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Eclectic inspiration

When world-renowned leather artist Beatrix Bosch decided to retire to George, a typical retirement cottage was never an option. Instead she consulted long-time friend, architect Ernest Harper, to design and build a small yet inspired house in the Groenkloof Retirement Village where she has lived since September 2014.

 WORDS Louise Venter PHOTOGRAPHS Melanie Maré

Beatrix, aged 80, who pioneered leather art in South Africa and received international acclaim for her often monumental leather wall hangings – such as the 20m-long Constellation of Power commissioned for Anglo American – has never been someone to do things on a small scale.

She describes her new home as “a comfortable little scrapyard room” in which she used all the leftover bits and pieces from her career and life.

Leftover leathers were used to cover cushions, ottomans and bathroom cabinets, while larger pieces, such as a whole elephant trunk, was given new life in one of six leather panels she made especially for the new house. A paint-splattered backdrop became a tablecloth, her old dye trough was transformed into a basin and an old piece of wood is being carved into a sculpture.

“I have always had an interest in architecture and for me a home must have warmth, it must be a friendly, comfortable little cocoon,” Beatrix says as she hands me a glass of red wine over a 5.5m-long ironwood table, which her late husband, Dr JL (Bossie) Bosch, made by hand.

Bossie’s remarkable table is one of the pieces of furniture she wanted to keep as most of his handiwork, including several driftwood sculptures, were sold. I wonder how many plates of Beatrix’s legendary meals were served at this table over the years, as they were known to entertain up to 100 guests at any given time at their house on The Dune in Wilderness, where they lived since 1969.

Beatrix smiles as she recalls those times, but is also quick to tell me that she has had enough of that. The tranquillity and privacy of her new surroundings with its view of the Outeniqua Mountains in the distance is a welcome change after a full life and a busy career.

“Sometimes I miss the sea, but here I see the mountains. I have never really looked at the mountains before. When the sun sets they look as if someone has painted red stripes across them. I love the rural quietness here,” she says.

The rustic tranquillity of the environment seems to have been translated to the house, for despite its smooth, open-plan design and modern finishing, the interior of the house is permeated with warmth and a quiet earthiness, which is further enhanced by the eclectic mix of furniture and the smell and use of leather and wood throughout.

Perhaps the most surprising element of the house is its unassuming face brick exterior, which is modestly similar to the other homes in the retirement village.

Seen from outside, the only indication that the house may be more than meets the eye is a slightly raised roof, for which Beatrix had to obtain special permission, and the fact that the house was built over two plots.

Several interesting garden features – such as orange tiles hiding in a flower bed, a variety of interesting pots by Dina Prinsloo, leather and wood decorations and some enormous aloes – all hint at Beatrix’s distinctive style, leading one to the front door.

The house was planned down to the very last millimetre, complete with 120 drawers and a courtyard.

A primary design consideration was accommodating Beatrix’s personal art collection, which includes contemporary ceramics by her sister, Christina Bryer, pottery by Esias Bosch (and about 30 other potters), a painting by Willie Lottering, Zakkie Eloff’s wildlife art, a fibreglass sculpture by Willie Schmidt, an original Eduardo Villa (a gift) and Beatrix’s favourite piece, a kiaat sculpture by Freida Ollemans. “I think we ended up building an art gallery more than a house,” Beatrix chuckles.

The six leather panels she made to cover the house’s huge glass windows were designed to be complete art works in themselves, but the panels also form a coherent composition when they are all open or when less than six show.

As with her other leather works, their craftsmanship illustrates the masterful way in which Beatrix is able to work her medium with the self-taught techniques she developed over 45 years.

“I always find inspiration in the medium itself, the leather. You have a given thing and from that you make something. You work with the leather’s inherent flaws and textures. In a sense my work is instinctive. I had to adapt to what the leather would allow me to do,” Beatrix explains.

The panels were her final leather art works. At 80 it has become physically too challenging to make them. She doesn’t want to work commercially anymore and is now creative purely for personal enjoyment, experimenting mostly with digital graphic design.

It was Beatrix’s love for design and architecture that started her career as a full-time artist in 1968 when she envisaged a house built from glass and natural rock in Nelspruit, where she and Bossie lived at the time.

With a degree in Home Economics (obtained from Stellenbosch University in 1955) to provide the necessary sewing know-how she had a notion to make a bedspread for the new house from leftover pieces of leather she had bought. The bedspread later turned into a wall hanging, which she sold for R100. The Nelspruit house never happened, but Beatrix’s career took off as her innovative and expertly crafted work became known.

Working exclusively with ethically sourced leathers – mostly elephant, hippo, buffalo, cow, ostrich and crocodile, but also more unusual hides such as frog and snake skins – her art works are highly sought after and can be seen in buildings, galleries and private homes across the world.

Her largest piece, a 3m x 27m commissioned work entitled Prelude, was a mammoth undertaking that took Beatrix 14 months to complete. Depicting the diversity of South Africa’s cultural heritage, it hangs in the South African State Theatre in Pretoria.

With 34 successful exhibitions worldwide, her status as one of South Africa’s most iconic artists has long been established, but in her new home she can just be Beatrix who enjoys pottering around her garden, reading a science fiction novel, thinking of ways to fill the 120 drawers in the house or how to sandblast her digital designs onto glass for unique garden lights.

As we say our goodbyes I take one last look at the precise stitching and careful balance of texture and colour of her newly created leather panels on the windows. Being her last works in leather some people may perhaps see them as the end of an era. As for me, I will remember them as symbols of a bright new beginning for the enigmatic Beatrix Bosch.

PERMANENT EXHIBITION

Nineteen unique leather wall hangings by Beatrix Bosch, with titles such as Forest Textures and Forbidden Fruit, are currently on permanent display at the Wilderness Hotel in George Road, Wilderness. These works are the last of Beatrix’s personal collection of original leather wall hangings available for sale. Contact Jacques Pratt at Wild Info for a guided walkabout or for more information.

084 446 3422 or [email protected]