Ernst Karl Mayer was born in Karlsruhe, Germany in 1876. In 1894 he was awarded a bursary to study architecture at Charlottenburg Technische Hochschule in Berlin, but had to discontinue his studies due to ill health in 1896.
Mayer moved to South Africa in 1898, seeking a better climate for his health. He took up employment as Assistant Land-Surveyor in the Orange Free State, and a year later joined to Boer side in the Anglo-Boer War. During his time on commando with the Boer forces, he would often sketch portraits of farmers he encountered: “Boer figures, seen in their everyday sphere and environment, have always been of particular interest to him”, writes Van der Westhuysen (1952:11). In 1900 Mayer was captured by the British forces and interned at St. Helena, where he continued dedicating his free time to painting and sketching.
Mayer was repatriated to Germany in 1902, and decided to continue his art training there. In 1904 he moved to South West Africa, and continued travelling to Germany between 1904 and 1911 to take drawing and painting courses in both Karlsruhe and Stuttgart. He returned to South Africa in 1911, settling in Potchefstroom. During his time there he earned his living making illustrations for books and for the press, but did not cease working on his art – painting mostly in watercolour and sketching in pencil and charcoal.
During his “Potchefstroom period” Mayer befriended Pierneef and Wenning, who he regarded as close friends. By 1914 he had his first successful exhibition; however, later that year the First World War broke out and Mayer was interned for 21 months in Pietermaritzburg, which took a heavy toll on his health and affected his work for several years (Van der Westhuysen, 1952). In 1920, Mayer had an important exhibition in Stellenbosch, and he decided to move to Johannesburg in 1921.
Erich Mayer’s marriage in 1928 to Margaretha Gutter was followed by a caravan trip around South Africa, recording scenes of everyday life and allowing him “to study the country, its people, and its features closely” (Van der Westhuysen, 1952:9). The couple moved to Pretoria in 1931, starting a weaving and spinning school in 1933. Whereas previously he had worked mainly in watercolour, Mayer started working in oils and also on a larger scale while in Pretoria – completing a few large murals in the Johannesburg Main Post Office and the Monument High School in Krugersdorp (Van der Westhuysen, 1952).
Mayer decided to further his studies and moved to Florence, Italy for a year in 1935, studying under Chini and Annigonni. Upon his return he exhibited around the country. Erich Mayer was awarded a Medal of Honour for Painting by the ‘Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie’ in 1943.
Esmé Berman (1996:280) notes that, “The work of Erich Mayer furnishes a fairly comprehensive record of rural SA life and scenery during the first half of the 20th Century.”
Van der Westhuysen (1952:11) writes of Mayer’s work: “Seldom has his subjective vision or perception led him to evading the usual form of things, for the direct visual element has always been decisive with him. Because of that his work throughout has adopted such an intense South African character.”
Erich Mayer died in Pretoria in 1960. In 1962 his work was included in an exhibition titled ‘Art in South West Africa’ at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town and in 1972 at the Prestige Retrospective Exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum.
Berman, E. (1996), Art and Artists of South Africa, Southern Book Publishers: Western Cape, 279-280.
Ogilvie, G. (1988), The Dictionary of South African Painters and Sculptors, Everard Read: Johannesburg.
Van der Westhuysen, H.M.(1952), Erich Mayer Album, H.A.U.M – J.H. De Bussy: Cape Town.