The legacy of Dr Arthur David Bensusan was honoured with a blue plaque at his childhood home, 22 Oaklands Road, Orchards, on Sunday 15 September, by the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation.
Arthur David Bensusan, the second son of Dr Arthur Daniel Bensusan, a leading medical practitioner, and Grace Darling, a nursing sister at the Johannesburg General Hospital, was born on 13 June 1921 in the family home at 22 Oaklands Road in Orchards. He was commonly known as Kin.
His childhood was by all accounts idyllic – and he fondly remembers trips in his father’s Alvis car to explore and picnic in the neighbouring countryside, and sometimes beyond.
Kin, with father Arthur and mother Grace with their Alvis at 22 Oaklands Road
He attend Park Town School, in the enormous Tracey mansion on Mountain View ridge, where at the tender age of eight he was awarded a prize for demonstrating the printing of photos using Hypo and common salt. But the pivotal moment in his photographic career occurred in the mid-1930s, when Sir Edmund Davis of the British South Africa Company came to visit the family in Orchards, and Kin’s interest in photography was discussed. Impressed with Kin’s enthusiasm and skill, Davis gifted him a five pound note. Kin promptly took this to Harry Berhman of Norwood Pharmacy and bought a small Ensign folding camera. The rest, as they say, is history - he started Form I at St John’s College in 1934, and records helping the Reverend Mudford run the Photographic Society there, in 1936 his first enlargement, A Thirsty Herd, was accepted for an International Salon at the Empire Exhibition, and in 1938 plans were submitted to extend an outbuilding at 22 Oaklands Road with a photographic darkroom.
He proceeded to Wits University, to study Medicine, in 1940, as war clouds gathered over Europe. In fact, he would be at Wits for only 6 months before seeing an advert in a newspaper calling for photographers to join the South African Air Force. He received his parents blessing to follow this call, but Wits’s principal, Humphrey Raikes, was apparently less sympathetic. Nevertheless, by July 1940 he was at Roberts Heights in Pretoria undergoing a photographic trade test, which he passed with glowing reviews. A number of the country’s leading photographers had heeded the call of the Air Force, and Bensusan was to meet Nat Cowan and many others during his training and posting at Roberts Heights.
Bensusan’s first major assignment came in 1941, when he was posted to Tempe Airport outside Bloemfontein, to train pupil pilots in all aspects of aerial photography. In 1943 he was posted to Cairo, and then Tripoli, and finally Italy, where he was to spend much of the war.
He recommenced his Medical studies at Wits in 1945, and it was there that he got his first taste of political life. Returning servicemen were treated with open disdain by a younger, anti-war group on the campus. After a particularly fiery debate between returning service men and the anti-war group, Bensusan was persuaded to stand for the SRC, and was elected with a sizeable majority. In 1946 he joined the Springbok Legion, and by 1948 he was Chairman of the Youth Branch of the United Party’s Houghton Division. It was here that he met Betty Murray, who was Secretary of the Youth Branch, and in 1948 they were married in St Luke’s Church, Orchards.
They would set up home at 7 St Paul’s Road in Upper Houghton, their home for 25 years. It was here that the Photographic Society of Southern Africa was brought into being, and it would also be the campaign office for parliamentary and other elections. St Paul’s Road would also be where his internationally acclaimed films were produced, and where most of his post-war exhibitions pictures were produced. And, most importantly, it was here where the Photographic Museum that would become the Bensusan Museum, was created.
Dr Bensusan would also combine his career in Medicine with his passion for photography, inventing instantaneous x-rays with Dr Hermie Solomon, and establishing a photographic unit at the Wits Medical School, but it was his interest in politics that would come to dominate his life. In 1961 he was asked to stand for the safe United Party city council seat of Jeppe, and won. But in 1966, when he contested the Houghton seat in the national elections, he faced a far more formidable opponent – Helen Suzman. It was a hard fought election, but ultimately Suzman triumphed.
