The collection of paintings covers the history of aviation in South Africa from 1917 to about 1976, and at the same time reflects some of the many changes that have taken place within Port Elizabeth and the Eastern Cape, a region important in the history of aviation in the sub-continent.
The 154 paintings and a number of drawings were published by Struikhof Publishers in 1989 in “A Portrait of Military Aviation in South Africa” by Ron Belling, who was both author and artist.
The collection is now preserved by Gutsche Family Investments as part of the cultural heritage of this city.
The paintings were the result of many years of research, extensive photographic recording, field sketching and flying with the South African Air Force by the artist. Throughout this time, he continued to develop and refine the skills he required to work in this specialised field of painting, and the collection reflects this.
His challenge was to combine the difficult and divergent aspects of accurate historical representation, landscape, townscape, and seascape painting, the accurate portrayal of the drama of the weather, and then combine all these with technically exact illustrations of the aircraft, both past and present.
Despite the technical demands of his subjects, Ron Belling was ever conscious of the overall artistic constraints of the overall artist constraints of aesthetics and compositional requirements in his pictures. Every aircraft is illustrated with exact engineering detail, serial and identification markings, and colour accuracy.
This information was a fundamental historical requirement in every painting and, in the course of his wide ranging research, he became a leading international authority on aeronautics. His records, library, writings and supporting research material bear eloquent testimony to his professionalism.
Ron Belling was a modest person of many talents and with an almost obsessive interest in aeronautics which had started as a hobby when he was a young boy. With maturity, his knowledge expanded and he became both an authority and a painter with a driving passion.
Herbert McWilliams, a leading Port Elizabeth architect, serving on the board of the King George VI Art Gallery in 1972, was engaged in the development of the gallery together with Ron Belling, who was Port Elizabeth Architectural Development Officer, and with myself as director of the gallery.
He was quick to recognise Ron’s creative contribution, and particularly the relationship that he built between the board, the City Engineer and the Council, who were ultimately responsible for the project.
McWilliams recognised Ron’s artistic ability, “He really knows how to paint ships. They sit in the water not on it, like ducks, and he knows how to draw.” This was sincere commendation as he had been a naval war artist of renown in the 1939-45 war and was a master of his craft.
The collection of paintings in Ron’s studio after his death revealed that, apart from aircraft, he had been painting ships, particularly large passenger liners, from the early 1950s until the late 1990s. Some of the early examples were tentative and exploratory as is usually the case with a young artist, but they were consistently outstanding from about the early 1960s when he had mastered his technique and was painting with confidence.
In his later works, the ships, aircraft, seas and atmospheric effects are often breathtaking in their perception and technical expertise.
He had an astonishing understanding of aircraft and ships, and he committed much of this information to diaries and notebooks, but not to a computer. The books he planned were still only in basic outline when he died.
He was modest with his knowledge; he had absorbed it gradually over a lifetime and, for most acquaintances, he was just an easy going and charming Port Elizabethan, no different from the man next door.
But for those who knew him, he was very different. He was an artist, a researcher and a worker, driven by a vision and dedication that had no boundaries or limits.
In the early 1970s, Port Elizabeth underwent dramatic changes. Old South End was being ruthlessly destroyed, and the new freeway was eating into the heart of the commercial centre of the old city. The destruction within this rapidly changing urban environment that he knew so well was a source of increasing concern and he was outspoken and critical of the heritage that was being lost in this process.
His valued contribution to the conservation of old buildings in the city was demonstrated in the development of the art facility at the King George VI Art Gallery and the Eastern Province Society of Arts and Crafts, and to many improvements• which he influenced in the larger city environment. his has never been fully recognised.
In the early 1970s, he painted townscapes of the city, particularly South End, where massive demolitions were taking place.
These paintings, and the large series of photographs that he took at the time were the only way he could preserve for posterity that which was disappearing day by day.
But it was not until the early 1980s that he began painting aircraft with the old city and its buildings as a background to illustrate the book he was to publish nine years later.
One of the first large format aircraft paintings he completed, and not one with any association with Port Elizabeth, was of the ME262, the rare German jet nightfighter in the collection of the South African Museum of Military History in Johannesburg.
He had researched international records to determine its original colour patterns and markings, and in 1974 he personally supervised the repainting of the aircraft at the museum in authentic detail.
