Barbara Tyrrell and the Campbell Collections

A rewarding relationship

Killie Campbell and Barbara Tyrrell Barbara Tyrrell is known internationally for her detailed costume studies of the traditional dress of the indigenous peoples of southern Africa.

Barbara Eleanor Harcourt Tyrrell was born on March 15th 1912 in Durban. Her father, who died while she was a small child, had occupied the post of assistant magistrate and later interpreter in the Department of Native Affairs and had been stationed in various Natal towns, his final posting being to Eshowe, Zululand. Tyrrell's grandfather was Frederick Fynney, interpreter and companion to the Zulu king Cetshwayo during the latter's visit to Queen Victoria in 1882.1

Killie Campbell and Barbara Tyrrell

A striking feature of Tyrrell's work as artist-recorder is her fascination with her sitters, who are portrayed as individuals in their own right, the traditional dress enhancing each sitter's personhood. This enthralment she attributes to her father's influence in the context of a childhood spent in an environment where Zulu tradition was still the norm in the early decades of the 20th century, "...I became objectively aware of the Zulus of some unfathomable quality... His (the Zulu's) dress was different, his dances different and he lived a different lifestyle. He was part of our scene, an exciting part, especially when the village had any sort of outdoor celebration. The Zulus then would have their beef and their beer and round off the day with a full-dress 'war dance'."2

WCP329 WCP476

Further, in African tradition it is believed that all persons (and especially those of status such as headmen, diviners and royalty) possess a hard to define quality best described as a 'presence' or alternatively as 'dignity' or 'moral weight' (western thinking may term it 'character') and that beadwork and dress help define such a presence. In Zulu this quality is termed isithunzi and in Sotho it is termed seriti. Tyrrell was successful in recording this quality in her portraits and costume studies.

Barbara Tyrrell as artist-recorder is a rare combination of outstanding ability as a draftswoman, and the courage and vision to seek out and record a sincere fascination with the character of her African subjects. The fact that she always drew from life gives her work, particularly her field-sketches, an integrity seldom found in the work of artists who use secondary sources such as photographs as reference. If one realises that her original field-sketches (of which there are some 1200) are probably the only authentic record of real people who once lived and went about their traditionalist lives at a certain time and place, then one can appreciate Tyrrell's work as an historical heritage of great value.3

Tyrrell - Sangoma

Tyrrell trained as an artist at the former University of Natal during the 1930's, when the fine arts department was still linked with that of the former Technical College.

When she realised that tradition was fast disappearing under the influences of modernization and westernisation, she decided to create a visual record of the symbolically rich traditional costumes and adornments worn by the peoples of southern Africa. She acquired a 1934 Chevrolet van (previously used to hawk vegetables in Port Elizabeth), which she named 'Nixie', and set out on her first field trip to the amaNgwane of the Drakensberg. From the 1940s to the 1960s she visited the people of nearly all the traditional cultures of southern Africa, recording their dress and customs.

Killie Campbell recognised the value of Tyrrell's work and undertook to sponsor her, thus acquiring the approximately 250 original watercolour costume studies held in the Campbell Collections. (These pictures later formed the basis of Tyrrell's first book, Tribal peoples of southern Africa published by Books of Africa in 1968)

Tyrrell recalls that at the end of each field trip, she would arrive at Muckleneuk and after greeting Killie Campbell would "first have a long hot bath, to 'reintroduce' myself to 'civilization' as it were!"4 Subsequent to this and after supper, the two friends would chat into the late hours, Tyrrell showing her recent field-sketches and suggesting to Campbell which she ought to have as finished works for her collection.

These then are the 250 works mentioned, which Tyrrell describes as 'research-works' in contrast with those, perhaps more free flowing in line and showing persons not necessarily 'classically' traditional in dress, which she describes as her 'art-works'.5 Even in regard to the latter works (incidentally also done from original field drawings), it is possible to see the artist's grasp of gesture and posture communicating her delight in her subject matter.

Tyrrell married the film-maker, Adrian Jurgens in 1950 and she settled in the 1960s in Richmond, Natal, so as to allow her son Peter to have a settled home-life and schooling.

