Thomas Bowler was born in Tring, Hertfordshire, England on the 9th December 1912 and died in London, England on 24th October 1869
He was an artist, and the son of William Bowler and his wife Sarah Butterfield. Both parents were of humble origin and probably Nonconformists believing in adult baptism.
Bowlers’ grandmother was housekeeper to Dr John Lee, F.R.S., a keen amateur astronomer and owner of Hartwell House, Hartwell, Buckinghamshire. In about 1833, through the good offices of Lee, Bowler, who had spent three years as a lawyer’s clerk in London, met the Maclear family, then living near Hartwell. Consequently, when Thomas Maclear arrived at the Royal Observatory, Cape Town, as astronomer royal on 5.1.1834, he was accompanied by Bowler as his manservant. Bowler embellished some of Mrs Maclear’s letters to England with marginal drawings of scenes round and about the observatory building. In later years he put this idea to commercial use when a series of drawings by him was steel-engraved on note-paper and published by A. S. Robertson in the Heerengracht (Adderley Street). One of Bowler’s drawings on a Maclear letter dated 10.5.1834 is signed by him and is probably his first signed drawing in South Africa: a view from the large wing-room at the observatory.
In August 1834 Maclear had found Bowler an official post at the observatory at a salary of seventy pounds per annum. In addition to acting as general factotum, cleaning the lamps and instruments, and carrying messages to and from Cape Town, Bowler began to learn the rudiments of astronomy, in which he maintained an interest for the rest of his life. By early 1835 he was making corresponding observations at the transit instruments with Maclear, and had been invited by Sir John Herschel to observe the moon through his reflector at Feldhausen, Claremont.
Nevertheless his personal relations with Maclear, which had never been cordial, led to Bowlers’ dismissal on 8.7.1835. He immediately took up employment as tutor to the children of Capt. R. T. Wolfe, commandant of Robben Island, at a salary of forty pounds a year and free board. In 1838 he married Jane Elizabeth Hawthorne, a young Irish girl, and towards the end of the same year left Robben Island, finding employment in Cape Town with Wolfe’s assistance. In the Cape of Good Hope directory for 1839 his name appears for the first time among the inhabitants of Cape Town. He had then set up as a ‘professor of drawing and landscape painter’ at 31 Boom Street. This was the period of Bowlers’ early development as an artist, and there are extant a few examples of his first inadequate attempts to record his surroundings, particularly views from, and of, the observatory.
By April 1841 he was able to inform Lee of his remarkable progress after five years of studying art, during which period he had set himself up as a drawing-master and landscape painter. For the next thirty years he was to be a recorder of events and scenes at the Cape and in Natal, in which the march of history was accurately preserved for posterity. The earliest of the Bowler prints dates from 1842, when the lithograph of H.M.S. Southampton covering the landing of the 27th Regiment off Port Natal was published. It is doubtful whether Bowler visited Natal in 1842; he was, however, there in August 1845 and in October of that year advertised the publication by subscription of five views of Natal, to be dedicated to the Cape Governor, Lieutenant-General Sir Peregrine Maitland.
In 1843 he moved to 65 Longmarket Street. By 1844, when he was making a fair income by teaching art to the children of many of the town’s leading citizens, Bowler conceived the idea of publishing an annual series of pictures of scenes and views of the Cape. The first of the series, which arrived in Cape Town in November 1844, was Four views of Cape Town, comprising ‘Table Bay’; ‘Cape Town on the beach near the military hospital; ‘Cape Town near the Amsterdam Battery; and ‘Cape Town from Tamboerskloof, Lion’s Hill’. His original intention of annual publications, however, never materialized.
The print of Simonstown was issued in 1845 when Bowler was living in the Buitenkant. One of his pupils at this time was Sir John Wylde, Chief Justice of the Cape. By this time Bowler was earning well-merited praise as an artist, and was a man of substance, but five years were to elapse before his painting entitled ‘Great meeting held in front of the Commercial Hall, Cape Town, on 4th July 1849′ (now in the Cape Archives, Cape Town) was to appear, at the time of the anti-convict agitation at the Cape.
In that year Bowler’s wife died, aged forty-one, leaving four sons and two daughters. Her tombstone is preserved in the Cultural History Museum, Cape Town. The family now moved to 23 Burg Street, for a short time only, for in 1850 Bowler’s address was Garden Overbeil, at the upper end of Keerom Street. On 26.2.1851 he married Maria Jolly, one of the four talented sisters who ran a girls’ school, which became the Good Hope Seminary in 1873. She bore him four daughters, two of whom died young. One son of his first marriage died from exposure after a shipwreck in December 1863 and another by drowning in July 1869.
In 1852 Bowler and his family were living at Wynberg, where their home was a meeting-place for art and music-lovers. In addition to his private drawing-classes, Bowler was teaching at the South African College, Cape Town (where he started on 5.4.1842) and the Diocesan College, Rondebosch, at the same time maintaining his output of meticulously detailed paintings, exhibiting a number of them at the first fine arts exhibition held in Cape Town in February 1851, and gaining a gold medal for one of them. At the same time he disposed of about fifteen paintings through a type of lottery known as an ‘art union’, probably the first ever held at the Cape. Over the years he continued sporadically to dispose of his pictures in this way; the Art Unions Bill of 1860, which legalized this form of lottery, was introduced and passed in the Cape Parliament on his recommendation.
