BALANCED on his ladder, the restorer leans into the church wall, delicately picking with his scalpel at the top two layers of white PVA, trying to ascertain the condition of the underlying mural.
The mural is in the Christ the King Anglican Church in Sophiatown, made famous in the 40s and 50s when Archbishop Trevor Huddleston preached in the church for most of his 12 years in the country. Today, as Sophiatown's historic significance is recognised, the church elders are eager to find out whether the whitewash can be removed and the beautiful mural, in an arch shape over the apse, can be restored.
Painted between 1938 and 1941 by the Anglican nun, Sister Margaret, sometime in the 1970s the walls were whitewashed, and for the past 30 years the mural has remained hidden from view.
The medium-sized church is in Ray Street and is recognisable by its six-storey bell tower in brown brick. The interior walls are whitewashed brick, with arch shapes running down either side. A row of windows with blue and pink windows near the ceiling lets in a gentle light, offset by the coir matting on the floor. The apse has a simple cross on its white wall. Its ceiling is painted a restful lilac, and when the light filters in from the east in the mornings, and the west in the afternoons, the whole church is flooded in lilac light.
Restorer Julian Gous, dressed in dark blue track pants and t-shirt with white takkies, tucks a cloth over the top of his ladder to protect the wall, and pushes the ladder up on to the right hand side wall on which Sister Margaret painted her mural. He gently prods at the wall with a chisel, then takes up a scalpel and starts chipping at the paint. He examines the pieces coming off the wall, observing that the top two layers of PVA chip off easily, but so does the base layer and the mural paint. He concludes that it is not possible to remove the surface layers to restore the mural underneath.
It is a disappointing result, but not entirely unexpected. Gous suggests other solutions to resident minister at the church, Reverend Mongezi Guma, also present. Perhaps the two side panels could be taken down to Sister Margaret's base layer, and a new artist could be brought in to paint similar scenes. Perhaps an artist could be commissioned to paint two separate canvases to be hung on the side panels. Perhaps, too, there are other solutions, still to be discovered.
I had become interested in the church once I learnt that the tall church tower was a national monument but not the church, although both were designed by the same architect, Frank Fleming, a partner of Herbert Baker. The tower was built shortly after the church, to ensure that the church, a long building hugging the hill, was visible from a distance. Fleming also designed St John's College in Houghton and St Mary's Cathedral in the city centre.
Then I found out that under the three-storey high arch around the apse inside the church was a beautiful mural, but covered with whitewash. I spoke to Reverend Guma, who said that he had a number of goals for the church, one of which was the restoration of the mural.
The search for a restorer began, and numerous phone calls later, Gous said he would be interested to go and have a look at the church.
She was born Margaret Watson in London in 1879, and at the age of 32, in 1911, joined the Community of the Resurrection of our Lord in Grahamstown. In his biography of her, entitled The Prophetic Nun, Guy Butler says that she had had training in mural painting before she left England. She undertook her first painting between 1924 and 1928 at St Mary and All the Angels in Grahamstown, and has left a rich legacy of murals in several churches in the town.
Sister Margaret had been painting for around 15 years by the time she was requested to paint the mural in Sophiatown. She worked on the mural for three years, doing preliminary drawings and using local people as models for the children, men, women and angels who look up at the figure of Jesus on the cross in the large, central section of the mural reaching to the apex of the roof. Many of the figures are black, thus giving special significance to the congregation of the meaning of the biblical figures.
On either side are two triangular spaces, with St Gabriel swinging a censer on the right and St Michael offering his sword, on the left.
The remaining two panels towards the bottom, of around three by five metres, depict St Mary and St Francis, modelled on Sister Dorothy Maud and Father Raymond Raynes, both resident at the church when the mural was painted. Behind St Francis on the right is a mine dump and headgear, and he is surrounded by black children, and a sheep and a goat, a common sight in Sophiatown at the time.
It was an uplifting mural in beautiful colours, giving the simple church with its wooden-beamed ceiling a grandness that was greatly enjoyed and admired by its congregation.
Butler says of the mural: "Again, one is struck by Sister Margaret's sense of the appropriate use of the spaces dictated by the architecture itself. The panels are large, as are the figures they frame - not quite as large as the Christ, but not dwarfed by Him. Together, they compose a strong unifying triangle, reinforcing the upward thrust of the roof lines. They thus have the effect of linking the congregation and the priests serving the altar with the King Himself."