This early painting shows the original colour scheme and intricate patterning. In an air-brush technique he was later to change, it was outstanding for the detailed information that it contained, but unfortunately the colour has faded because the art materials he was experimenting with at that time were unstable. Subsequently he changed his materials and modified his technique so that he could return to the conventional brush and oil-paint method of painting.
Ron Belling was born on March 26, 1933, in East London and died at his home in Walmer, Port Elizabeth, on July 6, 1998.
He was the eldest of a family of two sisters and a brother. His father, who was a customs officer, initially stimulated his interest in ships and aircraft.
Before he went to Selborne College Primary, they visited the East London Aerodrome on most weekends to watch the Hawker Hartbees light bombers in training or would go down to the harbour to see the most recent liner or merchantman calling at the port.
As a small boy, he was already captivated by the power and speed of aircraft, as well as the magnitude of the huge ships that he saw. This interest never changed. Later when he combined his developing powers of observation with a natural ability to sketch, a lifelong passion began.
After his death, a few of his early childhood drawings were found, and though some are undated, they reflect artistic talent and observational skills which were well in advance of his years.
In 1942, Ron’s father was transferred to Port Elizabeth, but for a while the family alternated between the two cities so home life was disruptive.
These were the war years, and life for many was difficult, but at last they settled in lower Walmer near the aerodrome.
As Ron said, “What more could I have asked for? At any time there were hundreds of aircraft at the base.”
After leaving Selborne College in East London, he went to Walmer Primary School, where Mrs Marion Rous, his class teacher, encouraged him in art, and at home, his mother and grandmother ensured that he had the space and encouragement to carry on with what interested him.
Ron’s father cooled somewhat towards this youthful passion. He felt rather that Ron should have “more practical interests, even something associated with the sea.” This is a familiar story. Children seldom do what their parents expect. But despite this, his pattern of interest in ships and planes was retained and supported, and he remembered fondly how, with his father, and sometimes with his brother or cousins, they would often stand on “Scotsman’s Hill”, the 8 small mound overlooking the airfield, and watch the planes landing and taking off.
As a boy, he began keeping records of serial numbers and details of colours and markings on planes, and they are today important to historians researching the fighting aircraft of the last war, when few records were kept. These diaries are preserved in the Ron Belling Trust.
Ron remained at Walmer Primary until Standard Six then moved to the Port Elizabeth Technical College in Russell Road. His future was determined. He took Technical Drawing and Design for the next four years until he obtained his Senior Technical Certificate.
“From an early age,” he related, “I was conscious of the mellow architecture of the city as a backdrop to the many thousands of servicemen, ships and aircraft that were there at that time.”
This was the germ for the project which years later was to command such a major part of his creative life.
He talked about the war years and how difficult it was for ordinary families just to make ends meet.
“Of course life was not easy, Walmer had no water or sewerage, and there were food restrictions, but this was a city which, by the grace of God, did not have to endure air raids and was playing its small part in fighting Fascism.”
The realities of war came to South Africa in 1942 when U-Boats sank 81 merchantmen along the coastline. There was an appalling loss of thousands of merchant seamen and civilians. Because of this, Port Elizabeth had a Ventura Maritime Bomber Squadron, No 25 squadron SAAF at Driftsands, and a Royal Netherlands Navy Unit, No 321 Squadron based at St Albans, flying PBY-5A Catalinas.
They were all used for anti-submarine patrols, coastal reconnaissance and defence. These intensive flying activities dominated Ron’s life, especially when Port Elizabeth became an operational fighter training base in 1941 and was extensively used by the Fleet Air Arm.
He recorded codes and serial numbers, took detailed notes of paintwork (which often had many subtle variations), and years after, when classified restrictions were lifted, he was able to illustrate and publish details of some of the many individual aircraft.
Overseas historians were fascinated when his book was published in 1989 and it soon sold out. How interesting it was that a boy was permitted into restricted areas on an air base and allowed to move around freely, examine aircraft, and make drawings. He must have been an engaging youngster for he was never turned away and made many friends at the training school. When he matured, he never lost this ability to make and keep friends.
After obtaining his technical certificate, Ron was first employed by Hubert Tanton as an architectural assistant.