 It was in Richmond that she wrote her second book, Suspicion is my name published by T.V. Bulpin in 1971.

The book dealt with the life of the Bhaca traditionalists of the area, as experienced by Banukile Mbhele; the book's title is a play on Banukile's name, a reference to an accusation of witchcraft against her mother by a jealous co-wife. Banukile was a woman central to Tyrrell's work, an informant with whom the artist had a special rapport that lasted until Banukile's death in 1990. Tyrrell's first sketch of a traditionalist was done around 1935 in the main street of Richmond; it is of a teenage Banukile in her courting beadwork. This sketch is done with shading and modelling, a "tonal" technique Tyrrell forfeited in later sketches in preference for the quicker use of line.6 As mentioned below she reverted to this technique at a much later stage of her career.

In 1983 Macmillan published African Heritage, written in co-authorship with her son, Peter Jurgens. The study of the traditional profession of divination by izangoma of the Richmond area, undertaken by Peter for the book led him to doctoral studies in parapsychology (a branch of psychology studying the para normal) first in the United States and later in France.

During the 1980s Barbara retired to Muizenburg to paint plants and landscapes, themes that she describes as her,"second great love" (the first being African peoples).7

The University of KwaZulu-Natal (formerly the University of Natal) has had a long association with Barbara Tyrrell. The academic importance of her work was formally recognised when she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Natal in 1965. During the years of the University's administration of the collections, Tyrrell has continued to be an inspiration, offering advice on collecting, and supplementing the ethnographic holdings with beadwork from areas thinly represented. It was in fact a proviso written into the will of Dr Killie Campbell that this relationship should continue. The direction of the more current ethnographic collecting of the museum, which has amassed a rich collection of beadwork and costume including many pieces made of the plastic beads that traditionalists in southern Natal preferred from the mid 1970s, reflects Tyrrell's holistic understanding of the culture of each individual wearer. The close relationship between Tyrrell and the Campbell Collections was further demonstrated when the launch of her autobiography, Barbara Tyrrell: her African quest was hosted at Muckleneuk in January 1997.

In September 2000 she opened a new exhibition at the Campbell Collections, Expression and the ancestors: diviners and artists, which included on loan Tyrrell's 89 original field-sketches of African diviners or izangoma. Diviner Jack Nyawuza and his ten diviner companions, in debating the topic "Museums and the display of the sacred", expressed approval for Barbara Tyrrell's correct ritual approach which showed her respect for the ancestors, when she accepted the divination paraphernalia of her late friend, Mshupu Mbanjwa for the collections. On the occasion of this debate, Tyrrell recalled the dialect of Zulu spoken by Mr Nyawuza as that she learnt in Zululand as a child, a pure Zulu which her father insisted she learn, rather than the common 'kitchen' Zulu used by most other persons of European descent.

One upshot of the exhibition centred on traditional divination in 2000 resulted in Tyrrell selling the major section of some 700 of her 1200 original field-sketches to the Campbell Collections. This was made possible through the generous support of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba. The Oppenheimer family's Brenthurst Library acquired the remainder.

In her 89th year Tyrrell returned to the use of the tonal technique she had last used in her drawing of the youthful Banukile in the mid-thirties and 15 of these more recent works were put on exhibition at the Campbell Collections to commemorate her 90th birthday. On this occasion, two student isicathamiya traditional musical groups, the Ikusasa Lethu and the Amaqhikiza under Dr Patricia Opondo of the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Music School, performed a praise-song composed especially for Tyrrell.

Y. Winters

Extract from essay appearing in Innovation: journal of appropriate librarianship and information work in Southern Africa. No. 30 June 2005


  1. Tyrrell, B. 1996 Barbara Tyrrell: her African quest Muizenberg: Lindlife p.197
  2. Ibid. p. 2
  3. Winters, Y. 2000 Personal communication Bryony Clarke Pietermaritzburg, Tatham Art Gallery.
  4. Winters, Y. 2000 Personal communication Barbara Tyrrell Durban
  5. Ibid.
  6. Winters, Y. and Dube, J. 2001 Interview with Barbara Tyrrell Muizenberg
  7. Winters, Y. 1982 Personal communication Barbara Tyrrell Richmond