18th-Century Cape House
Posted: 04 November 2011
Text Paul Duncan Production Catherine Raphaely Photographs Russell Smith Not only is Onderneming hidden behind a high wall, but at first glance it’s a time warp of romantic grandeur in a neighbourhood otherwise notably down at heel. Regency-style double doors sit side by side 18th-century sash windows, Dutch bricks and whitewash – the telltale signs of a historic homestead. A Bentley is parked under a tree, a couple of Irma Sterns are plonked on top of a cupboard and room after room is filled with period furniture that would have made a VOC matron proud. It originally sat on the edge of marshy wetlands near the farms laid out by the first Dutch free burghers in the middle of the 17th century. Finding this national monument on the Salt River–Observatory in Cape Town is like stumbling on Marie Antoinette’s long-lost portrait in an outbuilding. The owners belong to a clan of collectors – of buildings, furniture and art – regarding themselves ‘as custodians, preserving things for the future’. Interesting things. Poignant things. Here they’ve scanned various periods of South African history for cultural icons (paintings, furniture, ceramics and textiles), then displayed them with a sense of humour. Afrikaner, African, Dutch colonial, British colonial, as well as the here and now, are all represented in deafening unison; this house is noisy about the past yet it trumpets the future. A glimpse of the interiors reveals only a superficial single dimension: that it’s an old house with high-end antiques in it. It’s more than that. It’s alive with people and situations. There’s landscaper Patrick Watson’s team planting hundreds of species of indigenous ericas. There are children, their plastic ball bouncing on the Aubusson in the bedroom. And it’s the setting for a growing collection of South African art that includes works by Zwelethu Mthethwa, Kentridge, Brett Murray and Arlene Amaler-Raviv. Even this is not without tongue-in-cheek humour: alongside a 1930s tapestry of the Union Buildings and Great Trek memorabilia is a Pietà by Conrad Botes, in which Jesus is black. ‘It‘s not difficult to live in,’ says the owner, of a house where the rooms open into one another in the old manner. So, even though there’s a mahogany dining table in the old agterkamer, entertaining focuses on the kitchen (‘We entertain here,’ the owner says. ‘We’re keen eaters and love friends who cook!’). A big gas hob, the old farmhouse Aga in modern guise, is the only newfangled feature of an otherwise old-world room dominated by a latte ceiling and a vast refectory table. While the house is furnished quite literally with museum-quality furniture, there’s no sense that you’re not allowed to touch anything. Quite the opposite. ‘Things will remain robust if you respect them,’ the owner says, mindful of curators who shudder at the idea of small children playing hide and seek among the cabriole legs, the bun feet and the cross stretchers. Closer inspection shows that these have been put here because they’re needed for the house to function properly. These are what they sit on, sleep in and eat off. Why have a modern king-sized bed when you can have a four-poster? No contest really – although the young son might not agree. His swag-enveloped bed doesn’t allow him to lie in bed and gaze at Spiderman painted on the ceiling. The interior reflects the owners’ own style. It’s not decorated in the sense that there was a master plan, mood boards and swatches of fabric to highlight a look. The interiors grew organically, the guiding principle a good eye and a taste for the unusual. It’s about mixing things from all periods and having fun doing it. ‘It’s like a wedding dress with something old, something new…’. These disparate objects with their local provenance together create a resonance that unwittingly is itself becoming the trademark of a South African interior style: ‘This is who we are. And these are all things we like.’ To read the owners' tips on Living with Antiques, please click here. This home was originally published in the June 2009 issue of House and Leisure.