He then joined the Port Elizabeth City Engineer’s Department, Architectural Division, in early 1960, and was eventually appointed Architectural Development Officer in 1973, a post he retained until he retired in 1994 at the age of 62.
Only after his retirement was he able to paint and write full time.
Ron met ballet-teacher Peggy Tait in 1960-61 when they travelled on the bus together. They were married in 1964. Their daughter, Catherine Francis, was born in 1965. Two years later, Robert Andrew was born. The family moved to their present home in 1965, and in 1970 he built the spacious studio in which he worked until a few weeks before he died.
Things were never easy as salaries were small. He just wished there had been more ready cash to spend on his family and on research and painting.
“Selling art did help,” he said, “but even then sales were not prolific, and materials were costly. There was not much profit in it, but it did help.”
Belling’s art in the early 1950s and 60s covered a wide spectrum of subjects, much of it landscape and architectural, and mostly in a free palette knife technique, but he also did many conventional brush and oil paintings, as well as pastels and water-colours.
When articled to architect Hubert Tanton, his colleague was active in promoting art as a member of the Eastern Province Society of Fine Arts and, with his support, Ron’s art as a hobby, and architecture as a profession, combined well.
When the war came to an end with less flying at the air base, he began compiling his records for future reference. Little did he know then how valuable they were to be. Eventually they became his source of reliable information for his paintings and also for his writing.
In the early 1960s, Ron painted ships, harbourscapes, townscapes, and landscapes. He experimented with different subjects, such as the Beethoven series, based on musical rhythms and abstract forms.
He also did a few paintings of elephants at Addo. They were well received and favourably reviewed in his first one-man exhibition in the Eastern Province Society of Fine Arts hall in January 1964.
At this exhibition he showed 65 oils and a few pastels. From records, which may not be complete, he sold 32. By any measure this is successful for a first exhibition.
These early paintings were mostly in oils with a more liberal palette knife impasto technique that he was developing during this period.
This was also an experimental time for him; he was trying to find an individual style technique and an approach to painting that suited what he was trying to express.
In 1965 he held his second exhibition, also in the Arts Hall. This time he exhibited 41 oils. Maurice Weightman, the critic and also a fine artist, said he “could easily, I think, become a painter to watch, because his vision has the ability to see surprising things in ordinary scenes and objects. His brushwork is already remarkably finished in his more imaginative subjects.”
Most of the paintings from this show were sold.
In September 1966, he held his third exhibition of 47 paintings, again in the Arts Hall. Thirty-one paintings were sold and very favourable comments were made in the press.
This time there were more abstract subjects with titles such as “Phlegmatic”, “Sanguine”, “Choleric” and “Melancholic”. His palette knife style, using a guitar plectrum for better control, was playing an important role in the abstract forms he was using with confidence.
Belling was becoming better known. He was still concentrating on East Cape, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth landscape and townscape subjects. In May 1967 his 4th Exhibition of 47 new paintings opened with art critic Maurice Wilson heading his review with, “Paintings set Arts Hall aglow.”
His fifth exhibition was held in February 1969 with 47 works. One of the critics (A.J.B) felt that he had not found what could be termed a “Belling stamp”, for his subject matter and his style and techniques were so varied.
In an interview, Belling referred to a group of 10 abstract paintings in this exhibition which were based upon aircraft parts and aircraft remains found in a dump and which he hoped “will be the beginnings of a long process of artistic evolution,” but he did not pursue this in any of the paintings that followed.
Critics were positive about his work and artistic development, and his sales were good, but as the highest price was R 40 and the rest were mostly in the late R20s. He was not making much profit from his efforts, but he was gaining from experience and took note of positive criticism where it mattered.
All this time his interest in painting aircraft and ships never waned.
He began building up a reserve collection of finished paintings which never came onto exhibitions.
No 118 Supermarine Spitfire IX over Langebaan Lagoon Circa 1953, painted in 1955, was one of these. It was one of his first major finished aircraft paintings, and an early example of more to come. This painting is not part of the Gutsche Family Investments collection, as it was given to his son, Robert, many years ago.
His first serious marine studies date from 1950, but it is uncertain when he first decided to illustrate a book on ships. Indications are that it was in the late 1980s, about the same time he was working on his book on military aviation in South Africa.
