Estelle van der Merwe

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Estelle van der Merwe (1903-19??) was an artist, marionette-constructor and puppeteer.


Born in Germiston, Transvaal on 3 April 1903, but from the age of 12 lived in the rural town of Parys in the Orange Free State. In about 1930 she completed a one year art course at a technical school in Auckland Park. Painting became her source of a livelihood and she participated in many exhibitions and completed a number of commissions over the years.

Her passion however was the marionette, an interest sparked in the 1920s by an article by Tony Sarg on how to make and operate a marionette theatre. For many of her marionettes she tended to use characters from public sources, creating characters and plays around them, giving performances (mainly for charity) in a studio with a puppet stage which she fitted up in a room in her home in Parys. In later years, as they became famous, she travelled to give performances in other places such as Schweitzer-Reyneke, Malmesbury (1948).

The Parys Library Marionette Group

In 1966 Rhoda Barry became the librarian in Parys, and in 1967 formed a cultural committee, on which she served, with Estelle van der Merwe, Rina Human and Sonia Theron. The first production by the group was Little Red Riding Hood (Estelle van der Merwe), Fantasy (Sonia Theron), Hansel and Gretel (Rina Human) and The Parys Puppet Band (Estelle van der Merwe).

This group went on to perform till 1978, including tours to various towns between 1970 and 1972. Among the other plays done were Peter and the Wolf, Klaas en sy versies, Moeroentoes (a story about conservation by Sonia Theron).

In this period Estelle's marionettes became larger to enable them to perform to larger audiences and she later disposed of the earlier period's small puppets.

The characters

The first marionettes she constructed and used in performances were characters from Jack and the Beanstalk (1920s), followed by characters based on a Sunday Times cartoon series (Hairbreadth Harry by C.W. Kahles); a series of characters and plays based on the "Oom Kaspaas" cartoons of T.O. Honiball (1905-1990); a series based on the stories of Afrikaans journalist and author Dirk Mostert; the characters from Little Red Riding Hood; other public figures include actor-comedians Al Debbo and Frederick Burgers, and renowned comic and storyteller Fanus Rautenbach.

In the earlier phase of her work with marionettes, she also made a number of political figures (Hertzog, Smuts, D.F. Malan, Hitler, Vittorio Carpio (the chairman of the UN special committee on South West Africa), as well as the fictional figures "Hoggenheimer" and "John Bull". However these do not appear to have been used for performance, and with the advent of the library marionette group, she ceased making marionettes of such public figures.


Van Delen 1991.

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