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Born: 1915 02 16
Died: 1979 06 25


Reg No: 1918
Year registered: 1958

BArch Distinction 1940 (Witwatersrand) BA Hon Distinction (Witwatersrand) PhD (London)

Heather Margaret Martienssen (nee BUSH) was born in Rondebosch, Cape, on the 16th February 1915, and was educated at the Pretoria High School for Girls and at the University of the Witwatersrand where she was awarded the degree of Bachelor of Architecture with distinction in 1940. She won the Gordon Leith Prize and attained a B.A. Honours degree in Fine Arts, also with distinction.

During her undergraduate years the most salient influence on her studies was the brilliant architect and lecturer, Rex Distin MARTIENSSEN; he introduced the International Style to South Africa and must have helped greatly to instill an abiding love of architecture into his young student. The two were married in 1937 and worked together in the Department of Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand where Rex had been a driving force since 1930. This collaboration was unhappily cut short with Rex's premature death from a heart attack in 1942. A widow at twenty-seven, Heather Martienssen did not allow bereavement to defeat her, but instead courageously faced the challenge of perpetuating her husband's work. She continued to lecture in the Department of Architecture until August 1946 when she was appointed lecturer responsible for all courses offered in the newly constituted Department of Fine Arts. She was to remain with the department — except for periods of overseas study — until she retired as professor emeritus in 1974.

Her contribution to the establishment and shaping of the department into one of the finest in the country cannot be overestimated. Something of the regard in which she was held is reflected in the fact that in 1957 she was appointed to the chair of Fine Arts, thus becoming the university's first woman professor. Throughout her teaching career she herself continued to study and to develop her insights. Her M.A. dissertation — 'Vernon Lee: Her Theory of Art in Relation to Her Practice as a Critic' — was followed by two years at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and a doctoral degree from the University of London for a thesis entitled 'The Architectural Theory and Practice of Sir William Chambers'.

Both as an art historian and a teacher Professor Martienssen recognised the importance of overseas travel, not only for the purpose of examining original works of art and architecture, but to keep up to date with teaching methods in Britain, Europe and the United States. In hearing her lecture or converse, one always felt that here was someone in vital touch with the world around her. Despite her scholarship and serious approach to her work, there was no ivory tower elitism about her. She inspired her students with dedication to their subject, and through her learning, sensitivity and active participation, had a profound influence on the promotion of the fine arts in South Africa. This influence is still palpable today in the department she built up; in the University of the Witwatersrand's collection of contemporary South African art which she originated; in her writings; and, not least, in the achievements of the many students who came within her ambit. The long list of eminent contributors to the Festschrift (Art and Articles, Balkema) presented to her by former students and colleagues in 1973 is some evidence of the esteem she enjoyed.

After her retirement from university teaching Professor Martienssen lived in Hereford, England, from where she was able to travel extensively on the Continent for her research. She died suddenly after a short illness on the 25th June 1979, still fruitfully working in her chosen field and still exhibiting in her unfinished manuscripts that keenness of perception and Catholicism of interest which informed all she did.

S.G. Kossick

Books citing MARTIENSSEN

Berman, Esmé. 1983. Art and artists of South Africa: An illustrated biographical dictionary and historical survey of painters, sculptors and graphic artists since 1875. Cape Town : Balkema. pp 276; 384; 462+ill; 508+ill

HSRC. 1987. Dictionary of South African Biography Volume V. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council. pp 493-494

ISAA. 1969. The Yearbook of the Institute of South African Architects and Chapter of SA Quantity Surveyors 1968-1969 : Die Jaarboek van die Instituut van Suid-Afrikaanse Argitekte en Tak van Suid-Afrikaanse Bourekenaars 1968-1969. Johannesburg: ISAA. pp 97, 145


Martienssen, Heather Margaret. 1949. An inquiry concerning the architectural theory and practice of Sir William Chambers, R.A.. London: University of London, Thesis (Ph. D.)

Martienssen, Heather & University of the Witwatersrand. 1960. Knowledge and the fine arts : inaugural lecture. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand

Bokhorst, Matthys & Martienssen, Heather. 1966. Suid-Afrikaanse kuns van die twintigste eeu. Twentieth century South African art.. Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau

Martienssen, Heather & Harmsen, Frieda. 1973. Art and articles: in honour of Heather Martienssen. Cape Town: A.A. Balkema

Martienssen, Heather. 1976. The shapes of structure. London ; New York: Oxford University Press

Martienssen, Heather & Kossick, SG. 1984. Insights : selected essays of Heather Martienssen. Craighall: Donker

Martienssen, Heather, Petherbridge, Deanna & Millinery Works (London). 2004. Cecily Sash. London: Millinery Works