Johannesburg Art Oasis

Text Roberta Coci Styling Leana Schoeman Photographs Elsa Young In a forgotten corner of Johannesburg, on a road lined with jacaranda trees, lies a house that has held watch over the swelling city for a century. It is a simple structure. The owners describe it as something a child would draw – a rectangle, with a triangular roof and two little chimneys. But as the gate to this house opens, and you walk through the tall, wispy grass to the front door, it’s obvious that while it may be rather basic in its structure, it is extraordinary in every other way. Acclaimed South African artist Clive van den Berg and pianist Rocco de Villiers have lived in Howden House for over 10 years. They have steadily transformed the building into a fusion of culture, with art, music and design; a process that was long and sometimes tiring. ‘When we first came to the show house, Rocco walked in and straight out again,’ explains Clive. ‘He said that if he couldn’t even stay in it for five minutes, there was no way he could ever live here.’ Clive, however, had had his eye on this part of old Parktown for years, and he managed to look past the obvious challenges of moving into a timeworn, badly renovated home, and see the opportunities instead. Howden House is so named because it was the family home of the late South African architect Robert Howden. He built it in 1913 while working on the Johannesburg Art Gallery with famous British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. Since then many families have moved through the home, each adding their own touches to the original structure. By the time Clive and Rocco saw it, it had morphed into a mish-mash of styles, with the main house shuttered up, dark and closed off. Clive, however, recognised that the original structure was ‘simple and gorgeous’ and he insisted on putting in an offer. The couple contacted architect Luis Ferriera-da-Silva, who agreed with Rocco. ‘Paint it white and sell it,’ he told them. But Clive insisted. ‘I knew it was going to be great. All we needed to do was get it as close as possible to the original house. And, of course, open it up to light.’ Sitting in the house a decade later, listening to the rolling arpeggios of Rocco’s rehearsing, and watching as Clive considers his latest work in the afternoon sun, it’s clear that they made the right decision. ‘Luis agreed to work with us, and we stripped away everything, until the original house was finally visible again,’ says Clive. During the renovations they were astonished to discover just how strong the structure was. ‘It’s all built on rock quarried from the site, and is immensely solid.’ For the artist, the three-dimensional aesthetic of the original stones is what makes the house so beautiful. Of course, a studio was a prerequisite for him, so they built one from scratch, just off the house, on a spot that receives beautiful light. ‘I like home so much that having a studio off-site was never an option,’ says Clive, adding that he likes being able to pop into the kitchen at any time to whip up a meal. The couple love entertaining and, considering that Rocco is an accomplished cocktail connoisseur who’s published two books on the topic, their parties are renowned among their friends. ‘There are terraces all around the house, so it’s ideal for alfresco entertaining,’ says Clive, whose forte is creating Mediterranean-inspired dishes for their dinner parties. ‘This house is the perfect place for me,’ admits the artist as he surveys the restored space. ‘History, heritage and memory are such an important part of my work, so I’ve always wanted to live in an old part of Joburg. I think we’ve succeeded in allowing our home to reflect both our personalities, while honouring the house that Howden built.’ CLIVE’S HOME TRUTHS To me, home is where there is a kitchen, a studio, a garden, my partner and some animals. My design style is adapted to the context. My art collection has been built up over many years. Some are swaps, some have been bought. I try to support my friends. A home without art should not exist. Making art is preferable to speech. I collect what I can afford. If I could, I would have a lot of Japanese prints. I love where I live because it is a bit like a blockhouse. No frills and no architectural narcissism. My interiors motto is always choose one good thing over several mediocre ones. My favourite way to spend a weekend is to enjoy a large Martini or two, some great home-made food, chat with Rocco and play with the dogs. My best furniture piece is an old yellowwood table that was beside my bed as a boy. My most treasured artwork is a painting by Penny Siopis. Our entertaining style centres around small groups of old friends eating the best ingredients very simply treated. My favourite travel destination is our farm in the Free State. I think up my best ideas in a half dream state as I wake up. In my free time I often wish I was working. A painting I wish I’d painted is anything by Thomas Eakins. I’m inspired by work. This article was originally featured in the April 2012 issue of House and Leisure.