An article in The Sunday Express was reproduced in the church publication The Watchman of March 1940, and was equally complimentary. "We are indebted to The Sunday Express for the accompanying picture of the unique painting done by Sister Margaret CR, typifying the dedication of this native church - Christ the King.
Some know that this was the same Sister Artist who decorated the Sanctuary Dome of the Training College Chapel, Grahamstown, considered by many to be the finest wall painting in South Africa; but her work in Sophiatown is even greater still . . . Later she will return to Johannesburg and paint two more panels for the Church. We congratulate the Mission on this beautiful addition to their Church."
Sister Margaret's murals are to be seen in Grahamstown, Port Elizabeth, Nqutu in Zululand, and in Zimbabwe. She finished the Sophiatown mural at the age of 63, which must have been quite a feat, as she would have had to stand on scaffolding almost three storeys high to work on the mural.
She was a talented artist whose work was not restricted to murals: she worked with watercolours and oils, made devotional cards for her fellow nuns, and designed stained-glass windows and wooden carvings.
Butler recounts that Sister Margaret produced 28 oil paintings of varying sizes. A further 10 oils are known to exist but whose whereabouts are unknown. Ten watercolours are known to still exist.
A stained-glass window designed by her and made by Kathleen Quigley, was installed at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. A painted wooden crucifix made by her in the 1930s still resides in a chapel Hillandale, a few kilometres outside Grahamstown.
She said of the mural in St Mary and All the Angels in Grahamstown, her first mural: "As I laboured and anguished, I seemed to grow and know Our Lady far better than I had before. She was no longer the young mother of Bethlehem, beautiful but rather far away. She became a vital and very present reality . . . She looks forward, to those who will love Him. She sees us!"
The church in Sophiatown was built in 1935 and became famous because of Huddleston and his tough stance against apartheid, epitomised in his fight for the rights of the Sophiatown community, until he was recalled to England in 1955.
The community of Sophiatown was finally removed from the suburb by the end of 1963, in a process that begun in 1955. The suburb was then flattened and rebuilt as Triomf (Afrikaans for "triumph"), and settled by working class whites, as it largely remains today.
The murals were still visible several years later, in 1967. The altar was deconsecrated in 1964, and the rest of the church in 1967. It was sold by the Anglicans to the Department of Community Development in the same year. Pictures were taken of the mural in 1967, the only evidence now of what the walls looked like.
In the 1970s the Nederduits Hervormde Kerk bought the church, with the aim of establishing a branch of the church in the suburb. This idea was shelved, and the church was used only as a Sunday school.
But sadly, between the time it was bought by the Hervormde Kerk and 1967, the church was badly vandalised. Henry Paine, an architect involved in the restoration of the church in 1999, says he visited the church in 1967 as a schoolboy. "The vandalism was appalling - windows were broken, rocks had been thrown through windows and were strewn about the interior, charcoal graffiti and racists slogans was painted on the walls and mural."
Some say it was used as a boxing gym before the Hervormde Kerk bought the church. In 1983 the church was sold to the Pinkster Protestante Kerk, and underwent major structural changes.
Pastor John Tattersall, now living in Bellville in Cape Town, spent 10 years ministering to the Pinkster congregation in Sophiatown. He remembers counting 66 broken window panes when the church was taken over. The church spent R90 000 to restore it and make alterations.
Wood panelling was placed down each side of the church, imbuia pews were installed, coloured glass windows replaced broken windows. The entire arched apse area was enclosed with wood panelling and organ pipes at the top. Behind this a platform was built halfway up the apse, to be used as a boardroom.
Steps from the altar were extended into the church, surrounding a large concrete font. The church floor was carpeted in mottled wall-to-wall carpeting. A gallery at the back of the church was built.
Tattersall remembers his time in Sophiatown with fondness. "I loved being there, it was a lovely place with a hospitable congregation and lovely atmosphere. I was heartsore to see it sold."
After he left in 1993 the Pinkster Kerk built a hall on the left side of the church, incorporating the arched pews on that side.
