Peter Birch, who has died aged 85, was for over two generations the foremost developer of artistic talent in Zimbabwe. Along with Dulce Wesseik, he established an art school that he later moved to what had been the Acropole Hotel, a sprawling residence on the edge of Greenwood Park that had belonged to one of the then Salisbury’s (now Harare) early mayors.Here, at what was to double as his home, he enthusiastically gave classes to toddlers right through to elderly amateurs while telling stories about his early life.
Technically strong on colour, composition and figures, Birch also taught at various schools across the capital, painted sets at the local theatres, wrote an art column, and had a TV programme. He was a prolific artist in his own right – there are few boardrooms that do not hang one of his paintings or portraits of their former directors.
The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was at its zenith when Birch arrived in January 1959, and Salisbury was an exciting place to be.
The Rhodes National Gallery, under the stewardship of Frank McEwen, had opened only 18 months previously and the first exhibition saw the largest art collection to ever cross the Equator – five Viscounts full of art had left various European capitals for the opening display in July 1957. Not quite 70 years old, Salisbury had spawned an avant-garde art scene and Birch was to be a founding member of “The Contemporaries”, an active group of artists whose works have found their way around the world. With Adrian Stanley at REPS, the local theatrical world was as busy and equally experimental.
By his own declaration, Birch was a hopeless romantic who longed for wide open spaces and Rhodesia could not have been more conducive. Dark and handsome, he wanted to ride a horse into the archway of his castle, which he was to build in on one of the hills overlooking the Umwinsi River. But he was much less the swashbuckling romantic, and throughout his life, more prone to unrequited love. Harold Peter James Birch was born on October 12, 1931 on a council estate in Dartford, Kent.
He was one of six children born to Charlotte and Jack Birch, who had been gassed in the trenches in Ypres.
Encouraged by his art teacher George Allen, Birch went on attend the Sidcup School of Art in Kent in the five years after the war, where “his real education began”.
Birch admired the style of the English Romanticist landscape painter J.M.W. Turner and to a lesser extent, his great adversary John Constable. To Birch, Turner was “way ahead of his time”.
On leaving Sidcup, he undertook two years of National Service, initially in Northern Ireland, before he was posted to North Africa, where he got his first taste of the continent’s sunny skies.
Back in the UK in 1953, Birch attended the Royal College of Art in South Kensington where, he “learned nothing about art and progressed not one iota”.
The philosophy of the school was that “great artists are self taught and you just got on with your work. His college tutor John Minton took his students around the pubs introducing to them artists, including Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, as well as Dylan Thomas.
On graduating, Birch taught at a secondary school in Essex, but was desperate to escape dreary postwar Britain.
Being accepted as an art teacher at the soon to be opened Lord Malvern High School, he arrived in Salisbury in early 1959 and took up residence with other immigrants at the Cranborne Hostel.
In the summer holidays of 1961, he decided he would climb Kilimanjaro. Returning from successfully climbing Africa’s tallest peak and signing his name at the summit – the only one in his party to have managed the feat – he returned to Cranborne Hostel to see other residents sitting with “an 18½ year old beauty”.
He was immediately transfixed by Joyce Wessellmann, who he courted for four years before they married, discovering she was a talented “first class potter”.
Dulce Wesseik, who was part of The Contemporaries, had an idea to form an art school. They started in the Pelhams building on Robert Mugabe Road but after acquiring the Acropole, he moved the art school to his residence in the mid-1960s, where it has remained to this day. Birch taught at Prince Edward and Arundel and was also a columnist for The Herald and had a popular programme on television
“Birch on Art”, which propelled him to minor celebrity status. He joined the Salisbury Sailing Club and painted sets for the thriving amateur acting group REPS, which had just built a new theatre at Second St Ext. The 1970s were wild years for Birch, who indulged in heavy drinking and carousing with fellow artist Robert Paul. “With all the boozing and partying, I don’t know how we managed it. Life was hectic, exciting and very active. But most of all it was creative.”
In 1982, he found a small holding in the Umwinsidale valley – River Bend and “fell in love with the potential”. Over the next two years, Birch planned the construction of his castle and got down to “serious work and saving”.
The art school was going “very well”. “By this time, little girls who used to come to me on Saturday morning were now bringing their kids.” Using local stone, the castle was constructed over three years. As had always been his dream, he was able to ride on a horse into the entrance archway of his castle and dismount. “I took up horse riding at 50 and gave it up at 70.”
Birch’s final paintings were a return to the style he admired so much in Turner and the way he dealt with colour, light and atmosphere. “That was the one thing I was good at.” Birch was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 and successfully underwent treatment only for the condition to resurface this year. Joyce died in August 2013 after a short battle with cancer. By his request, there was no memorial. Birch is survived by his daughter Ashley, herself an artist, and two grandchildren.
Harold Peter James Birch, artist, teacher and story teller. Born October 12, 1931. Died September 18, 2016