Monday, April 14, 2014

The Mary Stainbank Gallery

BY RODNEY HARBER  Professional Consulting Architect, Urban & Regional Planner and Built Environment Educator     
Rodney Harber taught at the University  of Natal   (UKZN for several decades in  the Schools of Architecture, Planning and Housing, subsequently teaching at TU  Darmstadt and the Durban University of Technology  (DUT).  He has lectured worldwide and has led several master classes and studios and  has given numerous keynote addresses.   Currently he is   active   practising  in a small, busy multi-disciplinary practice, focusing on developmental, consultative and sustainable and  built environment practice work. He is a registered Conservation and Heritage Practitioner and has served on several Commissions and Tribunals, receiving several awards for his work.
He represents Africa on the UNESCO/UIA Validation Council as well as on the UIA Education Commission.
In 2011/12  the Italian publication,  IL Magazine Dell’Architettura, regarded him as being one of the  100 most influential architects in the  world


My connection to the Coedmore Castle   (1)  and  the  Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve (2)   goes back several decades in that my grandfather was the estate vet, and Mary Stainbank  (3)  recalled him clearly when I spoke of him in an interview I conducted with her years ago.

I stumbled on this restoration project by a real accident.  I was called out to the site to arbitrate between a fellow architectural professional and an engineer.  The matter at hand was whether or not to retain the existing upper floor boards of the former cowshed or to restore them.  I fell through the existing rotten floors boards so the verdict was that they needed to be replaced!

I was latterly commissioned as the consultant heritage restoration architect and tasked with the repair and restoration of the cowshed, apparently otherwise known as Mary Stainbank’s workshop. 

The salvaged original collection of powerful artworks by Stainbank and her partner  (4)  were being stored in a cold, dark room away from the eyes of those  that could appreciate and enjoy them (having been rejected by the Voortrekker Museum in Pietermaritzburg).   So it was with delight that I joined the team, after curatrix Cherryl Curry approached me to assist with the creation of a proper ‘home’ for the many works created over Stainbank’s lifetime.  Working closely with a pre-appointed contractor I resolved to leave the internal walls as they were and to  honestly patch where necessary. 

The existing windows were restored and the flooring was replaced with a more readily available South African product, as were the ceilings (using reversed Masonite for insulation).  The partitions on plan were positioned in such a way that any future curator would have adequate surveillance onto the main gallery space.  The existing “primitive” electrical breaker boards are retained for their historical interest.  The existing denoted labelling painted on the walls was also retained for the historical and aesthetic interest.

Gaining access into the gallery proved to be a challenge as the existing old, steep timber access proved to be impractical.  The existing main staircase had apparently been built by a film crew at some point in the past.  The decision was therefore taken to express the access in a new material to clearly distinguish it as “new work” by using galvanised iron.  Downstairs proved to be less of a challenge, despite the old storeroom resembling a tinderbox.  All of the sheeting was restored and replaced, as were the gutters.  The old storeroom has now lately been converted into a visiting artists’ studio, and the landing on the staircase provides visitors to the gallery with a view into the studio, thus demystifying the creation of artworks.  The stone and works of art in wood which had been “abandoned” and left in the castle grounds have been tenderly restored and now proudly grace the access points to the gallery.

The entire space was created with a limited budget and the resultant gallery is a complement  to Stainbank’s powerful body of work.

Rodney Harber


(1)  Coedmore Castle,   on the Stainbank Nature Reserve in Yellowwood Park was built in 1882 by Dering Stainbank, who arrived in Durban from England  in 1857

(2)   Kenneth Stainbank, son of Dering Stainbank, established the Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve  in 1963, now  administered by KZN Wildlife

(3)  The sculptor,Mary Stainbank, was the daughter of  Dering Stainbank.   She studied art at the  Durban School of Art in 1921 and at the Royal College of Art in London in 1922.    As a sculptor she was way ahead of her times through  introducing contemporary trends in art to Durban

(4)  The stained glass artist, Wilgieforde Vann-Hall   (Wilgie)