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The Old Officer's Mess

The building which became the Walter Battiss Art Museum on 24th October 1981 dates from 1815, when Lord Charles Somerset, Governor of the Cape, had a farm set up to provide crops and fodder for British troops on the frontier in the area known as Agterbruintjieshoogte. An officer’s mess was built, beginning with a simple single storied building, which was later extended. Eventually, Somerset Farm was closed; the town of Somerset was declared a Drosdty, divided into erven, and put up for public auction in September 1825.

Through the years there were several owners of the property which included the Old Officer’s Mess. In 1906 a local farmer, Mr Sawtell bought it, and it remained in the Sawtell family until 1975. The Victorian veranda and the cast iron fence were both added by the Sawtells. The building was rented from the Sawtells by various people through the years, and between 1914 and 1917, the Battiss family hired it, and ran it as the Battiss Private Hotel. Walter lived in the building from age 8 until age 11; after this the family moved to the Free State.

In 1975 Somerset East celebrated the town’s 150th anniversary, and one of the people who came for this occasion was Walter Battiss. Meanwhile, in 1974, two of the town’s mayors, Dr J C Vosloo and Mr Ben Erasmus saved the building from demolition; and took transfer from Mabel Alice Sawtell. An endorsement to the transfer states that the building was proclaimed a National Monument. These two far-sighted and generous gentlemen were involved in the process of organising that Professor Walter Battiss would make paintings available when the building was opened as the Walter Battiss Art Museum on 24th October 1981. It fell under the aegis of the Provincial Museums Department.

Owing to a number of different reasons; but notably the lack of adequate funds to address progressive structural problems and to maintain the building; serious problems began to manifest themselves. An article printed in the Sunday Times in February 1999 was headlined “SHRINE TO DECAY. Warning: A visit to the Walter Battiss Art Gallery may be hazardous to your safety.” There was widespread negative comment about the state of the building in regional and national media.

Inspection by architects revealed that the rear wall of a lean to was severely deformed, and most of the back wall needed to be rebuilt

The Museum was closed to the public at the end of 1999, and funding was sourced from DSRAC, and the National Lottery, and extensive renovations were undertaken. The veranda flooring was replaced, and new lattice work built. The original staircase was felt to be unsafe; and was replaced by a new one at the other end of the building.

In November 2004, the Museum was reopened to the public.

* It should be noted that the Museum is now managed by the Walter Battiss Foundation, a Non-Profit organisation. The Foundation exists on donations and entry fees, and ongoing maintenance is required. Please feel free to contact us should you want to donate to the Foundation;

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