With an increasing awareness of his ability as an artist, and because of his depth of technical knowledge of aircraft, “Wings, The Aviation News Magazine of Africa” commissioned Belling to paint several covers from 1975 to 1978.
These regularly featured illustrations received wide acclaim and brought his name and abilities to the notice of the international community. He had been a correspondent of this magazine for some time, having submitted well researched articles with illustrations and photographs. With the publication of his covers, his reputation was firmly established.
Many of his early detailed illustrations were highly finished technical drawings of aircraft in which he used air-brush and coloured inks and or water colours. They were quite different from the covers where his subjects were treated in a more illustrative and painterly manner.
A combination of these two styles was the detailed precursor for those which followed and formed the body of his book, “A Portrait of Military Aviation in South Africa.”
However, he soon gave up the air-brush in favour of the brush and oils, believing, as he explained, “The air-brush is sometimes easier but rather like cheating. You can achieve a lot more with the brush if you work at it - the results are so much better.”
Mastering his technique took time, but his results improved rapidly. His pattern of working was consistent and methodical. He always did a preliminary drawing or sketch from field sketches, photographs and research material. Then he prepared a careful and detailed full size pencil lay out on the canvas or board, which was primed and white. Any corrections to perspective and technical details were made at this stage.
Next he painted the planes or ships in considerable detail, but they were not finished. He often left the edges to the last, then followed the sky and backgrounds.
Most difficult of all were the restless and ever changing seas. They needed to be kept fluid and alive. Some of his early attempts at seas were not to his satisfaction. He was better with skies and landscapes. Soon, however, he was master of them all, even the restless and sometimes violent seas that were technically so difficult to paint convincingly.
By the early 1980s, he was a confident artist fully in command of any subject he wished to paint.
Belling’s reputation and stature as an aeronautical artist grew, and he was perhaps better known internationally than at home. Few were aware that he was also a highly accomplished marine artist. The reason for this was that he did not exhibit these paintings, and showed them to only a few of his friends who might give him helpful advice.
His special fascination was the magnificent passenger liners that frequented the coast of South Africa long before modern jet travel took over the travel market. At the time of his death, he had completed over 100 accomplished oils, mostly of now long-gone monarchs of the sea which he had seen when they visited our shores. He had also prepared a sketchy draft of the text for a book which he eventually intended publishing as he had done with his aircraft paintings.
There is a special magic and appeal in these paintings. Here he combines the daunting elements of sea, sky and the drama of weather with some of the finest ships ever built, and the collection establishes him as a modern master in this field alone. Ron Belling had found his stamp as the critics predicted.
With the escalation of the Border War in South West Africa, (now Namibia) in 1975-76 during the apartheid years, it was felt by art historians that contemporary military activities should also be recorded as part of our visual arts history.
Thomas Baines (1820-1875) had done this in the 19th century with the Border Wars on the Eastern Frontier of the Cape Province. He was probably this country’s first artist to record military activities. Frans Oerder (1867 - 1944), recorded field activities of the Boer forces in the Transvaal during the Anglo Boer War of 1899 -1902.
Events and activities were already being recorded by official and press photographers on the “Border”, but some of the museum art directors felt this should also be done by talented amateur and professional artists serving with the South African Defence Force. The emphasis should be on artistic quality and not only work done as a record.
A similar policy had been followed in Britain during and after the First World War, and again during the Second World War, by contemporary British artists such as John Piper, John and Paul Nash, Henry Moore, Stanley Spencer, Ronald Searle, Muirhead Bone, E JI Ardizzone, A Gross, E Ravilious, E Bawden and many others.
In South Africa during the Second World War, there were a number of “active service” artists such as Neville Lewis, Geoffrey Long, Francois Krige, Philip Bawcombe, Terence McCaw, Ben Burrage, and Herbert McWilliams. Even civilian artists such as Nils Andersen, Dorothy Kay, and Alexis Preller, who had no military experience, were asked to participate in a war art programme.
In 1977 Ron Belling was the first contemporary South African “Official Military Artist” to be appointed since the last war by the recently formed Military Art Advisory Board.
This board was a volunteer body composed of art directors from the leading South African art museu1ns as well as suitably qualified additional members invited to be advisors by the board. It was an apolitical body, independent of government or military pressures, and Belling’s specific appointment was to cover the South African Air Force.
