Cecil Higgs (1898-1986)

Cecil Higgs’ childhood was filled with the dust storms, locust swarms and infinite blue sky of the Orange Free State, which provided life-long inspiration for her work. She was born in Thaba ‘Nchu, in June of 1898, although it appears this fact was in question, as many older sources claim she was born in 1900. Like most farm girls at that time, Higgs’ education would likely have started at home with all the necessary lessons for girls, including some painting, probably in watercolour.

Higgs continued her education at Wesleyan Girls High School in Grahamstown, matriculating at the end of 1917, and enrolling at the Grahamstown School of Art the following year. Her stay there was to end abruptly when all educational institutions were closed due to the Spanish influenza epidemic of that year. In 1920, Higgs left South Africa to pursue her art studies in London, beginning an intense apprenticeship of 13 years abroad. She first studied at the Byam Shaw School of Art and Goldsmiths’ College before moving on to the Royal Academy in 1926, studying under Walter Sickert. In December 1931 she left the Royal Academy to continue her studies at the London Art School. She subsequently studied at the Grande Chaumière in Paris, under André Lhote, and worked in various studios around the city. While in Europe, she exhibited with both the London Group and the new English Art Club.

Due to the effects of the Great Depression in South Africa, she began receiving fewer funds from her family; this was coupled with the declining health of her mother, which all compelled Higgs to return to South Africa in 1933. After her return, her mother Florence passed away. With Higg’s inability to make money from her work at the time, and her family struggling through the depression and drought of that year, she decided to move to her cousin, Christina van Heyningen. In 1935 Christina offered Higgs a studio in Stellenbosch, where she eventually moved and met many artists, founding several of her lifelong friendships. That year she held a solo exhibition in the Domestic Science hall of the University of Stellenbosch and in 1938 she showed her work in a joint exhibition with Lippy Lipschitz, René Graetz and Maggie Laubser, which was successful enough to finance her next trip to Europe. In 1939 she joined the New Group; her Pink Nude in the New Group Exhibition that year received damning criticism in the press, and was consequently removed (Berman, 1995). Higgs’ work would come under fire many times, but she had much support, and continued to paint unhindered.

Over time, Higgs’ colours and compositions became more integrated and assured, and she swopped her brush for the palette knife. In 1943 she resigned from the New Group. With her move to Sea Point, Cape Town in 1946, Higgs’ subject matter underwent a fundamental change, with the sea, rocks and stones progressively appearing in her compositions until her work became synonymous with it. Her subject matter included portrait, still life and seascape compositions; in terms of her style, Berman writes (1975:95):

“Although the paintings which resulted were all developed from an objective visual point of departure, they are never mere descriptions of the subject. Conversely, it is only very rarely that Cecil Higgs converts her subject matter into totally abstract conceptions. It is the subtle equilibrium between the material and the imagined, the recognisable and the unknown, that invests her images with their compelling quality.”

After a trip with friends to the Transkei Wild Coast in 1952, a series of works on the Pondoland forests, ocean and semitropical vegetation found their way into her sketchbook and eventually became oil paintings.

In 1963, just before her move to Vermont, Higgs was awarded the gold medal of the ‘Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns’, demonstrating the eventual acceptance of her by the establishment.

In 1964, Higgs took out a bond to build a house on a plot of land she had bought previously in Vermont in the Western Cape. The house took four months to build, and at age 65, she was able to take up residence for the first time in her own home. The house sat a mere eighty meters from the sea and her studio overlooked the whole of Walker Bay. She painted everything she could find on the South Atlantic coastline: the rocks, the pools, the land and the sea. Each spring in her new home delighted her, and she painted numerous renditions of it every year. Higgs’ paintings became more balanced and calm after her move to Vermont. In 1966 she was honoured with a retrospective exhibition of her life’s work.

In the early 1970’s a friend of Higgs was collecting tiny marine specimens for her students whilst on a visit to Vermont, eventually lending the artist two microscopes. This development was the start of a series of imaginative studies, culminating in a show titled ‘Close-Ups 1973/74’. These works captured a feeling of exploration and discovery quite unparalleled in the South African art scene at the time. “The retiring, dedicated Higgs has [come] to occupy a rather special niche as an imaginative interpreter of the coastline and the sea (Berman, 1975: 98)”.

Another highlight in Higgs’ career came when the South African National Gallery honoured her with a retrospective exhibition which coincided with what was commonly believed to be her 75th birthday, in 1975. She continued to work on a series of seascapes and held a number of exhibitions in Johannesburg. From around 1978, Higgs’ productivity slowed, and finally stopped, after she suffered an attack in her home. In 1980, an exhibition of paintings and drawings of over 40 years of work was held at Wolpe Gallery in Cape Town. With the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in 1984, Higgs’ memory was gradually deteriorating, until the knowledge of having been a painter began to fade. Cecil Higgs died peacefully in her sleep in June 1986, at 88 years of age.


Alexander, L. and Cohen, E. (1990). 150 South African Paintings Past and Present, Struikhof Publishers: Cape Town.

Berman, E. (1996). Art and Artists of South Africa, Southern Book Publishers: Western Cape.

Berman, E. (1975). The Story of South African Painting. Cape Town: AA Balkema, 94-98.

Ogilvie, G. (1988). The Dictionary of South African Painters and Sculptors. Everard Read: Johannesburg, 292-293.

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