The Fantastical Worlds of William Timlin

I’ve entered the “road trip” portion of my time in South Africa—a few weeks of being continuously on the road as we wind our way from Kruger all the way down to Cape Town. It’s been another big day of driving some 7 hours south to the Eastern Cape. In lieu of the discursive blog posts I’ve been writing, I thought it would be a nice change of pace to write a few “mini posts” over the next few days.

Part of the joy of travel is being surprised and delighted by unexpected discoveries. Yesterday, as part of a full day explore of Kimberley’s greatest architectural hits, John and I stopped by the William Humphreys Art Gallery (lovingly known here as the WHAG). In addition to a remarkable exhibit of powerful anti-apartheid art, and an excellent display of contemporary South African folk art, there was a show of the work of William Timlin (1892-1943) that completely caught me off-guard, and left me grinning, delirious, and enchanted.

Timlin was born in the UK, and did his architectural training in Newcastle. His parents relocated to South Africa during his schooling, and he followed them there in 1912. After establishing himself as an architect in Kimberley, Timlin contributed significantly the artistic development of the city, helping to found an arts chapter as part of the Kimberley Athenaeum.

His architectural work is very emblematic of the eclectic style of early twentieth-century Kimberley, pulling stylistic inspiration from across continents and periods. At its inception, Kimberley had been a rough and tumble pioneer town designed out of necessity to serve the burgeoning diamond mine. By the 1910s, the city had started to cultivate at least a veneer of respectability through the construction of permanent public buildings. Timlin’s architectural drawings shown at the WHAG were notable for their fine line work and their whimsical quality—no heavy, Beaux Arts classicism here, just well-proportioned masses gleefully blending Tudor and Cape Dutch ornament. Timlin’s artistic ouevre outside professional architecture was even more audacious and capacious, including several illustrations for two children’s books (one still in print, one left unfinished upon his untimely death), watercolor landscapes, countless oils, graphic design projects, and apparently musical composition as well. And his two-dimensional work was just as stylistically diverse as his architectural designs, pulling from art historical references past and contemporary.

Illustration from The Ship that Sailed to Mars, begun 1921

The only characteristics that seem to unite his paintings and illustrations are a telltale lightness of hand, vibrant color palette, and fascination with the fantastical in architecture. A moody nocturne of a bucolic Cape Dutch cottage in the style of Van Gogh hung next to luminous watercolor illustrations for the interiors of a fairy city pulling explicitly from Piranesi’s Prisons series. Prints of maidens with Pre-Raphaelite pretensions happily cohabited alongside Turneresque landscapes. Timlin’s work takes the wild, creative energy of an artist like William Blake and applies the rigor of architectural training and imagination of Boullée or Ledoux. His genius for architectural atmosphere might be taken as a precedent for work of late twentieth-century innovators like Lebbeus Woods.

Today we passed through Bloemfontein, birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkien (though he only lived there until age 3), before ending in Hogsback, a quaint fairy-idyll of a town full of mysticism and Celtic lore. The landscape on this drive has been rugged and unforgiving. It doesn’t feel surprising that colonial British settlers transposed their ideas of fantastical other worlds onto the strange, alien landscape of early twentieth-century South Africa in an attempt to make this land feel a little more familiar. How humans acclimate to new places through the use of storytelling and world building is a central concern to the field of public history, and Timlin’s work, though bound up in larger, more difficult narratives about colonialism and conquest, reminds us of the more optimistic, joyful aspects of inventing new worlds through art and architecture.

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