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  • Dickie Zebregs

From the Cape: About the History of Cape Furniture

South-Africa was empty before the Dutch came, and they rightfully claimed the ground” was often said, together with the argument that the inhabitants were nomads. A misconception, for the Khoikhoi who lived there, were not wanderers but were transhumance herders that followed the natural migration of their animals. But the Dutch were not the first Europeans to set foot in South-Africa, for the Portuguese Bartholomeus Diaz did so on his journey to Asia. He sailed by the cape which he called Cabo da Boa Esperança, or Cape of Good Hope. The first encounter with the Khoikhoi did not end well, for Diaz show one of the herders with his crossbow, hence the first meeting between the indigenous and the Europeans resulted in death. More Portuguese would arrive in South-Africa, but a clash between the Khoikhoi stopped them from coming and the myth that the Cape was dangerous and wild came into existence. Later, other European ships stopped at the Cape and traded with the Khoikhoi, such as the Dutch. The first Dutchman to arrive was Willem Lodewyckz, joining the early expedition to Asia under Cornelis de Houtman in 1595. He tried to trade with the Khoikhoi as well. “…hebben de onzen haar enige messen, lijnwaad, bellen ende spiegelkens gegeven alsook enige wollen klederen. Doch wisten zij niet wat zij daarmede doen zouden, derhalve wierpen die weg” (…we gave them our only knives, bedlinen, bells and mirrors as well as wool clothing. Although they did not know what to do with it and threw it away.). The Dutch kept coming, as we know from countless depictions of Table Mountain, and the stop was necessary. The sailors could get some rest and fresh meat could be traded with the inhabitants of the Cape. The need for fresh food for the sailors on their way to the Dutch-Indies became more prominent and resulted in a permanent refreshing station founded by the VOC. In 1652, on the 6th of April Jan van Riebeeck sailed into Table Bay with five ships. In the weeks after he started planning where gardens, the fort and other facilities had to come, and more important: he befriended the locals. Unfortunately, the settlement was not self-sufficient and the VOC commanders in the Netherlands complained that food still had to come from Batavia. A solution was found and Dutch civilians that were former VOC officials were invited to inhabit the Cape for ten years to provide food for the company: the growth of Dutch presence in South-Africa sparked.

Swellengrebel bureau-cabinet, Capetown 1740-50

Not even a century later, the colony at the Cape was one of the most diverse societies in the world. The elite comprised the rich that were born in the Cape and VOC-staf members and the lower classes comprised Africans and Europeans alike. The enlarging elite demanded luxury goods and furniture that were often imported but more often created in the Cape. A good example is the collection of Hendrik Swellengrebel, who came to be the governor. His cabinet, the famous Swellengrebel-cabinet, made in Capetown around 1740-50, in amboyna-rootwood, paduk, ebony, ivory, oak, with Cape silver mounts that was previously sold by us. This piece was part of the collection of Hendrik Swellengrebel (Capetown 1700 – Utrecht 1760), Governor-General of the Cape. The piece is unique because of the provenance, but also because of the decoration. Other pieces like this are known, but all without the inlays. As admiral of the return fleet and as an extraordinary member of the Council of the Indies, Swellengrebel got big privileges on his way back which meant he could bring ten large VOC-chests and large furniture pieces like this cabinet. Cabinets from the Cape can be regarded as the most impressive ‘armoires’ made. We have had to honour to sell one, with silver mounts. One other, with ormolu mounts, is still in our collection and both can be found here. These Rococo cabinets were made from several exotic kinds of wood such as stinkwood and amboyna and the contrasting colours are highly appealing to the eye. The ornaments at the hood and the bottom were carved by an experienced woodworker that knew Rococo style elements very well. Probably the hood was decorated with porcelain vases and the cabinet was used to stow away linen or silver. What exactly makes these Cape cabinets so impressive is hard to explain, but they differ from European examples and perhaps the form proportion of it appeals to one’s eye.The Hague Gemeentemuseum exhibited Cape and Dutch-Indonesian furniture in 2002, in the exhibition “Living in the Cape and in Batavia, 1602-1795”. All forty highlights of Cape furniture came from South-African collections and not one from a Dutch collection, whereas all forty highlights of Dutch-Indonesian furniture came from Dutch museum collections.

