The art of mountaineering
Few know artist Peter Clarke was fond of mountain rambling, writes FARIEDA KHAN
MANY Capetonians will have heard of Peter Clarke (1929-2014), an acclaimed and versatile local artist who achieved not only national but global fame for his paintings and etchings of ordinary people, most of them poor and black, in rural as well as urban settings.
However, not everyone who is aware of Clarke’s immense contribution to South African art would know he was also a talented poet and writer, with one of his short stories even beating that of novelist Richard Rive, in a competition held by Drum magazine in 1954. Fewer still are aware of Clarke’s abiding love of nature, of mountains and of mountain hiking.
Clarke was born in Simon’s Town, in an area known as Kloof, which was close to the mountain, below a waterfall.
According to Clarke: “We lived so close to the mountain that when you opened your eyes, the mountain was there”.
“The children of this community knew the mountain intimately, as it was not only their playground, but also the place where they regularly gathered wood to supplement the wood their parents bought to fuel their stoves.
“On their mountain ramblings, the children of Simon’s Town would also gather pine cones containing ripe kernels and picked sweet, wild berries to eat.”
As Clarke grew older, he and his friends ventured further than the waterfall, exploring and hiking over the mountain, in different directions. Clarke’s close childhood relationship with the nearby mountains was very similar to that of other children living in the poorer enclaves scattered throughout affluent Simon’s Town, as well as Dido Valley and Red Hill on its outskirts.
The former residents of these communities also have warm memories of a childhood lived close to nature, of mountain rambles with their parents or in groups of other children.
Clarke’s childhood relationship to the nearby mountain in Simon’s Town was very similar to that of the children of District Six, who had also enjoyed a close relationship with Devil’s Peak and adjacent Table Mountain, using it as their playground and recreational area.
With a number of scouting groups based in District Six, such as the Sea Scouts and First Cape Town Scouts, many youngsters in the District received their first taste of mountaineering through their scouting activities.
This was also the case with Clarke who, together with Rive, belonged to the Second Cape Town Scouts as a child.
However, while Rive was a member of the King’s Scouts, Clarke was a Rover, but both groups had the responsibility of looking after the Glen, a nature area in Kloof Nek used by their scout groups.
As they grew up, Clarke’s and Rive’s lives took a very different turn: while Rive was able to complete high school and in later life complete a university education up to doctoral level, Clarke was forced to leave high school after only a year, due to his family’s straitened financial circumstances.
He became a painter’s assistant in the Simon’s Town docks, working at the docks in various capacities for a number of years. His creativity could not be stifled however, and he wrote poetry and painted and sketched in his spare time. During his lunch hour, Clarke was either buried in a book, or on the mountainside, writing and planning his creative works.
In 1955 Clarke and Rive met again and amid the discussion of their individual creative endeavours, spoke about their mutual love of mountains. However, while Rive was an enthusiastic mountain climber, his fearlessness arising out of his love of sport and keeping fit, Clarke was more of a mountain rambler, whose creativity was inspired by the tranquillity and beauty of nature. But trouble loomed ahead – in 1967 Simon’s Town was declared a white group area and Clarke’s family was subsequently forced out to Ocean View, which was situated over the mountains and several kilometres from Fish Hoek where the nearest public transport was located.
The area, which was originally named “Slangkop” was renamed Ocean View, despite there being no ocean close by, nor a view of it.
What there was though, was the surrounding mountainside, in the middle of which Group Areas evictees were dumped into a hastily constructed dormitory township.
Like the families removed from District Six and marooned on the distant Cape Flats, the people evicted from Simon’s Town were negatively impacted by being forcibly uprooted from the vibrant social, cultural and environmental context they had lived in and held dear for generations.
Clarke’s family was no exception, as his elderly parents were badly affected by the move. Clarke remembers that period as a tragedy not only for his parents, but for so many others, since the move resulted in the destruction of their community and a closeknit way of life.
For Clarke personally however, the move to Ocean View also offered opportunities for him as an artist which he was quick to exploit.
For one thing, the light was different: in the Kloof in Simon’s Town, the sun disappeared behind the mountain very early in the afternoons, whereas Ocean View received lots of sunlight due to its location.
The dwelling his family was allocated (and in which he was to remain for the rest of his life), was situated directly opposite an undeveloped mountainous area, making it convenient for Clarke and the friends who visited him for braais to go for regular walks. Of that period, Clarke remembers that, “I went up the mountain close to me and looked at the ocean, it was amazing to see it spread out in the distance”.
“I walked over the mountain in different directions with friends who came to visit me for braais… I found a lot of inspiration in the mountains as a young artist, walking over the mountain, painting landscapes.”
Clarke viewed his move with ambivalence since, although there were benefits for him as an artist, he was highly aware the move had been forced upon an entire community for ideological reasons and noted: “We didn’t move when we felt like it – it would have been a different story then… we had to move… it was not something of our own choosing”.
Clarke was a true son of Cape Town: writing, sculpting, drawing and painting what he saw through the eyes of an artist sensitive to the political and cultural context of the community within which he was rooted. As an artist he has left a rich legacy for South Africans to appreciate. Dr Khan is an independent researcher with an interest in heritage matters.
Artist Peter Clarke, who died in 2014, was an enthusiastic mountain rambler and nature lover.
Peter Clarke was born in Simon’s Town close to the mountain and few people are aware of his love of nature, of mountains and of mountain hiking.