In about May 1854 Bowler went to England, probably mainly for health reasons. During his stay he took lessons with J. D. Harding, the great English water-colourist and lithographer, and on his return introduced the Harding system of drawing instruction to his pupils at the South African College. In January 1855, after his daughter had died, Bowler moved from Wynberg to 3 Burg Street, Cape Town, where he began teaching adult classes by the Harding method. Within a month he was living at 22 Grave Street (now Parliament Street), which was to be his home for a few years. One of his favourite pupils was Maria de Wet, afterwards Maria Koopmans-de Wet. In the first volume of the Cape Monthly Magazine (May 1857) Bowler contributed an article, ‘Art at the Cape’, which sheds light on his views of art teaching and gives an appreciation of the Cape from the artist’s point of view. He discourses on the uselessness of teaching art by making pupils copy the works of others, and advocates the cultivation of the powers of vision through observation and reflection. In 1858 he was a voluntary teacher at the Mechanics’ Institute, but it was not until April 1861 that he opened his own art school, one of the first in Cape Town. In June 1859 he was baptized in St George’s Church, Wale Street, where for years he was a regular worshipper.
Bowler’s tremendous output was in no wise reduced by his teaching obligations. In March 1855 his lithographic album, South African sketches, was offered for sale; towards the end of the same year he published the African sketchbook. A third album, A pictorial album of the colony of the Cape of Good Hope, which he began preparing in 1854, was published in September 1865.
Meanwhile Bowler continued to travel extensively in the Cape Colony. In mid-1857 he visited Knysna and George, executing commissions for local residents; his views of the Mosenthal Company’s branches were probably done at this time. In the early part of 1858 Bowler visited the eastern districts and Kaffraria, repeating this journey in December 1861 — January 1862, when he sketched the views forming the basis for his celebrated series, The Kafir wars and the British settlers in South Africa, the text being by W. Rodger Thomson, who also wrote the text for his Pictorial album . In 1859 he visited the Swellendam district, where he painted several scenes for the Barry family; and en route he recorded the scene at the first agricultural show at Caledon.
His reputation had spread to England in 1860, when two of his water-colours were hung in the Royal Academy. Several of his sketches, such as those depicting the opening and completion of the Cape Town-Wellington railway (1859–63), and Prince Alfred’s visit to the Colony (1860) were used by the Illustrated London News. When the prince (then Duke of Edinburgh) visited Cape Town again in 1867, Bowler recorded the event in a print for which he himself was the lithographer. In 1862 he moved to Wale Street, which was his last home.
In December 1865 Bowler journeyed to Mauritius, returning home two months later with a thick sketch-book recording his experiences. As he failed to find sufficient subscribers for an album, the pictures were never published.
At this time an opposition art school was opened and Bowler had to struggle to make a living. This, together with an unsuccessful lawsuit at the end of 1867, which had confronted him with financial difficulties, made him return to England. He left on 28 August 1868, first revisiting Mauritius, where he contracted a fever (probably malaria), and then proceeded to Egypt. He died of bronchitis in the Middlesex Hospital, London, after a ten-day illness.
Bowler was frequently disliked for his quick temper and aggressiveness, which manifested themselves in numerous public quarrels; his renown, however, rests on his ability as an artist and art teacher. As a teacher his method was based on Harding’s principle of learning ‘to draw from nature’. Bowler ‘s The student’s handbook – intended for those studying art in the system of J. D. Harding (Cape Town, 1857) was indeed a condensation of Harding’s Lessons on trees and elementary art. Bowler numbered among his pupils some of the Cape’s most competent artists such as Abraham de Smidt and Daniël Krynauw, though he founded no typically indigenous school of art.
As an artist Bowler was probably, with the exception of W. D. de Vignon van Alphen, the only painter of real merit in South Africa during the mid-nineteenth century. A descendant of the picturesque school of topographical artists, which was to reach its apogee in the work of English water-colourists such as Turner, Cotman and De Wint, Bowler, like his English counterparts, had as much of the landscape painter as the topographer in him. Though much of his work is a statement of the cliches into which the water-colour school was to fall, his taste was always impeccable. The sketch-books in the Mendelssohn Collection of the library of Parliament, Cape Town, which were intended only for his own eyes, show in addition that he was capable of a high degree of freshness and originality when he escaped the pot-boilers from which he earned a living. It is in his seascapes, too, that his ability as an artist is most apparent, for he loved and knew the sea in all its moods. Bowler ‘s chief merit lies, however, in his role as a pictorial historian of Cape society in the pre-photographic era, as a recorder of every important local event, from the laying of the first stone of the Table Bay breakwater to the arrival of the Confederate raider Alabama , and, above all, as one who strove unfailingly to make the people of the Cape art-conscious.
By 1967, the year of the publication of Bradlow’s definitive biography, 538 of Bowler ‘s originals (excluding the albums in the Mendelssohn collection) had been traced. Of these nine are oils, 413 water-colours and 106 pencil sketches. Bowler is, however, best known to the public for the so-called Bowler prints. There were sixty-six published prints, of which sixty-four were re-produced by the lithographic process, and two as steel engravings. Of the sixty-four lithographs, fifty appeared in four albums: South African sketches; The African sketchbook; The Kafir wars and British settlers in South Africa and Pictorial album of Cape Town. Of the remainder, ten appeared at different times and four ( The four views of Cape Town ) were published in a separate folder. The term ‘original print’, when applied to Bowler’s prints, signifies those prints which were produced in Bowler’s own time.
There are in the Fehr Collection, Cape Town, a miniature (c. 1834) showing Bowler as a fresh-faced young man with beautiful hands, and a portrait by J. A. Vintner painted in 1854. The carte-de-visite photograph of Bowler by Lawrence Bros. is in the portrait collection of the S.A. Library, Cape Town. Dated 1863, it forms the frontispiece of Bradlow’s work. There are other photographs in the Cape Archives.