Irma Stern (1894-1966) has become one of South Africa’s most famous artists – a recent painting being auctioned for almost £3m – yet in the first 10 years as an artist, she sold only one painting. In a life of contrasts, she was born in South Africa but was largely brought up in Berlin; Jewish but an avid collector of Christian icons; German speaking but spoke and wrote only English after Hitler’s rise to power. She was also a singular painter of black Africans but deeply rooted in European Expressionism.
On the edge of the vast scrub desert area in South Africa known as the Karoo, the small town of Somerset East sits under southern slopes of the Boschberg Mountain. The slopes are covered with green trees as the mountain means extra rain and some shade from the sun.
Lord Somerset, the Cape Governor, set up an experimental farm here in 1814 to grow crops to supply the troops, including tobacco (which was in short supply as Britain was then at war with America). The town was named after him when it was founded in 1825 and many of the old buildings in the centre of the town date from then.