In 1977 he completed about 36 paintings, with many covering the operational areas of Namibia. At this time, he was the Architectural Forward Planning Officer of the Port Elizabeth City Engineer’s Department with a heavy work load. Despite this, during his service with the board, he produced more than 40 large paintings which are today in Air Force buildings and in the official collection of the South African Museum of Military History.
An important aspect of this appointment was, that as a volunteer officer in the Air Force he was given the opportunity to fly in a wide spectrum of aircraft, from vintage aircraft to the most modern supersonic jets. He also had access to coastal reconnaissance and transport aircraft, as well as helicopters.
Perhaps most significant for him was that many flights were under greatly varying climatic and atmospheric conditions and situations.
As an artist, he now had first-hand experience of light and cloud formations under differing weather conditions, and he was able to observe and record the effects of altitude and the angles of light falling on the topography of the regions over which he was flying.
His photographs, and the many sketches he kept for reference and use in his studio, will be preserved by the Ron Belling Memorial Art Trust.
He was given opportunities that few have experienced and he used them well. He went into the Border zone under combat conditions and used this experience to great benefit in his paintings of these troubled times.
With his mastering of painting technique and first-hand experience, and fuelled by his incredible drive and enthusiasm for modern aircraft, Belling also became an acknowledged expert in the use of camouflage in the field. Eventually he was appointed official advisor to the SAAF on colour and camouflage on combat aircraft.
The exhibition of “South Africa’s Contemporary War Art” which toured the leading galleries in this country in 1986 was a product of this programme, and Ron Belling’s work was included along with other official appointees such as L N Lindeque, VG Metcalf, PM Geraghty and CV Swart. Other works by previous war artists were also included in this exhibition, which was well received wherever it was shown.
Political isolation in the late 1980s led to embargoes and boycotts and, when at last his book was published, it was sold with limited publicity. Contact with other air forces had already become impossible, yet despite this, his reputation and professionalism were held in such high esteem that he was still able to exchange information and research detail, though this needed to be kept at a personal level.
He started painting and compiling information for his book in 1982-83, at a difficult time in South Africa’s history, when he really needed to communicate with those outside this country for specialist information and advice. He was forced to work largely on his own and in isolation. Many leading research and professional careers suffered, and great numbers of valuable people left the country as a result of the political pressures and cultural isolation.
After his death a survey of the contents of his studio was undertaken and it was astonishing to discover the amount of work that he had completed in his lifetime.
For a period in the late 1980s, records show he did a painting a day, amongst which were some of his most outstanding and detailed marine and aircraft compositions. How he managed this is a mystery. The sheer time-consuming labour of each of these paintings was enormous. Each and every painting was completed with care and attention and his devotion to his work was inspiring.
At the time of cataloguing the collection, we were ever conscious of what he had said when he was ill. “It is so unfair, so unfair. There is still so much to do. It is not completed.” He still had so much more to do and the three years of his retirement were too short.
He knew his life was drawing to a close. There was still the book on ships to be completed and the Junkers project on the history of this famous German aircraft company was well advanced. Most of the paintings were already completed.
The South End story of 19th and 20th century demolished suburban Port Elizabeth was still to be started from the vast amount of photographic and documentary material he had collected.
His proposed book on the changing face of Port Elizabeth needed to be worked out. He had already collected the photographs and the ideas were in his head.
In the sanctum of his studio, where only “the few” were invited, there are hundreds and hundreds of aircraft sketches, drawings, oil paintings, watercolours, detailed drawings of how aircraft were constructed, huge collections of photographs, descriptions, diaries, detailed records and colour details and samples.
There were references that run into thousands, a specialist library and all the preliminary drawings for many of the major paintings that were completed many of them long since gone into collections or sold. If this was not enough, there was almost the same amount of research and backup material for his marine paintings.
He also made scale models of aircraft to enable him to draw the correct perspective of planes in flight. These were not just rough models, but were highly finished and adapted to show modifications developed during the lifetime of a plane, with all the changes made to improve its speed and handling or its technical effectiveness as a weapon of war.
His family lived with his “almost obsessional dedication.”
They explained, “Nothing ever got in the way of his research and study of planes. Most of his spare time was spent on his art and research.”
