Another in the series of our surrounding nature reserve by Matt Gennrichs.
Sitting where we are in the Irma Booysen Reserve we can see, apart from the plants around us, a sweeping sea view stretching from Cape St Francis in the east, past the Seal Point Lighthouse and on towards Rebelsrus in the west. The sandy stabilized dunes between where we sit and the ocean was Irma’s happy hunting ground; this was “her” veld.
Irma was born a Von Below, of farming stock, on the 13th of January 1920 in Middelburg, Cape. She was schooled in Durban and Cradock and thereafter qualified as a nursing sister at the Johannesburg General Hospital, where she met and married neuro-surgeon, Ted Kerr. She now became a housewife and a mother, but still found the time during the early 1950s to attend part-time art classes at the Technical College. She experimented with a variety of media before settling down to concentrate on watercolours.
Her love of plants took her to the Wilds, in Johannesburg, and there she became fascinated by small flowers which she began to paint. From there it was a short step to the Ericas, and her first painting of one, Erica patersonii, which was soon followed by E. jasminiflora. On holiday visits to the Cape south coast she found herself in the Cape Floristic Region and with not only ericas, but a wealth of other small-flowered plants to admire and record.
Perhaps she was mildly apprehensive when she first drove across to Pretoria to visit the Botanical Research Institute to meet Dr RA Dyer and botanical artist Cythna Letty. If this were the case there was no need for it: both the director and the artist were encouraging and urged her to continue with her paintings. Years later Cythna Letty, a renowned artist, was to state, “If only I could paint (details) like Irma.” Three of Irma’s paintings appeared in Flowering Plants of South Africa.
Irma was now put in touch with Colonel HA Baker of Cape Town. He together with E “Ted” Oliver was busy collecting ericas for the British Museum. This resulted in Irma being commissioned to paint specimens for the book. Plants were collected in the Cape and sent to Johannesburg by airmail. Many arrived in a less than a perfect state and she had to resurrect the plant, so to speak. In all she painted 65 species before the break up of her marriage resulted in her moving to the family farm, Keokamma (Honey-water) in the Tsitsikamma. As a result of her isolation she was unable to finish the assignment and Fay Anderson completed the plates for Baker and Oliver’s Ericas of South Africa, published in 1967. Irma was nevertheless awarded the Grenfell Gold Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society for her contribution to the project.
After Irma’s marriage to property developer John Booysen she moved to Cape St Francis and painted not only flowers but also the rock pools and fish that were a stone’s throw from her doorstep. There were also exhibitions of her paintings both locally, in the hotel at St Francis Bay, and further afield: Port Elizabeth, East London, Grahamstown, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Pittsburg and London. She was also commissioned to paint the plants of the Addo Elephant National Park.
It was at Cape St Francis that she met a young student, Richard Cowling, busy with a doctoral thesis on the local flora. Together they planned a book on these plants, and despite Cowling’s temporary move to Australia she began work on the plates. By December 1983 she had completed 97 of the paintings when she fell ill. She died early in the new year soon after her 64th birthday.
The Irma Booysen Reserve commemorates the all too short life of a plant-lover and artist whose intense love for the small-flowered plants resulted not only in works of art, but valuable scientific records. Keep an eye open for the small flowers when next you visit the reserve and give a thought to Irma whose veld it will always remain.
Oliver EGH, 1984. Irma von Below 1920-1984. Veld & Flora Vol 70 No 2 p 45.
Skead CJ, 2002. From Oldenland to Schonland. Privately published. Port Elizabeth.
Article Matt Gennrich