Corner chairs, Capetown, 2nd quarter 18th century

Unfortunately, also for the exhibition in the Rijksmuseum, all furniture from the Cape had to come from Africa. Despite the fact that between 1652, when Jan van Riebeeck set foot in the Cape, and 1806, when the Cape fell into English hands, the Cape was a Dutch colony for about a 150 years, almost no Cape furniture ended up in Dutch museum collections. The pair of corner chairs, made in Cape of Good Hope in the second quarter of the 18th century, previously sold by us, only have two comparable sets. Even when so rare, they can only be found in private collections. What would make the difference between Batavia and the Cape? Perhaps the fact that Batavia was an exotic place where one went to become rich fast and return to the Netherlands a rich man, if one did not die in the meantime. Not many settled permanently in the Dutch-Indies and when one returned to the Netherlands, he could take a large part of the household effects with him. The Cape was a settlement, the only colony of the VOC where one could stay permanently. He who finished working for the VOC, almost always settled in the Cape, and so the furniture remained in Africa. The Cape only became prosperous enough after the first quarter of the 18th century, for a small group of inhabitants to be able to afford luxury goods. The beautiful Cape houses and farms filled with fabulous cabinets and silver only appeared during the last decades of the VOC ‘reign’. After the English took the Cape, the link between South-Africa and the Netherlands was largely broken, although the link with Indonesia remained up until after the Second World War. At first the English regarded the Cape-Dutch architecture and furniture as boorish and not in line with English taste. Later, in the 19th century, when Cecil Rhodes changed the Groote Schuur (which was refurbished as an English country house by the English) back to the Cape-Dutch style and furnished it with Cape furniture the appreciation for the Cape-Dutch style enlarged again. Finally, during the Apartheid-regime, everything Cape-Dutch became contaminated and disregarded.

Tolletjie chair, Cape of Good Hope, 18th century

The furniture and mostly the cabinets that were made during the VOC-control of the Cape were often in Dutch traditional taste without any Asian decorations. From the start of the Cape colony, the VOC actively recruited artisans and mostly carpenters for the construction of Capetown. First in the Netherlands, but later, as conditions for Dutch carpenters improved in the Netherlands and it became less interesting to go to a place far away, often in North and Eastern Europe, mostly Germany. Although the carpenters and artisans who did the real work were slaves or ex-slaves from Asia, the design, form and function of the furniture was in Asia and Africa European. Even whilst there was (almost) no furniture culture in the places where the slaves came from, there are significant differences between furniture from the Cape and Indonesia. Which can be seen in the Tolletjie chair previously sold by us. This chair can be traced back to the Dutch, Flemish and English chairs with turned elements from the 17th century. Instead of cane, which had to be imported, leather straps or ‘riempies’ were used.

In Indonesia, the Portuguese introduced their furniture styles in the 16th century and had them made by Indonesian workmen. In the middle of the 17th century, there was already a great demand for furniture in the Dutch-Indies, first for Iberian style pieces with Asian decorations, later in a more European style. South-Africa was only inhabited by the herders that did not have furniture before the VOC, and although later many pieces were imported from Indonesia and many pieces that were made in the Cape were made by Asian slaves, there was no significant influence of Asian styles noticeable in Cape furniture. A large diversity of goods like rice, spices, slaves, porcelain, Indian cotton in all colours and furniture like chests, burgomaster chairs and coromandel chairs came from Colombo. From the Netherlands, only building materials and immigrants came with a Northern-European taste, which resulted in the 18th-century European style in furniture and architecture.

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