Weekends were devoted to his art and we seldom if ever went on holiday. His devotion to what he was trying to accomplish was always his goal.”
“He was always forward planning, always saw where future problems lay and he almost always had a solution,” Robert said.
“His solutions were usually simple, practical and straightforward. Sometimes he would work until 2am. Then he would be up again early and off to work.”
“His escape from stress at the office was his painting and research. He could lose himself in creativity.”
He always had his studio refuge, a place where he could create his own fantastic world of pictures and beauty. It was in his studio that his boundaries as an artist and historian had no limits. It was here also that he was always being challenged. Yet at the same time it was where he felt happiest, most creative and secure.
His family respected his seclusion when he was working and gave him the opportunity to be creative. He had the dedication and they made the sacrifice to ensure that it happened.
These personal reminiscences as well as those that follow came from his family. They help to draw a more complete picture of Ron as a person and a creative artist. From childhood, Ron Belling was always a highly talented, motivated and dedicated creative individual.
He was also very much a family man, a kind and thoughtful friend, and a person who dealt with the wider public in a patient and gentle manner.
This was why he was liked and respected by his many friends and colleagues. However, he could also fight with determination for what he believed in, did not give in easily, and had little patience with those who lacked vision.
No matter how busy or pressured, he always had time for those who needed his advice, and he gave of himself unstintingly.
Ron became what he was because his family gave him the time and space to achieve what he wanted, appreciated what he was doing, and showed it.
This domestic encouragement is food for the creative personality. Ron often said how suppo1tive Peg was in all he was doing, and how proud he was of Robert and Catherine, his son and daughter.
Robert said “Dad was always here for us at home and I miss him terribly now he has gone. He always encouraged me, but was not interested in sports or meetings and those sorts of things.”
“He showed us how to do things that were worthwhile, but he was a perfectionist and often ended up by taking over what he was showing us and doing it himself - even when he was so ill!”
His family was his rock and they founded the memorial trust that now bears his name. He loved music and particularly the Romantics, Beethoven and Brahms being his favourites. He also enjoyed some of the modernists such as Karl Orff.
Robert remembered, “At one time he played Carmina Burana,” Orff’s popular cantata-like setting of medieval verse about drinking and love, “loudly and continuously whilst he painted, almost to the distraction of all of us.”
He was a good talker, a good listener, was informed and debated at length on subjects that interested him.
Always, however, his eye was on the priorities and demands of what he was doing and his goals. His free time was limited so he used it to the best advantage. He was a man with a mission and a vision who did not want to dissipate his limited creative resources.
In the last two years of his life he drew on all his past records and experience and with his finely honed technique and imagination, he endeavoured to produce what would regrettably be his last project, “The Junkers Connection”, a collection created under the enormous pressures of a terminal illness with frequent disruptions from surgery and therapy.
That it almost reached completion was a triumph of objectivity and personal dedication. Imaginatively the collection is a pictorial narrative which requires a linking text, but the flame that fed this had lost its strength and completion became an impossible ordeal.
Ron’s final struggle is all too evident in the last of these paintings. Historically the Junkers Company was vitally important in the development and design of aircraft internationally. Their influence is to be found in jet engines, turboprop engines, helicopters, conventional passenger and wide bodied aircraft, rocket design, the atomic bomb, and even the space programme that culminated in the landing of the first man on the moon.
Both in peace and war, Junkers was a leader in every aspect of aircraft design and innovation. This was to be a daunting project for Ron Belling, who had been thinking about it for years.
These paintings needed to be a historically accurate visual documentary of a period that was never adequately recorded by historians or artists, but they needed also to be an imaginative series that would transcend anything that he had done before.
Without his background in the history of aviation, these paintings could not have been possible as most of the aircraft in the paintings have long since disappeared. Some he never saw.
Even some of the settings in which they have been painted have changed or been destroyed. The collection is, as he termed it, “contemplative”.
The almost 50 paintings he completed portray one manufacturer those of the German Junkers concern, in relation to the evolution of aviation in the 20th century.
In the initial paintings of this series, Port Elizabeth plays an important role. The Junkers aircraft were operated by Union Airways which became South African Airways in 1934.
