Norman Eaton (October 11, 1902 - July 19, 1966) was a marginal figure in more ways than one – despite his reputation as an excellent master of his craft. His reclusiveness is well documented; he was also leftist in his political convictions. In fact, in 1938 Eaton designed the now well-known house for Advocate Bram Fischer, struggle icon and leader of the South African Communist Party. Fischer was on the periphery of Eaton’s extended circle of friends – both having Afrikaner roots. The house designed by Eaton later became a symbol for the struggle against apartheid. Eaton was also homosexual, which was against the law at the time. Tony Morphet has variously linked the expressiveness of his work to his marginality.
Norman Eaton was born on the farm Drooge Vlei, near Durbanville on the llth October, 1902. His father H.R. Eaton farmed there as his father had farmed there before him. Norman Eaton's grandmother was formerly Henrietta Musgrave, and his great grandmother Sara Norman Ebden. These last two account for the family names Norman Musgrave. Norman Eaton's mother was Maria Brand, born on Zandvliet near Faure, niece of Christoffel Brand, Speaker of the Old Cape Parliament, and therefore also closely related to Johannes Brand, one time President of the Free State. Norman Eaton's grandmother Brand was Aletta Cloete, a direct descendant of the original Hendrik Cloete of Groot Constantia.
He received his education in Pretoria and at the Diocesan College, Cape Town (1915-1921). In 1922 Eaton enrolled for the diploma course in architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand; his ability was soon noticed by Gordon Leith. As a first-year student Eaton won a student competition for the design of a small Byzantine chapel, a Leithian type of subject, and the following year was articled to Leith, attending evening classes to supplement his studies. Eaton noted that he was in Leith's office from 1922 until 1930. On winning the competition for the Pretoria Technical College in 1926, Leith placed Eaton in charge of the office in Pretoria. Eaton remained in Leith's office. He won the Baker scholarship in 1929 and spent nine months in residence at the British School at Rome before visiting France, Greece, Turkey and Austria and toured Italy in 1930. Eaton graduated with a Diploma in Architecture in April 1930. In November 1931 he visited Germany, Holland, Belgium and Britain.
Eaton made contact with Sir Herbert Baker who signed Eaton's nomination papers for associate membership of the RIBA and remarked 'I have a very high opinion of his zeal, energy and capacity.' Baker wrote to Leith that he would have liked very much to have given Eaton some work in his office but was just in the state of retrenchment. Eaton must have spent some time in Britain however, since he only returned to Pretoria in 1933. On his return he set up practice on his own account in Pretoria where he was to remain.
Eaton is best known for bank buildings and houses. Apart from a few early houses which were painted white, his houses were almost exclusively of brick. These form the major part of his work which is notable for the quality of workmanship and the development of an artistic vernacular in which certain African traditions were incorporated, particularly decorative features notable in the Great Zimbabwe ruins. His work was fastidious and artful: after Eaton's sudden death, Alexis Preller, among many at Eaton's memorial service, observed that Eaton's 'favourite words were, simple, delicate, sensitive, individual and the ever recurring phrase, African quality ... his outstanding use of the simple brick is already legendary'.
It was not until about 1940 that he started to receive large commissions, the Land Bank in Potchefstroom being among the first of his commercial works. But the Children's Art Centre (1940) in Pretoria showed Eaton's mature style, now peculiarly Pretorian, patterned brickwork, serpentine walls and low scale mass. In 1940 he entered into partnership with Alan Fair (Norman Eaton & Fair). The firm was dissolved in 1945 and out of it two firms arose: Norman Eaton and Norman Eaton & Partners. The latter partnership had been formed to carry out the new Ministry of Transport Building in Pretoria (which was not executed) and included Re Cole Bowen, Al Meiring, AC Fair and DFH Naudé. The partners appear to have disbanded; in 1952 T Louw entered into partnership with Eaton. In 1945 he travelled in America, Argentine and Brazil and in various parts of southern and central Africa. On his return to South Africa, known for his appreciation of Cape Dutch architecture as a true vernacular, he was invited to restore Reinet House at Graaff-Reinet (1952-1956).
Eaton's later domestic work reflects his concern for the African in South Africa, a sentiment he shared with others of the period such as Alexis Preller and Gerard Moerdyk. Preller drew attention to the importance Egyptian art and architecture held for Eaton and suggested that 'one of the abiding derivations for his small scale faggoting in terra cotta tiling was his appreciation of the bas-relief wall in the tomb of Ti at Sakkara' and Eaton visited Egypt on his way back from Rome, almost certainly the Roman use of brick and terracotta having left an impression on the young Eaton. He was a perfectionist and did not get the jobs he should have received.
Among Eaton's best known works are House Greenwood (1949-1950), the Netherlands Bank, Church St (1946-1953), and Polley's Arcade (c1959) in Pretoria and the Netherlands Bank Building (1961-1964) in Smith Street in Durban. He was responsible for the design of a number of Land Bank buildings, notably those at Potchefstroom (1940), Pietermaritzburg (1941-1943) and Kroonstad (1943-1944).
Passionate about the art and profession of architecture, Eaton had progressive albeit idealist ideas concerning the profession in South Africa. Among his favourite papers, read at successive architectural congresses, was the notion of an architectural commune where architects would share a building and their skills, thus avoiding repetitious problem solving while saving on costs. This idea had a parallel in America where since the 1920s at least, Americans were beginning to work in consortiums.
Eaton was acknowledged by his colleagues in his life time, he had been awarded the Medal of Honour for Architecture by the SA Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns in 1960 for his services to Architecture, but his sudden death in a motor accident in Pretoria provoked an unprecedented response from the art and architectural community to record their respect. A memorial service held for him a year and a half after his death and the procedures published in the South African Architectural Record (February 1968); tributes from fellow artists, architects and others accompanied a slide-show of his works with a commentary and his interest in music, history and art was recorded (Eaton himself owned a fine private collection of paintings by contemporary South African artists) and the Gold Medal of the Institute of South African Architects was awarded to him posthumously in 1968. A South African brick-manufacturing firm changed the name of its scholarship to the Norman Eaton Architectural Scholarship in 1966.
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