FRANK SPEARS   - The Painter 1906 -1991

Frank Spears – Early life in England

This gifted and thoughtful artist is constantly on the move to new and unexplored artistic territories. In such completely spiritualised work one cannot fail to see that Frank Spears is one of the leading masters in South Africa.

(Professor Matthys Bokhorst, Director of the National Gallery of South Africa)

Frank Spears was born in Walsall, near Birmingham, England on 4th August 1906. His father, Alfred James Spears, ran his own company in Birmingham which did spray work, plaster oddsides, core stocks and made Tin Men's Gas Stoves. He described himself as a General Metal Patternmaker. Alfred was married to Florence and they had three children. The oldest Tom went to university to read chemistry and worked for the government at Porton Down. The second child, Edith, became headteacher of a primary school after spending some time in West Africa where she contracted a serious infection. Frank the youngest also went to grammar school and then trained in art, music, drama and architectural design at the Birmingham School of Art and later London.

Frank's first employment saw him designing railway carriages. In 1928 at the age of 22 he emigrated to Cape Town S Africa to work for Brimble and Briggs, shopfitters.

Cape Town, S Africa 1928 – 1970

The most significant event for Frank once he arrived in Cape Town was meeting Dorothea Botha. She was American and came to Cape Town with her parents as her father, Eben S Johnson, was the Methodist Bishop of Southern Africa. Dorothea was married at 18 to Graham Botha. He was Cape Town's City first Archivist. Botha was 18 years her senior, a widower with a daughter Alice and with Dorothea he had two sons, Colin and Darlow.

Frank married the then divorced Dorothea in 1932 after an understandable battle with Dorothea's religious parents who were keen to prevent the divorce.

Once it was a fait accompli the Bishop and his wife accepted Frank and bought the couple their first home, Oaklands (now Hiddingh House) in Newlands Avenue.

Dorothea was an outstanding writer and poet whose work appeared frequently in publications in Cape Town including the Cape Argus, the Cape Times, the Outspan. She wrote to Frank frequently before they were married

This poem was written after she met Frank but was still married to Graham Botha.

Time was when I wrote glibly

Of love and life and death,

Knowing none of them.

I sang with honeyed breath

Of love and its sweet sorrow:

Now that I have learned

The heights and depths of it,

Now I have been burned

With its sweet flame, I stand

As one struck dumb. So life

Now I have lived, calls forth

No hymns; the joy, the strife

Awaken no refrain.

It seems I cannot write

The thing I see. The dream

Is plainer than the sight.

So death alone remains.

To her I tune my lute,

And when I have embraced her

-I shall be mute.

In this second one, her name is Dorothea Spears.

The Beautiful Reality

do you remember how we paused

Each half afraid

To put to test the dream

That we had made?

Lest contact with the world should break

Its sunny wings?

For dreams, like butterflies,

Are fragile things.

So beautiful, so gossamer;

So strong and frail-

Like spider's webs that hold

Before the gale

Yet shiver into ruins at

One ruthless touch.

Oh, dared we risk the dream

That meant so much?

How could we know, at the years end

The real would seem

More beautiful and fair

Than any dream?

The web of Love is still unbroke,

The wings still bright;

And life is overfull

Of sheer delight.

The couple had two sons, Hilary born in 1933, who became Headmaster of Brebner School in Bloemfontein, and he and his wife Maureen went to live in Albequeque with their son Tim and family. Hilary died in 2013. Their second son is Michael John, known as Johnny, born in 1938. Johnny moved to UK in 1961 after having been called to the Cape Bar. He requalified as an English solicitor and practised there for 30 years. He married an Englishwoman, Rosalind, and they now divide their time between Devon, England and Hout Bay, Cape Town.

Frank and Dorothea had a united life. They opened their home to many people who shared their interests. They influenced many young people, introducing them to their love of music, poetry, drama and painting.

Frank Spears , Painter

Frank could draw well. He joined a group of painters in Cape Town and they would go out on Sundays and use watercolours to paint local scenes. Including Genadendal – see the Big House at Genadendal. Others in the group included Russell Harvey, Yollie Searle, Herbert Coetzee.

Frank's first show was in 1935. He had numerous shows throughout his life, some with many artists, some one man shows. These were in Johannesburg, Cape Town, George and later in London. He was chosen to represent SA at the Sao Paulo Bienial and the Venice Biennale. He was President of SA Society of Artists 1945 – 1947. His works hang in several prestigious SA art galleries and are owned by people all over the world.

His style was impressionist and he progressed to abstract but his underlying skill as a draughtsman, plus his choice of subjects ,brought him back to paintings where the subject is recognisable.

His paintings were of flowers, still life, portraits, clowns and kings, religious subjects and music. He wrote about his creation of these works and choice of subjects.

Critics wrote enthusiastically about his work and many famous people opened his shows. Esme Berman includes him in her comprehensive book of SA artists as does                           Harold Jaffe in his book South African Artists.

Frank not only painted but also designed and created 2 stained glass windows. One was at the Synod hall of the Dutch Reformed church in Cape Town which was destroyed when the site was redeveloped as a hotel. The second depicting music and dance is in the foyer of the Adam Small (formerly the Thom) Theatre at Stellenbosch University.

He also was invited to paint an altar piece for a church in Bonteheuvel – the Risen Christ. This work is much treasured by the congregation. His painting of Christ descending from the Cross is beside the altar in St George's Cathedral, Cape Town.

