HAROLD VOIGT, SOUTH AFRICAN PAINTER
1st May 1939 – 9th October 2022
by Leigh Voigt
How does one give an unbiased, honest appraisal of one’s own husband and have the gall to call it an obituary? Does one resort to clichés? Borrow words from the pens of others? No, one hones in on an aspect seldom seen by the general public – that of an artist, a private man, who worked in solitude and quiet contemplation.
Only someone who took in his tea, (me) and perhaps paused for moments of brief conversation, will notice the subtle changes in the making of a painting from beginning to end.
The painting in this case is a portrait of Tony Hall. Neighbour, friend, journalist, activist, socialist, conservationist, in a word, a mensch.
The inspiration behind wanting to do a portrait of Tony Hall was a charcoal sketch by John Singer Sargent of General Christiaan de Wet, who bore a remarkable likeness to Tony. Another was the 1832 portrait by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres of Monsieur Louis-François Bertin. Both served as ‘back of the mind’ motivations for the portrait done in 2000. Tony was a charismatic figure with a colourful background and equally striking features.
Harold Voigt first had to persuade Tony that a portrait would be a fitting acknowledgement of their friendship. Tony acquiesced, no payment required, just a few hours of his time, during which all Tony had to do was to sit still. A few photographs were taken and good-natured banter ensued until Harry had enough visual information stored in his receptive mind. Months went past during which the portrait slowly took shape. It was Harry mastering his craft, from a spontaneous, loose drawing straight onto a large prepared canvas, to the final measuring by the grid system of a photograph.
The painting took at least 6 months to complete. He would work on other smaller canvasses at the same time, but always be drawn to work on the portrait. He became obsessed with the painting, every now and again calling someone in for confirmation that he was going in the right direction, getting it right. We always tactfully assured him that it was. Although he was supremely confident that his work was good, he often sought a sounding board, someone’s comment, either positive or critical. He seldom took any notice, just wanted interaction with another voice, a viewer with an opinion. Any passer-by or lunch guest would be called in to comment, for Harry to watch their response, if any.
Nearly all Harold Voigt’s paintings were produced in this way, carefully considered, altered, reconsidered, scrapped, reworked, until suddenly one day I would go into his studio to find it signed.
Harold defined and refined the techniques of the Old Masters. His dog-eared Degas monograph, his second-hand John Singer Sargent open on the table next to his once-white chair, all bore testament to his desperate need to improve, to perfect, to supersede the best of the best, if not for the world, then just for himself.
In Harry’s studio, in a home we have lived in for nearly fifty years, his studio was a sanctum; cluttered, redolent with artist’s studio smells; oil paint, turps, oils, books, marble dust and rabbit glue. An alchemist’s laboratory, a craftsman’s workroom. His tools – his brushes, pens, pencils, crayon, chalks, nibs, scrapers, markers, all laid neatly in rows.
The windows with some of his aphorisms written in yellow crayon can never be Windolened, his walls never repainted, his stuff never recycled. Here a plaster cast of Mrs Piles, there a child’s zither, a set of Arthur Mee’s encyclopaedia, at least fifteen dusty old telephones, none of which work. His collection of little radios, Sony, Sanyo, Phillips and Grundig, occasionally appeared in his paintings, as did lamps, kettles, spectacles and chairs, plenty of chairs. A simple chair could become an object of sheer beauty, or nostalgia or even loneliness. Günter Schlosser once said Harold Voigt could make something out of nothing. A rusty wheelbarrow tells a story. A spade. A bell.
Sketches, scribbles and colour swatches scattered all over the place, taped to the walls, propped against easels, on the floor. Not quite like Francis Bacon’s studio, but pretty close.
Harry was an extraordinary man. Head and shoulders above the rest. With very deep footprints, long strides and with his quiet reliability in a marriage lasting 56 years, he is present in every brick, every nail, every brushstroke and in every curry I make.
After a long and difficult struggle with many health problems, especially Parkinson’s, Harry died in his sleep at 12.15 am, on the 9th October, 2022, in his own bed at home, watched over by his two sons, Max and Walter, and his wife, Leigh.
We shall miss his eccentric, intelligent and creative mind; his extensive knowledge, his guidance and most of all, his presence.
His beautiful paintings, his self-built house and his remarkable self-discipline will serve as a benchmark for his family and future generations, and his paintings will be his legacy.