THEN & NOW: Echoes in the corridors of healing

By Duncan Guy Time of article published Feb 12, 2020

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Durban - Sad sights they may be, but photographer and author Hugh Bland recognises the artistic beauty in the fraying elegance of decayed buildings. Lack of maintenance, abandonment, vandalism and pillaging leave a trail of sadness that he captures in his lens.

His latest work is a soon-to-be-launched book about the Addington Children’s Hospital and Nurses’ Home - now under renovation after closing in 1984 - that caught his eye one day while taking photographs in the Point area.

It documents the peeling paint and the remains of child-friendly paintings themed on nursery rhymes, plaques naming community sponsors and references to the tragedies of World War 1, along with statues and sculptures.

It also tells the story of the hospital’s revival as the KZN Children’s Hospital, which is a work in progress that still needs an estimated further R430million. Bland has offered R20 from the sale of every copy of his book to the KZN Children’s Hospital Trust.

Addington Children’s Hospital and Nurses’ Home is Bland’s second book, after The Trappist Missions. Both are strong in imagery.

He also started both projects in much the same way, stumbling across their topics. His first was after he came across a mission station by chance.

His interest in the hospital was triggered when he noticed the gate into the closed-up ruin was open.

“I often went to the Point to photograph the buildings. I would pass the hospital all the time. It was an iconic building, so I often wondered about it,” he recalled to the Independent on Saturday.

“One day I noticed the gate was open, so I snuck inside. There were doors open. It was like walking into a time warp.

“There was peeling paint, water dripping through holes in the roof. I wasn’t supposed to be there but I just walked in and I just thought: ‘Oh my word, look at all that art!’”

His first visit was not successful.

“I heard a security guard coming and made a hasty retreat, but I thought - I have got to go back.”

Later a building supervisor he knew reluctantly let him in.

In 2014, he had easier access when the building was opened to the public during the International Union of Architects conference.

The assignment also took him to the Mary Stainbank Memorial Gallery in Yellowwood Park, where he came across designs of statues and other relics she had made that were linked to the hospital.

Her friend, Florence Wilgeford Agnes Vann-Hall, joined her in adorning the hospital. “Wilgie’s” mark was 52 stained glass windows.

Only nine remain. Among them, one tells the rhyme about what little boys and girls are made of.

Bland writes: “The artwork in the isolation wards is the piece de resistance in the old hospital. The artwork was done with the children in mind and to create a fantasy world.

“The children’s thoughts during their waking moments must have absorbed the colour and fantasy around them, created by some very talented artists.

“The infected children had much to remind them of the tales back home.

“Parents visiting their children must have been somewhat comforted by the ‘fairytales in glass’ and would have enjoyed using them to distract children from their afflictions.”

Driven by councillor Amelia Mary Siedle - mother of Durban’s “Lady in White”, Perla Siedle Gibson - much of the fundraising was done through people sponsoring costs.

Names still relevant to today’s Durban are on ceramic plaques: readers of The Idler newspaper column, Durban Girls’ College, and JML and Marie Baumann, who owned Baker’s Biscuits.

Investigating the stories behind one such plaque took Bland to the Durban Jewish Club, hoping to find out more about a benefactor named Adolph Isidore Stiller. While making his inquiries, someone in earshot replied: “I’m Vivienne Stiller” and told Bland that Adolph Stiller had “sold merchandise in Natal, specialising in superior serge and suiting”.

Addington Children’s Hospital and Nurses’ Home sells for R700, plus postage, from the author at email [email protected]

The Independent on Saturday

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