Robert Gwelo Goodman (1871 - 1939)

Robert Goodman was born in Taplow, England in 1871, and his family moved to South Africa in 1886. At the age of 20, he began his art studies by taking evening classes in Cape Town under J.S. Morland, who remained a close friend and mentor throughout his life.

In 1895, at the suggestion of Morland and with his financial help, as well as that of several family members, he travelled to France, continuing his art studies at Academie Julian in Paris under William Bouguereau. Morland was supplying the larger portion of Goodman’s study fund, and upon the loss of his job in 1897, was no longer able to supply the finances Goodman required. The young artist had to supplement his income by taking on work cleaning canvases outside of his studies. He moved to Chelsea, and in 1898, three of his works were accepted by the Royal Academy, and another two were hung in the Royal Society of British Artists’ Exhibition.

From 1897 until 1915 Goodman lived in England, during which time he travelled throughout Europe, visiting Scotland, Spain and Italy, as well as the Lakes region of England. He also travelled to South Africa on several occasions, and twice to India, in order to gather reference material for his paintings.

In early 1900, Goodman returned to South Africa to travel the country, and although not an official war artist, he made sketches of the Anglo-Boer War battle fronts. He exhibited his works from the war period at Grafton Galleries in England, as well as at the Cape Town Technical Institute in 1901. It was on this particular trip to South Africa that Goodman took on the name ‘Gwelo’; he was discussing with Morland the difficulty of making a name for himself in the London art world, and Morland suggested that Goodman take on a decidedly Southern African name (Newton Thompson, 1951:9). The Rhodesian town of Gwelo had been founded in 1895, the same year that Goodman had launched his own art career, and so he chose that name to add to his own, from then on signing his work ‘R. Gwelo Goodman’ or ‘R.G.G.’.

On his 1903 trip to India, Goodman had hopes of making money off the Indian royalty but was disappointed, returning to London with many unsold paintings to exhibit. Around 70 of his Indian works were displayed at the Leicester Galleries in England in 1905, while he was on another trip to India gathering more material. About 18 months later, 50 works from his second trip were also exhibited at the same gallery.

Gwelo Goodman returned to South Africa in 1915 – after the First World War had broken out in Europe – settling in Cape Town. He became a member of the South African Society of Artists, as well as the Johannesburg Sketch Club. In 1916 he gave a lecture to the South African Society of Artists on ‘Ideals in Art’, in which he noted his admiration for artists such as Spain’s Diego Velazquez. He is also famed for encouraging South African artists to develop their own ‘national’ character in the arts, writes Newton Thompson.

It was in his later years in South Africa that Goodman developed his signature colour palette, emerging as the master of sunshine, according to his biographer, Newton Thompson. She writes: The vivid colours, which most people associate with his South African work, only came later onto his palette.

Although primarily known as an artist of landscapes and street scenes, Goodman painted a number of flower studies from 1918, and later also a number of interior scenes of Newlands House. The house was in a neglected state after having been used as a hospital during the war, and he lived there from 1920 until 1929. His restoration of the property illustrated his unerring capacity for architectural adaptation, which he would continue throughout his career (Newton Thompson, 1951:53). He later designed two buildings – a house in Killarney Road in Johannesburg, and a community centre in Tongaat, Natal – and also converted the derelict old Cannon Brewery building in Newlands into his home in 1929, renaming it ‘Cannon House’.

In the 1920s Goodman illustrated and assisted on the book Historic Houses of South Africa, by Dorothea Fairbridge, among others. Between 1916 and 1924 the main focus of his work became Cape Homesteads and old Dutch houses. In 1922 three of these works were exhibited at the Royal Academy in England.

Throughout his career Goodman exhibited in England, around South Africa, and in the United States – he was honoured with a Gold Medal for a group of pastels at the San Francisco Exhibition in 1915 (Newton Thompson, 1951). According to Newton Thompson, Goodman’s repute abroad increased the stature of South African art in the international scene.

Goodman’s paintings had a considerable impact on South African art, particularly influencing the landscape tradition, as well as encouraging the young Gregoire Boonzaier. The London Times referred to him as the founder of the South African school of landscape painters (Newton Thompson, 1951). Newton Thompson describes his work as follows: its dramatic sense of colour, its self-confidence; the profound affection it shows for the beauty of our own country; its admirable drawing; its technical elegance; its superb brushwork. She writes that he remained steadfast to certain eternal verities in art, believing in the values of hard work and individualism over the emerging Modernist ideas.

In 1934 Goodman completed a commission of ten paintings for South Africa House in London. His last exhibition was held at the Argus Gallery in Cape Town in February 1938 – this was his first financially unsuccessful exhibition, and occurred on the eve of World War Two.

Gwelo Goodman died at his home in Cape Town in March 1939, shortly after suffering a stroke. In accordance with his disdain for the auctioning of artwork, according to Newton Thompson: At Gwelo’s express wish all his paintings, pastels drawings and etchings were to be put up for sale in his home, Cannon House, within a month of his death. The exhibition was held in April of 1939, and a large number of individuals and galleries acquired his works.


Berman, Esmé. (1983). Art and Artists of South Africa, Southern Book Publishers: Western Cape.

Newton Thompson, J. (1951). Gwelo Goodman: South African Artist, George Allen and Unwin Ltd: London.

Ogilvie, G. (1988). The Dictionary of South African Painters and Sculptors, Everard Read: Johannesburg.

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