Bensusan's campaign vehicle in 1966.
Bensusan would serve as a Councillor for sixteen years, and be elected as Mayor in the 1973/1974 term. It was at this pinnacle of his career that he would suffer great personal distress. In the Winter of 1973, the Mayoress fell in love with the mayoral chauffeur. Mrs Bensusan wanted to leave immediately, but was persuaded to postpone the break-up to the end of the mayoral term. Though a separation agreement was negotiated by a relative of Mrs Bensusan, and agreed to by her, she subsequently reneged on it, and the divorce was contested in court. The newspapers had a field day, and the whole affair was plastered in lurid details on every street pole in Johannesburg and beyond. Judgement was eventually granted in favour of Dr Bensusan, including custody of his two minor children, but by then the damage had been done.
Bensusan married Jean Mechan in 1977. It would not be a happy marriage, as Jean was soon diagnosed with cancer, and in her deteriorating condition chose to live apart from Bensusan. His final marriage, to Levina in 1982, would be his most successful.
His legacy lives on in the extraordinary Museum and Library of Photoraphy at Museum Africa.
In his autobiography, Dr Bensusan writes:
“Orchards was a delightfully rural suburb and Arthur had bought the house at 22 Oaklands Road early in the 20th century. The date 1906 was set in the plaster of the façade above the front section of the home, but this was erased during subsequent alterations.”
His father, Dr Arthur Daniel Bensusan, is recorded as living in Norwood/Orchards as early as 1912. Dr Bensusan purchased Erf 109 from A McF Kennedy in 1913, and the 1925 valuation rolls show that Erf 109, 108 and 110 were all owned by Dr Bensusan.
How Erf 108 came to be owned by the Bensusans is amusingly recounted by Kin in his autobiography:
“The people who owned the cottage next door (no 24), were followers of a strange religious sect who used to wail and shout well into the early hours of the morning. On one occasion, this caused a disturbance in the Bensusan household, as young Kin often woke at ungodly hours with wailing of a different kind! Arthur was so enraged that once, in the middle of the night, he ventured forth in his dressing-gown to confront the neighbours and returned home to announce triumphantly that he had just bought the property for 200 pounds and the noisy neighbours would soon vacate the premises. It was let in no time to wonderful neighbours – Mr and Mrs Courtenay – who stayed for thirty years.”
Erf 110 was where the Bensusan’s tennis court was situated:
“On the other side of no 22 was Arthur’s vacant stand, on which there was a full size tennis court and thatched summerhouse… Across from the tennis court was the Dutch Reformed Church, and Arthur and Grace never played tennis on Sundays, out of respect for the congregation.”
In 1938 plans were submitted for an addition to an existing separate bedroom structure – the plans clearly identify that this was to be a photographic darkroom, designed by architect Alexander Forrest.
1938 plans for a photographic darkroom designed by Alexander Forrest
In 1976, Bensusan consolidated Erf 108 and 109 into Erf 248, and then subdivided this into 7 portions. In 1985, plans were submitted for additions to the existing bedroom and darkroom (which had been converted into a bathroom and kitchenette) on portions 1 and 2. This created a new living room with wine cellar underneath. The plans identify the architect as Peter Hesselberg and the client as Dr AD Bensusan. 1990, substantial additions including a new music room, dining room, servants room, homecrafts workshop and studio with toilet and washroom was designed by architects Stofberg Bouwer and Partners for Dr AD Bensusan. It appears that the property (portions 1 and 2 of Erf 248) was sold by Bensusan in the 1990s.
Genealogical research has revealed that Edith Darling was Dr Bensusan’s third wife. He married his first wife, Lily Claeson, in 1899:
The 1912 register of marriage to his second wife, Lilian Cuddleford, indicates that he had divorced his first wife:
Lilian Cuddleford passed away a year after getting married to Bensusan, in 1913, at their home at Erf 109 Orchards (22 Oaklands Road):
In 1915 Bensusan married Grace Darling: