|23 Mar 2021|
Peter Elliott (1967W) continues to pursue his passion for historical biographies from his base in South West France. His new book, just published, is a bit closer to ‘home’, being an account of the life and times of his great grandfather, Sir Thomas Muir (1844-1934). The book covers Muir’s humble beginnings in Lanarkshire, his time as a schoolmaster in Glasgow, his passion for mathematics and the turbulent period he spent as the leading educationist of the Cape Colony in the early twentieth century.
Thomas Muir was both a renowned mathematician and a colonial educationist. As Superintendent-General of Education of the Cape Colony (1892-1915), he demonstrated extraordinary powers of industry and had a profound influence on the course of education in the Cape. He was no paragon, but the flaws in his character and his ‘redeeming’ vices make him all the more interesting. Peter draws on Muir’s personal diaries of his travels in the Cape interior, providing insight into the social and political backdrop against which he reformed the Cape education system.
At an OD drinks reception in London on 22 July, Peter will be talking about Thomas Muir, his great-grandfather and subject of his latest book, Thomas Muir 'Lad o' Pairts as well as his own journey from the highest echelons of corporate law to becoming a writer biographer.
Please see a short bio of Peter and the five books he has written in anticipation of the July event.
After leaving Bishops, and gaining a BA degree at UCT, Peter Elliott (1967W) won an Elsie Ballot Scholarship to Cambridge University in 1971, where he read law and was elected a Senior Scholar of Trinity College. After graduating he pursued a legal career in England, in private practice and in industry. After retiring at the end 2011, he and his wife Maddy moved to Languedoc, France, where they live surrounded by vines, in a landscape not unlike parts of the Western Cape.
Peter’s lifelong interest in history drew him to biography and he cut his biographical teeth on two Bishops-related stories. Appropriately his first written piece was a homage to his history master at Bishops, Sir Wilfred Robinson, and this appeared as obituary in the Cape Times in early 2013, the story of ‘Chippy’s’ exploits in defence of the schoolhouse at Arnhem in September 1944, and his escape from captivity. Another early piece was also Bishops-related: the story of Lt. Col. Angus Duncan OD (Matric 1926), his leadership of the Cape Town Highlanders at the final great battle at Monte Sole, and his death in action.
Peter enjoys the challenge of compiling the jigsaw of little-known histories of people who would be in danger of being overlooked absent the biographical record that their impact and significance merits. Hitherto Peter has had a personal connection with his subjects (apart from Constance Stuart Larrabee, the documentary photographer); however, one story leads to another and his interest in Constance’s war photography stemmed from his research on the earlier story of Angus Duncan and the Battle of Monte Sole. Constance was a war correspondent following the SA troops in the static winter of 1944 prior to this battle, and she provided an indelible record of the miserable winter the SA troops spent in the snow in N Italy.
Two of his books (Nita Spilhaus and Constance Stuart Larrabee) have combined Peter’s interest in history with that in art. These two are both art books (as well as biographies) printed on fine paper and richly illustrated. However, even beyond a specific art context, Peter believes in the power of a combination of text and image to tell a story and chooses to provide extensive photographic illustrations in his books.
His five publications to date are:
Eight Months in the Veneto. A story of the endurance and courage of British Liaison Officers with the partisans in the mountains of the Veneto, Italy. 1944–1945
The book covers the activities of two missions, SIMIA led by the world-renowned mountaineer, Bill Tilman, and GELA, led by Southern African adventurer, Paul Brietsche. Other leading men in the groups were Victor Gozzer (Italian translator), John Ross, Norman Paley Norton (English translator, escaped South African POW and Old Andrean) and Richard Tolson. The author knew Gozzer and Norton personally in the 1970s but had never connected their wartime stories until he researched the book. He was able to make personal contact with John Ross, then in his 90s, whose account enabled the otherwise separate narratives to be connected.
‘The author’s researches in this little history are astonishing. He has told the story with warmth, but also with accuracy and the result is a wonderful read’: SK, reviewer on Amazon, February 2015
The Spilhaus Family. Five hundred years of history (1450–1950)
This history traces the story of this landed German origin family from 1465 onwards. In Thuringia, the family experienced and survived the turbulence of the Thirty Years War. This upheaval caused the family to move to other areas of Eastern Germany and to adapt and survive until the close of the 18th Century. An enterprising Spilhaus established a successful trade in Lubeck in the early 19th Century, and three generations made this Hanseatic city their home. Towards the end of that century the younger generation then set out to capture the commercial opportunities in the Cape, establishing well-known businesses throughout the Colony which have continued into modern times. The early 20th Century Spilhaus home was the farm Hohenort, Constantia, now a hotel.
‘A hugely interesting account of how a German family settled and prospered in South Africa’s Cape’: Suko, reviewer on Amazon, October 2020
Nita Spilhaus (1878–1967) and her artist friends in the Cape during the early twentieth century
Nita Spilhaus was a close friend of the leading Cape painters of her era, including Pieter Wenning, Hugo Naudé, Florence Zerffi and Moses Kottler. The period 1910 to 1930 was an important stage in the development of Cape Impressionism. This survey describes the atmosphere of the time, during which these European-trained painters were struggling to adapt their palettes to capture the indigenous light and colours of the Cape. They had few facilities for their work or for exhibition but found solace and encouragement in each other’s company. The book encourages the reader to look closely at the illustrated paintings and their detail.
‘The book is the first major study of the life and work of Nita Spilhaus. It is an accomplished and meticulous study of Nita’s life, artist friends at the Cape and her work. The book is superbly illustrated with colour plates showing Nita’s broad range of works…The study has the great advantage of placing Spilhaus in the context of her era and relates her work to that of her contemporaries’:
SA Art Times, October 2015
Constance: One Road to Take. The Life and Photography of Constance Stuart Larrabee (1914–2000)
Constance Stuart Larrabee was a leading South African and American photographer. In the 1930s/40s she chronicled the lives of black people living in the countryside and in the city and on the mines. In the period 1944–45 she was a South African war correspondent in Europe, covering the Allied advance in France and Italy. She then emigrated to the United States, continuing her photography on the Eastern Shores of Maryland. The book illustrates her stunning images, and provides the contextual background to her images, and their significance.
‘Constance: One Road to Take excels in two important areas. First, the book provides a visually stunning overview of her tribal photos … Second, the volume is especially good in tracing the emergence of urban black life as an important subject for Larrabee in the 1940s’ …‘Constance: One Road to Take is the only full-length treatment of Larrabee’s life and art, and this alone marks Elliott’s achievement as an important one‘: African Studies Review, June 2020
Thomas Muir: ‘Lad O’Pairts’. The Life and Work of Sir Thomas Muir (1844–1934), Mathematician and Cape Colonial Educationist
This is the first comprehensive book on Muir’s life, covering his humble Lanarkshire origins, his time and a leading schoolmaster in Glasgow, his passion for mathematics and the turbulent period he spent as Superintendent-General of Education of the Cape Colony. The book draws extensively on Muir’s personal diaries of his travels into the Cape interior and provides insights into the social and political backdrop against which he reformed the Cape education system. His diaries are published in Part II of the book and enable the reader to savour the full character of this highly intelligent and energetic, but complicated, man.
‘This book is a fine publication and a very worthwhile contribution to the history of education in South Africa. I very much enjoyed reading it. Elliott’s writing style is most engaging and some of the detail has filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge of education in South Africa’: Robin Stevens, Principal Fellow, Fine Arts and Music, The University of Melbourne
All five books are available worldwide on Amazon both as a paperback and e-Book.
Peter’s latest book, Thomas Muir:’Lad O’Pairts’ is also available in leading bookshops in South Africa:
Clarke’s Bookshop and Select Books in Cape Town; IH Pentz Booksellers in Johannesburg; and Van Schaik Bookstore in Grahamstown
If you wish to communicate with Peter Elliott about his books prior to the July OD Drinks reception he would be very happy to hear from you on: [email protected]
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