Painting Sir William

I absolutely love portrait work!

Painting a portrait of someone you know and respect is a privilege. Depending on the role the subject played in your life the experience can also be emotional, profound in the most personal way.

There is just something about bringing to life human emotion on canvas (however subtle it may be) that is truly fulfilling. This work is extremely special to me and I have loved every moment spent working on it… 81 hours spread over +- 7 months to give you an idea.

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As explained in a previous blog (https://www.robynansellart.com/portrait-of-an-old-friend/)  I first met Rhampo when I worked in the Tuli Block back in 2007.This particular spot in Tuli was quite far from everywhere. Not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’  it was wild and charming, remote and captivating, quite evocative in its own special way. To me, it was paradise.

William Thipe Pilane, known to us as “Rhampo” or “Sir William” affectionately had been the grounds caretaker from 1960 until the land was bought by the owners  in 1985, with the intention of building an intimate 5 star safari lodge.  Rhampo was then employed as a member of staff .He was a true gentleman, kind, softly spoken, exceptionally wise and well respected as an elder by all who worked with him, myself included. He was extremely hard working, sweeping the lodge walkways spotless each and every morning, clearing the car park of any Mopani leaf or seed pod that dared gather there in the hours between his attendance. Rhampo had very kind eyes. When he wasn’t working he would sit quietly in the shade,  atop an old paint bucket, observing his surroundings, watching over us with a soft smile on his face. I always found his eyes to be reflective of something pleasant, quiet laughter perhaps. He was a patient man, always encouraging my attempts to speak Setswana.  He had a wonderful sense of humor too. We would often end up in fits of laughter when I said something incorrectly in my efforts to converse daily pleasantries in his native tongue.


I last visited Tuli in 2009, by this stage Rhampo had retired and was living happily with his family in his home village near Semolale.


Each time I go through  my Tuli photographs, I feel an immediate connection to them, something resonates within me when I look at them. I am transported directly back to the time, to the place, to the people, each of the components that played such an integral part in a time of my life that I loved so much. Spending so many hours working on Rhampo’s portrait, knowing the man behind the picture; I’m not sure I can find adequate words to convey what it has meant to me. My time in Tuli was extremely personal and I can only think to reason that the painting experience is perhaps an emulation of the bigger picture.  I feel humbled by the complexity of it all.


I’ll never forget arriving In Botswana for the first time. The staff members were extremely intrigued by my painting equipment and there were a few requests throughout my stay for personal portraits to be done (life-size of course). Needless to say my lack of painting experience combined with the minimal materials and painting equipment I had managed to haul across the Limpopo River , those requests were never met. I took photographs of them instead which I developed during a leave stint in SA, bringing them back to my friends to put up on the walls of their homes.


I feel a sense of accomplishment knowing that I have completed at least one portrait from my time spent in Tuli.


Shortly after deciding to paint this piece I contacted the lodge owner to see if there was any way of getting in touch with Rhampo to inform him of my plans. Astonishingly, I was told that he had passed away just three months before, peacefully in his sleep. I feel a sense of peace and comfort knowing the man Rhampo was and knowing too the life he lead, however, I am deeply saddened that I will never get the chance to present him with his portrait.


I know my old friend would have been exceptionally proud to have had his portrait painted and I like to think that he would have been pleased with the finished product. I feel quite satisfied with my efforts. I love the subtlety that was captured the day I took the photograph because Rhampo was in fact an incredibly “subtle person”, in the purest, most discerning and dignified sense of the word.  He was the most subtle yet extraordinarily effective human being.


I love this piece.


It is the perfect reminder of the most special journey, and the most wonderful old man who showed me what it truly meant to take pride in the work that you do.



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