Emily Fern was an important figure in the Johannesburg art world for nearly fifty years. While still very young she was taught to paint in oils by a nun at the End Street Convent after her parents settled nearby in 1890. She was one of the first students at the Johannesburg School of Art, and as such became a member of the Johannesburg Sketch Club in 1916. She was an associate of the painter J.H. Amshewitz (1882–1942) at this time. As an energetic and enthusiastic female member of a number of emergent art societies in South Africa, including the Cape-based South African Society of Artists (SASA) founded in 1902, she also engaged herself in craft activities. This included the making of items in leather, pewter and brass repoussé. At the same time she gave art lessons at the Protea Studio in Market Street, Johannesburg.
From 1920 to 1922 she studied at the Slade School of Art in London, returning to South Africa to travel on sketching trips to Natal and the Cape. From 1926 to 1930 she taught painting at the Wits Technical College Art School. A major shift in her painting style occurred when she returned yet again to study, this time in Paris under Andre Lhote, whose Cubist-influenced figurative style influenced a whole generation of painters. Two works by Fern in the Campbell Smith Collection, Zulu maiden (plate 76) and Zulu woman with earplugs (plate 74) reveals her in ‘native study’ mode, but her Portrait of a young man (plate 75) is an attempt at painting an urbanised black man in a suit and tie. These works are sensitive portrayals of their subject that attempt to reveal something of their psychological presence rather than merely rendering them as racial stereotypes.
Born Ballarat, Victoria, Australia, 1881; died Johannesburg, 1953. Training 1901: Port Elizabeth School of Art under H.C. Leslie. 1904-1916: Studies under George Smithard and at the Johannesburg School of Art and under J. H. Amshewitz. 1920-1922: Slade School, London, under Henry Tonks. 1933/1949: André Lhote Academy, Paris. Exhibitions 1920-1950: Exhibited on almost every SA Academy Exhibition. 1924: SA Society of Artists 23rd Annual Exhibition, Drill Hall, Darling Street, Cape Town. 1925: Solo exhibition, Johannesburg. 1936: Empire Exhibition<, Johannesburg. 1952: Van Riebeeck Tercentenary Exhibition, Cape Town. 1965: Memorial Exhibition, Klynsmith Gallery, Johannesburg. Collections Iziko SA National Gallery, Cape Town; Ann Bryant Gallery, East London; Museum Afrika, Johannesburg.