Share this post:

"Paintings can be one-night stands or lifetime love affairs - you never know until you get cracking."

Robert Hodgins's work hangs in private collections and important galleries including MoMA. I spoke to some of the people who were his adopted family and knew him best in the small South African town of White River, which was the closest thing to a hometown he ever had.

He was born on 27 June 1920 in Dulwich, London to a single working woman he would later describe as "A London hooker." He never knew his father. Early on he was farmed out to foster parents in a system that paid a shilling a day for each child they took in. He recounted being briefly happy with them in the countryside until his mother demanded his return. She feared he would prefer them, which he did, in fact there was a suggestion they wanted to adopt the child. That idea was quickly quashed and back to the inner city he went with his biological mother. From then on the great London art galleries, which were warm, free and inviting, became his childhood refuge from a troubled home life. The galleries planted the early seeds for his future as an artist.

When his chance came, he jumped

In 1938 he was offered a job of sorts with a relative in South Africa. He sprang at the chance to widen his horizons. Apart from some to-and-fro for military service and studies, he would return to spend the rest of his life in South Africa working as an art lecturer, journalist, and critic. In the Fifties he took up a teaching position at the Pretoria Technical College School of Art. He spoke of it as "a golden time." At last, he belonged among a milieu of like-minded people "Who lived well, were healthy and tanned." He struck up a friendship with a fellow lecturer, Zakkie Eloff, who rose to prominence as a wildlife painter. Their lifelong friendship became central to Hodgins' life.

Students and teachers

In 1958, 19-year-old Rene van Zyl was a First Year student in Hodgins' painting class. Now an elderly artist living in the Lowveld region of South Africa, she recalls, "He was terribly intellectual. He was very knowledgeable and could talk about anything from Dickens and Shakespeare to current affairs, films, anything." 

During the course of her studies, she and her lecturer Zakkie Eloff fell in love. The social scandal of a romance between a student and an older arts lecturer in the conservative Pretoria of the day is difficult to overstate. Despite her family's opposition, the couple married in 1960 as soon as Rene turned 21 and graduated. They rented their first home together on Esselen Street in Sunnyside, Pretoria with Hodgins as a housemate. 
"It was one of those little old Pretoria houses with a stoepie (porch) on the front. Robert had his own section with a studio, and we had our side, with our studio."

Lifelong friendships

Far from eroding the friendship between the two men, the marriage expanded to accommodate it. Eloff recounts, "He sort of came on honeymoon with us." Coert Steynberg, the great South African sculptor, was a contemporary and also a mutual friend, had lent the newlyweds a cottage on his farm near Vaalwater northwest of the capital.

"It was beautiful. Simple. There was a hot spring with wild ginger growing all around. The cottage was one big, open room with a big bed at each end and a fireplace. About ten days into our holiday we went to buy supplies at the Pretoria market. I remember we bought these great big juicy watermelons. As we were leaving town I spotted Robert at a bus stop. He was dressed from head to foot in black and was hunched over looking completely miserable."

The newlyweds pulled up in their green VW Beetle. Eloff wound down the window and called, "Robert! What on earth is the matter? At which he leapt to his feet and dived past me through the window. He planted himself on the back seat and said, 'where are we going?"

They drove straight back to the farm, stopping only to buy the gatecrasher a pair of shorts and a toothbrush. For the rest of her honeymoon Rene was woken very early each morning by "A figure wreathed in clouds of cigarette smoke paced impatiently up and down, eager for us to get up so we could all go off and do something together."

Home from home

This was the impulsive, exuberant Hodgins his friends remember. I chatted to Rene Eloff in the home she and Zakkie built on the outskirts of White River, a small town near the Kruger National Park. The house shoulders into the indigenous bush giving magnificent views towards the Mozambique horizon. The subtropical climate and colours of the region appealed to Hodgins. After the couple settled here his visits became frequent events in which he combined intense episodes of work punctuated by flamboyant forays onto the local social scene. His infectious enthusiasm and irreverent humour made him a popular guest. "He always wore a cravat, drank martinis - shaken not stirred - and snatched at any opportunity to boogie. I think we were his family. He was always looking for a place to belong."


Robert Hodgins 1920 – 2010

  • 27 June 1920 - Born in Dulwich, London to a single working mother.
  • 1938 – Emigrated to South Africa
  • 1940 - Enlisted with the Union Defence Force, served in Kenya and Egypt.
  • 1944 - Returned to England to study art and education at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
  • 1951 – Graduated with an Arts and Crafts Certificate,
  • 1953 – Earned a National Diploma of Design in painting.
  • 1954 – Returned to South Africa to take up a lectureship at the Pretoria Technical College School of Art from 1954.
  • 1962 - Worked as an editor, journalist and art critic for Newscheck magazine.
  • 1966 - Lectured in painting at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
  • 1983 - Retired from lecturing in 1983 to devote himself full-time to his own work.
  • 2005 - Awarded an Honorary Doctorate from TUT for his exceptional contribution to the development of the Fine Arts in South Africa.
  • 15th of March 2010 - Passed away from lung cancer, aged 89.
Share this post: