Dusty Miller: A Work Of Art In Bulawayo

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LOOKING back on a recent visit to Bulawayo, it is hard to imagine how prices have so drastically changed in under a fortnight and between there and the capital city, Harare.

 

I am fond of the Gallery Café in the National Gallery in Harare, run superbly by Nomsa Gwataringa and I suppose, for comparison purposes, I should have gone there before penning this article.

Because at the delightful Art Grove Coffee Shop at Bulawayo’s National Art Gallery in Douslin House, breakfast was $2,9 billion, when a week later at a Harare club it was an outrageous $22 billion, plus tea or coffee: $2 billion a cup. If you didn’t want the Art Grove “full English”-style breakfast, egg-and-bacon roll which looked very substantial was $1,4 billion and wholemeal toast, butter and preserves were $450 million.

I had stupendous breakfasts at Bulawayo’s Rainbow Hotel and the second city’s Holiday Inn, at Ascot at what was, presumably a then controlled price of $10,2 billion, it is too much of a coincidence to think both organisations’ costings worked out at exactly this odd figure.

The local club’s $22 billion by the way is for a one-plater. The Bulawayo hotels’ figure covered imported and local cereals, fresh, tinned and dried fruit, fruit juices, eggs: fried, poached, boiled or whatever (I usually have a Spanish omelette when staying in hotels), bacon (crispy or soft), beef and pork sausages, boerewors, baked beans, grilled tomatoes, sautéed potatoes; toast, butter and sweet or savoury spreads, pastries, scones, etc and unlimited tea or coffee.

Getting back to Art Grove, owned and run in a commendable hands-on fashion by the amiable John Daines, once general manager of the city’s incomparable Nesbitt Castle luxury hotel, Mrs Val Bell, the hardworking bosslady of Bulawayo Publicity Association and I shared a very generous olives-and-feta-packed Greek salad ($2billion: a warm sesame chicken salad cost the same).

Oven-baked lasagna: piping hot pasta, meaty minced-steak in a delightfully creamy béchamel sauce was $2 billion a head, and came in a deep bowl splendidly presented and served at either outdoor or semi al-fresco tables at the rear of the gallery.

The coffee shop was pleasingly full with people popping in and out, grabbing a light lunch (from $1,9 billion {pasta} to $2,2 billion: chicken and herb pie with chips, fillet steak roll, cheese burger with chips); or Thai or tandoori-style snacks ($1,4 billion- $1,6 billion.).

Val and I declined sweets ($600 million, scones or muffins, to $1,6 billion for waffle and ice-cream with lemon cheesecake or ice-cream sundae, $1,4 billion.) But I enjoyed two pots of tea at $400 million each, with rich home-made biscotti in the unlicensed establishment and Val had a cappuccino at $550 million.

After a leisurely lunch we strolled through the impressive two-storey art gallery in the historic Douslin Building at the junction of Main Street and Selborne Avenue.

William Douslin was the talented architect of what opened in 1901 and operated until 1956 as Willoughby’s Building (after Sir John Willoughby of Willoughby’s Consolidated Company (1894) Ltd), then Asbestos House (1957-1979). Full of history, Rudyard Kipling occupied rooms there and it is thought that some of the offices were occupied by men who went off to fight in the Anglo-Boer war and never returned.

In 1952, half-a-century after that terrible war ended, rooms were unlocked and weapons of a Boer War vintage were discovered. Trunk locks were forced and personal possessions and many valuable and beautiful books found. It is thought these absentee tenants may have fought, and presumably died, with Willoughby’s Horse, a private cavalry unit raised and paid for by Sir John.

Douslin House was built by George Harker (who killed himself on January 26, 1901 after going bankrupt on the contract) on foundations only six inches deep, as the cost of cement was prohibitive. Instead, granite blocks were sunk into the limestone. Some can be seen in the light, airy central courtyard—between the two archetypically Colonial Victorian wings –– close to the coffee shop.

The imposing principal entrance in Main Street features a portico decorated with beautiful moulded cornices, pillars and an impressive pressed metal ceiling. Doors have elaborate brass handles and fingerplates. The entrance hall is similarly decorated. There is a magnificent stairway to the first floor with newel and bannister posts in Burma teak and walnut, the newels being beautifully carved.

Skirtings throughout the building are generously proportioned and rooms also have decorative moulded cornices, interior doors are also in Burma teak. Ornate cast iron framework and upright posts of the verandah and balcony (rather like Store Bros building in Harare) were imported from MacFarlane Bros of Glasgow.

Floors are of suspended strip boards. All woodworks were cut, shaped and finished locally from rough timber which was imported much cheaper than finished products. Outside the building, railings for tethering horses securely can still be seen.

Art Grove Coffee Shop is a splendid restaurant in a grand building full of history (which was bought by the National Gallery committee in 1980 for $60 000!)…oh.. and some of the paintings and sculptures are worth a second look!

dustym@zimind.co.zw

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