George Stow and Joseph Orpen, collectors of rock art treasures

George Stow was 21 years old when he arrived in Port Elizabeth in 1843. A geologist by profession, he was “a Victorian gentleman of many talents,” said his friends. He was a historian, ethnographer, artist, cartographer, writer and poet. The South African veld beckoned him and rock art fascinated him.  It took him into caves and shelters across the hinterland.   George started recording rock art in the 1860s. In a letter to T. Rupert Jones, published in Nature in 1870, he wrote: “During the last three years I have been making pilgrimages to the various old Bushman caves in the mountains in the Colony and Kaffraria, and, as paintings are becoming obliterated very fast, it struck me that it would be well to make copies of them before these interesting relics of an almost extinct race are entirely destroyed.” In a letter written to Lucy Lloyd in June 1877, he outlined a plan to record rock art with the help of a young Bushman. Without much funding, George recorded rock art throughout his life, not only to preserve it for posterity, but to prove the San’s extensive and lengthy occupation of the country. He wrote Native Races of South Africa in 1880, but could not find a publisher.  This manuscript was eventually only published in 1905.  George died of heart failure in Heilbron in 1882. After his death, his scientific papers and copies of Bushman paintings were sent to a friend Charles Sir Orpen, brother of Joseph Millard Orpen, an Irishman who loved rock art.


Joseph Orpen, an Irishman, emigrated to the Cape in 1848. He was 20 years old and he took up sheep farming. He later moved to the Free State where he became a surveyor and politician. He was a self-taught geologist and at the suggestion of his brother Charles’s close friend, George William Stow he started copying rock art. Joseph single handedly tracked and found Qing, one of the last survivors of the Drakensberg San. With Qing he travelled to rock art sites and in the evenings while sitting around a camp fire, Qing, would provide insights on the meaning of these drawings. Joseph diligently recorded these conversations and explanations and thanks to him, researchers today are able to understand the meaning of much of the rock art. Despite being somewhat of an imperialist  Joseph had a deep interest in the indigenous people of South Africa states an article in the African Rock Art; Digital Archive. In July 1874, he wrote an article entitled A Glimpse into the Mythology of the Maluti Bushmen for the Cape Monthly Magazine.
© Rose’s Roundup, September 2011 (No 211)

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