Old masters and aspirations : the Randlords, art and South Africa

Doctoral Thesis


Permanent link to this Item
Journal Title
Link to Journal
Journal ISSN
Volume Title

University of Cape Town

In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, a small group of capitalists, many of whom were from middle-class German-Jewish backgrounds, made vast fortunes from exploiting deposits of gold and diamonds in South Africa, using local labour. These mining magnates accumulated their wealth first in Kimberley in the 1870s and, later, in Johannesburg in the late 1880s. Thereafter, most of them moved to Britain, where they lived for the rest of their lives. By the mid-1890s, as their aspirations became increasingly pronounced, the term 'Randlords' was coined in the London press to describe them. In this study, I have used this collective term in reference to the men who took part in the rough-and-tumble scramble for gold and diamonds before adopting an upper class lifestyle in Britain. Critical discussion of almost all the Randlord collections is hampered by the scarcity of primary material relating to the formation of their collections and, in some cases, even to what was in them. A point of departure for this thesis therefore was to reconstruct an inventory for each of the collections. These inventories (which are included as appendices) list each painting in the collection, possible changes in its attribution (where this is known), its title, its provenance (from whom and when the painting was purchased, and at what price), the present-day whereabouts of the painting (where this is known), and, wherever possible, an appropriate reference to the painting in a catalogue raisonne or sale catalogue or, in the absence of the latter, in the art historical literature The thesis is primarily concerned with the manner in which the identities of the Randlords were shaped and redefined through the acquisition of works of art and other material goods. It demonstrates that their eventual efforts to construct new upper-class identities were strenuous and pronounced. An integral component of this strategy to assert their social position was to participate in the accumulation and display of highly symbolic goods and properties to convey their new-found status in Britain. Throughout this thesis, the Randlords' acquisition of art is treated as one facet of their conspicuous · consumption. In keeping with this argument, the purchase and furnishing of country 11 houses, lavish expenditure on entertaining, the ownership of town houses, and the acquisition of titles are considered in relation to their an collections. The introduction includes a survey of the literature on the Randlords, a brief overview of the history of their involvement in the South African mining industry, an overview of their collections, and the context in which they assembled these collections. This is followed by five chapters focusing on the collections of Sir Julius and Lady Wernher, Alfred Beit and his brother Sir Otto, Sir Max and Lady Michaelis, Sir Lionel and Lady Phillips and Sir Joseph (and Lady Robinson). A range of issues are foregrounded in each of these chapters. For example, the widespread preference for seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings is considered in the Beit chapter, and for eighteenth- century British portraits in the Beit and Robinson chapters. The limited interest in Italian and Renaissance paintings is explored in the Wernher and Robinson chapters, and the strong interest in eighteenth-century French furniture is discussed in the Wernher chapter. Issues relating to philanthropy are discussed in the Michaelis and Phillips chapters, and the Randlords' connections to South Africa are explored through an examination of Michaelis' gift of Dutch and Flemish pictures to the Union of South Africa in 1912, and through Lady Phillips' involvement in founding an art gallery in Johannesburg in 1909. The thesis argues that works of art served a range of functions for the Randlords - acting as a store of wealth, providing public confirmation of the extent of their wealth, and in this way, assisting them in realising their social aspirations.

Includes bibliographical references.