Born in 1879 George Pilkington lived for most of his life at Oriana in Ley Road, St James. His paintings of marine, sea and coastal scenes of St James — both in oil and watercolour — were greatly prized. He nearly lost his life while travelling in 1918 on a wartime mission as secretary to Henry Burton, then Minister of Railways and Harbours. They were returning to South Africa from England on the Galway Castle when the ship was torpedoed and sunk with heavy loss of life. Due to his knowledge of small boats, Pilkington was put in charge of the Captain’s gig. From seven in the morning until four in the afternoon he held the boat in terrific seas until the destroyer Orianacame to his rescue.

He later named his home in Ley Road ‘Oriana’ to commemorate his rescue. One of the passengers on his boat was Sir Ernest Oppenheimer whose job it was to bale with his boot. For many years afterwards on September 12th, the anniversary of the rescue, Pilkington would get the same telegram from Sir Ernest: “It’s good to be alive.”

After brief stints as a cotton farmer and politician, Pilkington became a full-time artist in 1925 becoming a member of the SA Society of Artists and co-founder of the Royal Cape Yacht Club. He participated in many group exhibitions in Cape Town and Johannesburg undertaking a public commission for the Cape Town Post Office. In 1946, Maskew Miller published his written work Tales from South Africa’s History for Little Ones, which was also translated into Afrikaans at the request of General Hertzog. Pilkington’s marine paintings caused a sensation when shown for the first time in Johannesburg and in 1936 his painting West Towage was hung at Burlington House by the Royal Academy.

His painting of the arrival in 1947 of the HMS Vanguard with the King and Queen hung for many years in the Mayor’s Parlour in the City Hall of Cape Town. Although he only turned professional in his middle years, Pilkington became one of South Africa’s best-known artists painting for many years in the old Marine Biological Station in St James.