Book review by Allan Jackson - September 2005

Views in Colonial Natal
by Nigel Hughes

This sumptuously-produced book concerns the paintings done in Southern Africa, and Natal in particular, by Cathcart William Methven who was harbour engineer in Durban from 1888 and a pretty gifted painter, going by the work reproduced in the book.

Methven was born on 24 September 1849 and rose to become Engineer-in-Chief at Greenock on the Clyde, before being appointed in 1888 as Harbour Engineer in Durban to replace Edward Innes who had died the previous year. His career didn't last long and he was dismissed in 1895 by Attorney General Harry Escombe.

The incident occurred after a heated dispute between the two over the best means of dealing with the sandbar which prevented large ships from entering the harbour and made it pretty hazardous for small ones to do so. Escombe wanted to rely on dredging alone while Methven wanted to dredge and extend North Pier so that tidal scour would help to keep the sandbar at bay.

He was fired and there was tremendous outcry which led to Escombe's resignation but it was too late for Methven. He set up as a consulting civil and marine engineer in Durban, and was apparently much in demand. History proved him right about the sandbar and the South African government tacitly admitted as much in 1918, when it granted him £500 in recognition of his services and contribution to the development of the harbour. He also recommended the development of the Umhlatuzi Lagoon as a second harbour for Natal; this came to pass in the 1970s and was called Richards Bay.

Methven also practiced as an architect and was a founder member of the Natal Institute of Architects. He was a keen trout fisherman and a talented musician who was instrumental in preparing the specifications for Durban Town Hall Organ and who played the first solo on the instrument in December 1894.

He was a Victorian romantic realist and sketched and painted with great attention to detail. His work qualifies as good art in my book but, apart from that, it is an accurate record of what he saw and, therefore,historically valuable as well. He apparently did not attend an art school but would have been exposed to painting in the normal course of his education. He was already exhibiting his work when he arrived in Durban and, by 1891, he had painted 'Durban Bay from Clairmont', which he gifted to the Town Council and which provided the impetus behind the formation of the Durban Art Gallery.

In addition to much rich biographic detail, there are 47 full colour reproductions of Methven's paintings included in the book. The pictures were taken by Natal Witness photographer Ian Garbutt and reproduce the paintings perfectly, as far as I can tell. There is also a listing of 144 of the artist's South African works, which Hughes was able to locate.

The book is expensive, no argument about that, but I would reckon it to be great value and a worthy addition to the libraries of art lovers in general, or to anyone with a particular interest in early South African artists or the colonial history of Natal.

Good bookshops will be able to obtain copies but you can obtain yours direct from the author. He can be contacted on


There are a couple of copies left of Nigel Hughes' last book, Paintings of the Bay of Natal. They can be ordered from the author as well.

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