Though they were detailed and authentically accurate, Belling referred to the paintings as his “Revisionist historical art”, and he set the aircraft in situations where they were likely to be at that time and in situations where there were few photographic records.
All the time he was painting he was searching for supportive information and authentic visual background material to support what he was trying to represent. is requirements were so demanding that he even insisted on researching the correct serial numbers and n1arkings on each plane, and the seasonal colours of the background had to coincide also with the time and the situation.
Regrettably, this collection was terminated by his untimely death before it was possible to bring together the historical documentation which would chronicle one of the most interesting and, at times most savage, periods in aviation history.
As was his gentle and creative nature, he seldom fell into the popular dramatic pitfall of portraying aircraft in conflict, and one gained the impression that he was never really happy with the destructive potential of aircraft. Instead, he was preoccupied with the wonder of these man-made creations.
He called them “flying art, flying sculpture, flying science and engineering”, the marvels of modern man’s ingenuity that has turned the world on it’s head, made speed faster than sound and opened the heavens for exploration.
Strange to relate, he was never very keen on flying, and told of frightening G-forces. He was happier watching them than being in them. Flying was, however, absolutely essential if he was to understand them fully and capture the spirit of them in his art, so consequently he did a lot of flying but never became a pilot.
Ron Belling produced, as far as is known, 1640 paintings, of which over 500 are aviation subjects.
One hundred and fifty of these were published in 1989 in full colour in “A Portrait of Military Aviation in South Africa” and, with the exception of No 118 and No 130, this collection was purchased in its entirety by Gutsche Family Investments.
There is the official South African Air Force collection consisting of more than 40 artworks. These are now permanently housed in the South African Museum of Military History in Johannesburg and in SAAF establishments around South Africa.
His last collection consists of 50 oil paintings, which he felt represented some of his most important work, “The Junkers Connection”. He had hoped to publish this collection with all its significant background. There is some information with the completed pictures, but the text for the book remained with him when he died.
The maritime collection, which he also intended for publication, consists of more than 120 oils that have never been exhibited. There is also an outline for a book.
There were many commissions and even more were sold over the years, but the details of these still need to be researched.
He held six one-man shows in Port Elizabeth and a small show in Cleveland, USA where 32 of his paintings were sold. He also exhibited in group exhibitions at the Total Gallery in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
His paintings have been exhibited in all the major art galleries in South Africa with the Military Art Board exhibitions.
In his professional life as Architectural Development Officer with the Port Elizabeth City Engineers Department, he assisted with or was responsible for a great many major projects in Port Elizabeth.
Amongst these were the restoration and conversion of the City Hall after the fire and the development of the Market Square and the Feather Market Centre. The latter was his last major project and one where he was responsible for all aspects of design and acoustics as well as getting it completed on time and within a very limited budget.
There was the municipal abattoir which almost caused him to give up meat in his diet, the McArthur Bath and Complex, the King George VI Art Gallery and the Arts Hall, the Newton Park and Linton Grange libraries, major reconstruction works after the two floods in the city, beachfront development and much more. He was a great supporter of the greening of the city and the creation of open spaces.
In so many ways his contribution to Port Elizabeth life is immeasurable. Ron Belling was a courageous man who stood up for his views and was prepared to go out and bat for them. In his illness, he wished to fight alone and was uncomplaining. His condition was only discovered shortly after the small and highly successful exhibition in the Feather Market Centre in June, 1997.
This was arranged by Ivor Markman who was behind the move for the “Military Aviation” paintings to become part of Port Elizabeth’s heritage.
Ron returned from a major operation in Cape Town a few weeks later and within a day was back at work in his studio.
Until Easter 1998, he was producing an astonishing amount of work. By then he knew his illness was terminal and he was racing against time. Despite this, he worked on and was uncomplaining.
He never gave up. He was still dictating notes and struggling to express himself on a large canvas two days before he died. Even then he did not willingly stop. He was simply so weak he could carry on no longer.
A memorial trust has been established which will ensure that his work will be preserved and his research material used by historians and researchers in aeronautical art in the future.
Almost the last words that he said about his work, “It is not fair, it is not complete,” are so true. No, it was not fair. South Africa lost a great talent at the height of his creative powers.
“Time, time is what I need to do all the things I’d like to do!” - Ron Belling, March 1985