Frank Spears – Brimble and Briggs

Frank came to SA to work for B and B and rose to be managing director. He was able to draw freehand his simple and effective designs for shop windows and fittings. He worked full time so his artistic life had to fit in to his free time. During his time at B&B the firm expanded and moved from premises in Roland Street to a custom built factory and drawing office in Wetton. When the firm amalgamated with Sage & Co Johannesburg a British firm he became managing director.

Frank Spears – designer

Frank became interested in sailing in the 1940's and the design of dinghies. His first boat was Pandora a 12 foot pram dinghy. This was followed by a larger boat Argosy. Later he improved the design of the Goodricke and his improved design of this boat, creating another racing dinghy 16 feet long, with trapeze and spinnaker, which was called the Spearhead. His sons Hilary and Johnny built Spearheads in the family garage and won many races in them all over South Africa.

He was then asked to design a 12 foot racing dinghy for the children at St Andrew's School Grahamstown which proved to be very popular in SA and around the world. In 1961 a Swiss chain store ordered 10 Andies and the boat was exhibited at shows in Basel.

Frank also designed the family's house in Welbeloond Road, Constantia. This was built in the early 50s with wonderful views over the vines towards Constantiaberg. Some years after this home was sold it was burnt down, only the concrete carport remaining. The detached garage with Frank's studio above survived and is still there today.

Frank Spears – singer and radio actor

One to the things which first attracted Dorothea to Frank was his fine tenor voice. He sang in operas including La Traviata and in Hadyn's Oratorio The Seasons. He gave up singing because it distressed his young son Michael John who could not cope with the volume. Frank also acted in many plays both on stage and on the SABC radio and worked numerous people including Michael Drin, Roy Sargeant, Rosalie van der Goedt etc

He also wrote plays and poems.

Frank Spears – the return to UK

As he grew older Frank like many others harboured a desire to return to the country of his birth. When his son Johnny bought a large home in Hampshire Frank decided to leave SA and live in the self contained wing of this house. From 1970 to their deaths in 1991 Frank and Dorothea lived adjacent to Johnny and his family, first in Titchfield and later at Meonstoke.

On leaving SA Frank and Dorothea spent six months in Italy studying Italian and the wonderful works of art. The buildings he saw there inspired many lovely paintings, including ones of Venice and Assisi.

Once settled in England Frank continued painting full time in his studio, a wooden barn on staddle stones. Many S African friends made the trip to Hampshire, buying paintings in the studio and enjoying Dorothea's excellent cooking. The couple were wonderful grandparents to their family living next door. Frank acquired a billiard table and spent many happy hours playing with Sebastian, his grandson. Dorothea and Frank attended the local church regularly.

Frank joined a Monday morning painting group in Southampton run by Cecile Elstein. Quote from Cecile......

During this time Frank had time to paint to paint full time. He continued with his one man shows in South Africa, air freighting his work to the dealers in Johannesburg, Cape Town and George. He also had four one man shows at the Drian Gallery in London.

For the last few years of his life Frank did not feel able to paint. He died in March 1991, three weeks after his beloved Dorothea. She was of vital importance throughout his life, sharing his interests, running a welcoming home, growing flowers for him to paint. All those who knew them knew their relationship could be tempestuous. Frank was dogmatic but Dorothea knew ways to achieve what she wanted. And it was clear they were both totally dependent on the other.

After their deaths a friend Brenda Hammond who had known Frank and Dorothea when they lived in Cape Town wrote this poem


I saw the Angel ofDeath pass by,

Dreaming, through the valley of the vines,

An indomitable procession of one.

White swan wings shrugged from unpitying shoulders:

Oh who, my dreading heart demanded,

Who is crossing over?

The notice in the newspaper

Caught my eye. Ah!

Now I know the reason and the why

The Angel had passed by,

And who was then to die.

Dorothea! Thou

So gentle of voice

So sombre of eye

Hospitality you offered from your heart,

Wholewheat scones with honey

Sunday's apple tart.

This vale of Constancy was where we met.

You lived here then.

I lived there now.

She was old, and far away

complicated karmic knots she bore,

Yet tranquillity on her brow she wore.

The precious lotus, its pendant pearl

A sheen of calm acceptance.

On her lawn, the flowering cherry

Resplendent in blossom,

Seemed the very

Personification of her soul.

I'd loved her too. She'd guided me

Towards my own, uncertain destiny.

Just one month later, I discover.

Her husband Frank has followed yonder.


You stood at the piano and turned the page

Of the song you sang.

That initial, introduced broadcast night,

When you and Christopher Fry

Awoke me from a sleep.

And opened doors

That otherwise might never have been.

For me you were Renaissance man:

Talented, aware on a surprising scale,

Singing, acting, painting, designing –

To every art you turned your hand.

Capricious, mischievous, you

Ignored the dulling comfort of the mundane

And had the cheek to challenge,

The limits and the chains,

That convention or habit frames

For others of us, less bold than you.

Your life was ever creating anew

Exploring, discussing, and arguing too.

My portrait sketched one afternoon

Hangs on the wall in our entrance hall;

And Bach' s Saint Matthew Passion

Was singing in the cathedral,

the time that you were called.

I heard it first with you.

The gift and grace of knowing

Certain people in our lives

Is blindly precious to us;

But now too late acknowledged

Too easily unrecognised

The Retrospective

Since Frank and Dorothea's deaths more than 20 years ago Frank's paintings have given pleasure to their owners, some of them acquiring more works at auction. New owners have discovered the joy of owning a Spears painting.

Frank's younger son Johnny and his wife Rosalind have acquired a summer home in Hout Bay. Johnny decided to honour his father's outstanding talent by commissioning this book and arranging an Exhibition of selected works at the UCT Irma Stern Museum in Rosebank, Cape Town.