guardians to enrol him at the Roeland School of Art in 1864. This academy was located in Cape Town and had been founded that year by a Mr. Foster.

Portrait of John Roland ‘Dummy’ Brown, 1850-1912

Under the tutelage for 3 years of T.M. Lindsay who had come to the Cape as Principal of the school, John flourished. When he was 17 years of age, Brown was enrolled as a student at the Liverpool School of Art where he gained great distinction, winning a Queen’s Scholarship and the National prize as well as other awards and silver medals. Later he became art master at the school – a post he held for some 30 years, during which time he exhibited regularly at the leading art galleries. He was acknowledged as one of the finest artists in the north of England and was trusted with many commissions for portraits of well-known personalities. When in England, Brown married, but having lost his wife, he with his only son, returned to South Africa in 1902 and shortly afterwards retired to live in Grahamstown. He spent his remaining 21 years in various parts of the country, painting mainly for pleasure and holding exhibitions in Durban, Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown and elsewhere. After having devoted his entire life to art, he died in Grahamstown in 1923 or 1912], aged 73 years.

The only painting that I can trace relating to Port Elizabeth is a watercolour entitled eponymously Baakens River Valley which is one of two paintings owned by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum in Port Elizabeth. Presumably the second painting entitled Cattle relates to Port Elizabeth but that cannot be ascertained by a cursory glance as the landscape could represent many parts of the Eastern Cape.


Natalia number 15: /https://www.natalia.org.za/Files/15/Natalia%20v15%20notes%20-%20queries%20C.pdf
Images of a Changing Frontier Worldview in Eastern Cape Art, From Bushman Rock Art to 1875 (Thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts of Rhodes University by Marijke Cosser December 1992)

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