Back in Anglican hands
In 1997 the Anglicans bought the church back and re-dedicated it in the same year. It has now been largely restored to what it looked like when Huddleston preached there, except for one detail: the beautiful mural.
The panelling was removed, the apse was restored to its former beauty, with light streaming in through its side windows. The carpeting was removed and replaced with coir matting. The font was removed and the steps recreated as they had originally been built. The right-hand aisle has been converted into offices, and the two side front arches have been restored. The electrics have been replaced. The gallery is to be retained.
The bell tower was declared a national monument in 1995, when the Pinkster Kerk still owned the building. It was felt that the church had been altered too severely for it to be considered a national monument. Besides, the owners had to agree to it becoming a national monument, and the Pinkster congregation did not give their approval.
The tower has been subsequently restored, and proudly displays its national monument emblem.
Reverend Guma says his congregation has further plans for the church. When the Sophiatown community was removed in the 50s and 60s, a new church was built in Meadowlands, the community's new home. It resembles the original church, with a long church building ending with a slightly shorter bell tower. Some items were removed to the Meadowlands church and are still there: a beautiful silver chalice, six wooden gold-coated candelabras and two small silver candlesticks.
The Christ the King Church in Coronationville took other items: the large wooden crucifix and the church banner.
Guma is having a new, wooden cross carved, to be ready at the end of the year. He says it is to be "a cross that reflects history - the triumph of human spirit over pain - with Jesus emerging from the cross, with barbed wire on his hands".
He also wants to create an "interactive museum of healing" at the back of the church, to "focus on past memories to make sure those memories are not lost when people disappear, to use them to heal" with the broader aim of "moving people forward as a means of contributing to the larger national project of restoring human rights".
Guma also wants to expand the programmes in the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre on the grounds of the church. At present lectures on Aids, computer training and art are run for the local community. Guma wants to expand these programmes to include an exhibition on Huddleston (whose ashes are buried in the church grounds), so that he has "organic links" to the present, and connect to the broader Region 4 (in which Sophiatown falls) Heart and Soul programme, a project aimed at collecting memories of former Sophiatown residents.
Sister Margaret died in 1964 at the age of 84. Her grave stone in the Old Cemetery in Grahamstown simply gives her name and date of death. Her obituary, written by the church, captured her religious dedication and source of inspiration. Butler quotes parts of it:
"Sister Margaret was a mystic and an artist and she has left behind her some inspiring frescoes as well as many beautiful paintings. Her work always emanated from her prayer and before she painted Our Lord or Our Lady she spent hours in contemplation - then the result of her vision was translated in form and colour. She painted in obedience to authority but also in dependence on her inner vision and when the fresco was complete she detached herself completely from it. It was her offering to Our Lord and did not belong to her at all; but she strove for perfection in every detail, until under obedience she had to leave it!"
A baker and the church
The Christ the King Anglican Church community in Sophiatown have one man to thank for the building of their church - a baker, James Smith, described by Father Raymond Raynes, as a "rich white baker", living in Parktown. Smith and his wife "wished to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary by doing something for the natives".
He donated £1 000 to the building fund, and the construction of the church began on 1 April, 1935. The church was consecrated free of debt on 8 September, of the same year.
Raynes approached the architect, Frank Fleming, saying he wanted a church able to seat 1 000. Fleming replied, saying he could only build a garage with the money offered, despite the donation. This didn't deter Raynes - he liked the idea of "a holy garage".
The church, originally finished inside with bare brick, did, according to Guy Butler, "evoke a garage rather than a church".
Smith was not happy with the low, flat church and proposed that a tower be added, and donated £754 for the building of the bell tower, together with a clock, completed in 1937. The tower has been a landmark in the area ever since.
Smith wasn't finished with the community of Sophiatown. His next gift was £3 000 for the building of a school in the suburb, across the road from the church. But, not satisfied with just building a school, Smith then donated money to build a swimming pool for the children of the school.
In 1942 Smith died, and in the obituary written by Raynes and Sister Maud, they described him as someone who gave money but "never made anyone feel under an awkward sense of obligation. He had the true value of money, as an instrument put into an individual's hands by God to use for God and His children . . . "
Smith attended services at the church, and was fortunate enough to enjoy Sister Margaret's murals. He allowed one small sign of recognition of his contribution to the church: his initials on the foundation stone of the tower.