A Glebites’ link to legacy of South African artist

Louis J. Cabri, Glebe resident and author of De Meillon’s Legacy: Art, Science and War  
Photo: N. Nankivell

By Neville Nankivell

As a retired mineralogist, long-time Glebe resident Louis J. Cabri can look back on the many awards for his research and fieldwork. But just as gratifying is his recent work on a just-published, richly illustrated book about his wife Mimi’s remarkable South African family, the De Meillons. Over two centuries, its members have contributed notably to the arts, science and medicine in that country and beyond.

Mimi Cabri, sculptor and fourth-generation descendant of the South African artist 
HC De Meillon Photo: David Barbour

Mimi is a fourth-generation De Meillon and an acclaimed Canadian ceramic artist. Louis, whose family descends from Dutch Huguenots, is known for his pioneering work on precious metals and even has a mineral named after him – cabriite. Louis and Mimi came to Canada from South Africa in 1959 as a young married couple and have lived in the Glebe since 1966.

Louis is co-author of the handsome book De Meillon’s Legacy: Art, Science and War. It’s the result of exhaustive research with his co-writer Roger W. James, a South African pathologist with an interest in genealogy and South African history. He practises in Cape Town and is a fifth-generation De Meillon descendant.

Their story starts with the family patriarch, the English-born Henry Clifford De Meillon, who went to South Africa in 1823 as a young man on a British Navy survey ship and stayed after he fell ill and was discharged. After recovering, he earned a living in Cape Town painting portraits, buildings and landscapes and became one of the country’s most significant artists of the early 19th century.

Several of his stunning Cape Town scenes, some of them part of a collection bought by the government, are reproduced in the book along with other watercolours and sketches of South African wildflowers. It is his renderings of Cape Town for which he is best noted, of its people, sites, gardens, wide streets and ocean views. The city’s iconic Table Mountain, flat-topped and 1,000 metres high, is often in the background.

De Meillon’s finely detailed paintings of Bechuana leaders, Malays, Mfengu and other members of Cape Town’s local and military population in the 1820s and 1830s are important historical records of a society undergoing profound change. At the time, slavery was coming to an end and Islam was an increasingly powerful force in the largely Christian region.

Tracking down the genealogy of the De Meillon family wasn’t easy. The authors wrote that errors littered the landscape and careful, educated guesses were needed when key facts remained unavailable. Their research also uncovered previously unpublished works by the artist. H.C. De Meillon’s mother, Anna Sophia Watts, was born in London, but the authors couldn’t find the birthplace of his father. There’s speculation he had come to England to escape the French revolution or with his family earlier as Huguenot refugees or maybe was a Swiss army officer called de Meuron.

Mimi’s father was the third-generation Schalk Jacobus Botha De Meillon (he went by his third forename), an eminent South African entomologist who died in 2000 at age 98. Mimi was his eldest daughter, and the baptismal gown worn by her father was used for her own eldest daughter’s 1963 baptism at St. Patrick’s Church in Montreal and later for her youngest daughter in Belgium and two granddaughters in Ottawa. For the past 100 years, it has been used for christenings of many other De Meillon family members, quite a legacy in its own right.

The Johannesburg-born Mimi (Mignon) was a fine athlete at her school Parktown Convent – netball, field hockey, tennis and swimming – and went on to study at the Johannesburg School of Art with an emphasis on drawing and ceramics. When she and Louis immigrated to Canada, she worked as a commercial artist in Montreal and began to experiment at night in her kitchen with clay while her husband worked at McGill University. This eventually led to colourful clay creations that included life-size figurative sculptures and avian themes. When they moved to Ottawa, she set up her own basement studio where occasional kiln explosions shattered her work and damaged wiring and walls.

“Nothing has such ‘go’ or the urgency of clay,” she has said. “I have spent most of my life working with it in my studio at home in Ottawa.” Her works have been widely exhibited in Canadian galleries and in the U.S. The artistic genes of the De Meillon patriarch have been carried on in the Cabris’ children, with a son who is a writer and poet, a daughter teaching ballet and another daughter who is an artist in Paris.

Louis, a graduate of the Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University and McGill, dedicated his co-authorship of the De Meillon book to Mimi with admiration for her personal and artistic qualities. “Trying to solve many of the mysteries of her family’s ancestors has been challenging and rewarding,” he wrote, “discovering the greatness of individual achievements as well as the fickleness of human nature.”

In 2016-17, long-time Glebe resident Neville Nankivell and his wife Peggy spent a memorable three weeks in South Africa over Christmas and the New Year period, mostly in the Cape Town region and often in sight of the landmark Table Mountain that is the backdrop for many of HC De Meillon’s paintings. They have been frequent contributors to the Glebe Report.

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