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A Portrait of Military Aviation in South Africa

Author: Ron Belling

ISBN: 0-904597-59-8

Reviewed By: Phil Cater

After only a few months of getting into modeling SAAF subjects in a serious way, a friend from my model club pointed out this absolute gem, misfiled under civil aviation, when we paid a quick visit to the famous Foyles book shop in London. What a find. This isn't just a nice book, I rate it as the finest book I have ever owned, aviation or otherwise. 

Belling shows a deft and consistent touch in this superb collection of paintings, which appear in broadly chronological order. Not all the portrayals are of SAAF machines - there is a heavy Fleet Air Arm representation for example, and even a clandestine submarine launched Yokosuka Glen makes a shadowy appearance in the morning mist in one painting. The common thread Belling established in this fine collection was flight in South African skies, centered around his own Port Elizabeth locale. While the aircraft are all very accurately portrayed, the evocative detail in the settings is often an added delight. This ranges from overflying majestic ocean going liners, or South African landmarks, including Port Elizabeth in a bygone age, to shimmering reflections of a Hurricane parked in the muddy puddles of a recent downpour.

Clearly Belling kept good notes as a plane spotter in his younger days, and followed this up with meticulous research in building his portfolio. Indeed, there is a section at the back on weathering and his research into colour fading. Every painting has a summary of the type depicted, and the detailed local history that inspired it, along with a comprehensive 'notes on the finish' section. Which has added another dimension to the book, whch makes it of great interest to aircraft modelers. This work stands on its own as a superb reference and source of inspiration to transform artwork into scale three dimensional form. 

While some fast jets are briefly covered, clearly the modern era was not to Belling's taste, and as he points out in the introduction, other work such as Herman Potgieter's photography covers that well. Instead we are treated to obscure biplanes, Venturas, Spitfires, Harvards, and so much more, which was only recorded elsewhere, if at all, in grainy black and white photos. 

The book is sadly out of print, though it can be found secondhand for a price - particularly in the Cape Town area (apparently because the book was published there). So I feel particularly privileged to have found a copy in London. The outstanding legacy of paintings which Belling built up has now been permanently established in the Ron Belling Art Gallery in Port Elizabeth, where I gather a few selected postcards are on sale, but alas, no book!  The book won't be re-released, not in its present form. However, some of the paintings are now available as prints.

For those unable to visit, the gallery has its own website at http://www.ronbelling.co.za/.

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