Helen Martins was born and lived in the remote village of Nieu Bethesda, in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. Following the deaths of her parents, for whom she had been caring, she devoted the remaining thirty years of her life to filling her house and garden with sculptures and paintings. When threatened by blindness, she committed suicide in 1976. The Martins house is now a museum, its “Outsider Art” (“Art Brut”) attracting thousands of visitors annually. Virtually all the sculptures in Helen’s house and yard were created by others, under her direction. The last and most successful of her assistants was Koos Malgas, whose previous experience in the building trade enabled him to re-create in cement the images she showed him, from books, post-cards, and her own sketches.
Helen took up several themes in the art-works she vicariously created. The Bible was a frequent source of inspiration, as was Edward Fitzgerald’s 19th-century translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Another influence, often noted in connection with Helen’s creations but never explored before, is that of William Blake. In Helen Martins’ yard there are three copies in cement of Blake’s images. Two are from “For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise” (1818) ; the third is a detail from illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost (1808). In this paper I hope to look into the significance of the Blake images in Nieu Bethesda, and to suggest why they were meaningful to Helen Martins.
Eugenie Freed, who taught for many years at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, has published on medieval and Renaissance topics as well as William Blake. Her monograph A Portion of His Life: William Blake’s Miltonic Vision of Woman appeared in 1994.