Hylton Nel kept journals from the time of his studies in Belgium in 1965, followed by some years lived in Kent in Britain, through to his return to South Africa in the early 1970s. 

Objects have a ritual quality. One must be careful handling cups and plates because handling things is a ritual. Move without haste, consciously.

Journal, 6 September 1970, near midnight

At times I come into this room (or go outside) and looking at objects, artefacts, derive from them a deep and intense pleasure. They are the shape they are, and are beautiful and powerful. At the moment that little dark African figure and his Christ at the Column are two. I seem to see an infinite harmony which I cannot more closely explain.

The little cat has just peeped in and peered at me with half- closed eyes. She has withdrawn herself again. I have removed the tobacco and ashtray from the cushion on the chair by my bed. If she wants to she will come in when she’s ready and perhaps spend the night on this nice deep blue velvet cushion which though it suits her ginger colour was not bought especially for her.

Journal, 18 December 1970

My idols, those I make and those I buy are perhaps my longing, my wish to find an omnipotent god (vain) and my wish that these things be temple furnishings and ritual objects.

Journal, 13 February 1967

The little cat stalks me from the door... Her invitation to join in games of stalking I find impossible to resist. I don’t want to resist. She can know nothing of what I feel. With big round eyes mock-serious she creeps up. This afternoon she slipped through the fence into Drake’s garden. Their Alsatian and their big fluffy cat together frightened her up a tree. She climbed higher up a smoother tree than she had ever done and peed in streams with terror. I went to her rescue, afterwards she stayed with me in the front room for a long time where I was working. She was catching at strips of damp course stuff I was using. Her fright had gone. I hope through that she retains some sense of how dangerous it could be to go through that fence where that big fierce dog is.  

She found a biggish English lizard in the sitting room where I had been working. The ones I had found in the garden looked rather beautiful.  This one, of the same kind, but fat, old, adult looked ominously like a Gila monster. It moved slowly and curled its tail like a monster dragon. With a stick (the others I hadn’t minded taking up into my hand with their rosy undersides), I moved it along the wall and helped it into a hole when the cat was away. I have to plaster up the holes. If I don’t see it, I hope it has ways, hollows and tunnels in the walls to escape by, where did it come from to appear in that room?

I wonder where the little cat is now. There stands my black African idol. I looked at her just now and thought, how lovely. I think she must be dusty. She should be taken in the hands and rubbed to shine her and to make her feel one’s cares for her. I want to look closely at the way her eyes are again. But not now. I can exactly imagine what she feels like in my hands with her sharp-angled shoulders. There she stands, her back reflected in the mirror behind her, and around her bowls and bottles, things that don’t detract from her being a figure. She is made from hard, dark wood, safe and unchanging, easy to carry. I must fetch her over here. There is something comforting in her. Mr. Staples always kept his rosary within reach of his bed.

Journal, 19 December 1970 -

I am pessimistic about politics and the situation in South Africa. Where could I live untroubled by this kind of foolishness? I now turn to my books to read about wild flowers.

Journal, 1 May 1968

I have now read Jean Genet’s book Our Lady of the Flowers for the fourth time and I cannot say enough in praise of it. I am sure its influence will never leave me. It is piled up with riches and truth and poetry to such an extent that I wish my copy were bound in metal and leather with the cover picture framed under glass like a precious prayer book. And I am sure people who are revolted by Genet’s tastes in love, people who do not share them, must at least be impervious to them, must be able to see them without questioning or shuddering to be able to reach through to the treasure Genet has gathered within.

Journal, 6 September 1968

My room overlooks the pagoda in Kew Gardens. I have a bookshelf for my books; and on top and round about is my gear, the inanimate things, artefacts, found brought and stolen things and natural things that interest me, delight me and sometimes sicken me, but only when all else sickens me.

Journal, 14 June 1970

Three cats have attached themselves to our household – three weird and scruffy creatures. This place had an atmosphere – an old Cape-Dutch house. There are carpets and old furniture and my pictures and objects and books. I continue to acquire these things and bring them into more or less warm gloomy room.

Journal, Woodstock, Cape Town, 18 December 1968