The Oppenheimers’ African treasures

2013-09-29 06:00

It’s the biggest private collection of Africana in the world. Charles Cilliers made a trip back in time and discovered that SA heritage is about a few more things than braaiing.

It’s Heritage Month, so I’m on my motorbike, trying to find the Brenthurst Library. But it’s by appointment only. Exclusive. Not just anyone gets to wander around the “private Africana collection” of the Oppenheimer family.

When I ask at the IT consultancy company on Federation Road if they know where the library is, they tell me I’m miles away. Turns out they’re neighbours to the Oppenheimers and don’t even know it.

At the end of the road, Joel, the big security guard, finds my name on his list and lets me through the trellised gate.

The library is to my left, the creation of architect Hans Hallen in the 1980s. The library’s director, Sally MacRoberts, greets me with a smile.

The air in the building, Sally confirms in her kind, plummy accent, is perfectly climate-controlled. Easy to breathe. Just working here every day, since 1995, walking these corridors, has probably helped to preserve the staff as much as the books, sketches, paintings, manuscripts and other treasures it holds.

Sally tells me: “Sir Ernest (Oppenheimer) went to Kimberley in the early 1900s. I suspect he started collecting quite early on, on a personal level.

The collection was moved from Kimberley to Johannesburg in the late 1930s, in the big family house where Nicky (Oppenheimer) lives now.

Speaking with the practised ease of someone who has told this story many times and who takes people on walking tours of Joburg, Sally explains: “When the highway (the M1) was built, a lot of the houses along this ridgy section were knocked down and, at that stage, Harry (Oppenheimer, Sir Ernest’s son) purchased this triangle of land with the intent of building a library here to house the collection.”

Sally’s pride is obvious. “This place is state of the art, one of the flagship archival institutions in the country. The family support it 100%.”

As we leave her office, she shows me an enormous work of art. She says it must be the closest thing South Africa has to Picasso’s Guernica. Maybe it is. It’s extraordinary. The painting divides the offices from the library and shows abstract faces and bodies filling a crumbling bridge.

On top of the bridge are white people, with military equipment, wagons and crosses.

They stand over a river of black people who stretch out to the hills and the sea in the distance. It’s a profusion of colour captured in thick enamel. Its style is inspired by stained glass. The painting, assembled in the 1980s from sections, is now far too big to get out the front door again. It’s become an inseparable part of the Brenthurst Library.

Sally says, “Harry commissioned this from an Australian artist, Leonard French, before the library was built. He asked French to create something that would capture the spirit of the time. So he painted this, The Bridge.”

Wow. I look at it for some time. It must be one of the strongest visual indictments of the apartheid regime I’ve ever seen.

The irony is not lost on me that it was made possible by a man whose wealth was very obviously built on the foundations of apartheid. Virtual slave wages for black miners. Silicosis cover-ups.

At least the Oppenheimers joined the anti-apartheid movement too. There’s a lot of material from that tumultuous time here too. The rest of the library is a trip even further back in time.

The bookshelves have some of the largest and heaviest books I’ve ever laid eyes on, leather-clad tomes that lie on their backs on special shelves.

Sally heaves one out and explains that before colour printing was perfected, artists added the colours by hand, book by book. She shows me an early bird book that was painted in this way.

She finds another edition of the same title, printed a few years later, after colour printing came along.

In this one the colour was added by machine, little dots that put some human being out of work more than two centuries ago. Such is the march of progress.

The library also has a botanical art collection by British scientist John Herschel, whose father William discovered the planet Uranus.

John was also an astronomer and came out to the Cape in the 1830s to map the southern stars.

While here, he used a camera lucida, a progenitor to the modern camera, to trace the outlines of unique plants in the Cape by hand.

His younger wife coloured them in. Remarkably, Herschel met up with Charles Darwin when the young naturalist stopped in Cape Town on his way back from the Galapagos and his voyages on the Beagle.

So there, on the slopes of Table Mountain, Herschel helped to tidy up some of the ideas Darwin was toying with on how evolution works.

Herschel was even quoted later in The Origin of Species. Wow.

Next, we look at a big vellum-bound book that contains some of the earliest-known maps of the Cape. It shows the first Dutch ships to round the Cape.

Though the paper in this book is very thin and fragile-looking, it’s actually quite tough.

“Rag paper,” Sally explains, “Very strong, doesn’t discolour or go brittle.” She looks at the first page. “This one’s from 1646.”

It’s not even the oldest book here. The oldest book they have was printed before 1501, making it part of “the incunabula”.

“I can’t read it,” Sally says. “It’s in Latin, but there must be something in there about Africa or it wouldn’t be here.”

We head to another room and there’s an oil painting on the wall that is the oldest painting of the Cape in existence.

It predates Van Riebeeck’s arrival by 16 years. “It’s by Adam Willaerts,” Sally says, and laughs as she explains why Table Mountain looks so out of shape.

But at least it’s flat on top. “I don’t think the artist ever came to South Africa, but his son did and must have described Table Bay to him.”

Another painting shows Van Riebeeck’s Castle right down on the shoreline, as it was in the years before the city reclaimed the land.

We pass further historical marvels. Classic Thomas Baines paintings.

Barbara Tyrrell’s sketches of tribal people and their rapidly disappearing culture, in the 1940s to 1960s. Tyrrell is 101 years old this year.

Melton Prior’s war sketches for The Illustrated London News. They’re good enough to make out each person’s face.


In the manuscript room are the original handwritten pages of Cry, the Beloved Country. Alan Paton wrote the novel in exercise books while travelling the world.

Each entry is dated, with his location. It took him just three months at the end of 1946. There’s an alternate ending too.

There, in the beginning are the immortal opening lines, in Paton’s clear script: “There is a lovely road which runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.”

Sally says people have been known to cry upon beholding these pages. But I try not to laugh when Sally shows me the handwritten notes of Baron Robert Baden-Powell.

He’s the guy who fought off the siege of Mafeking and founded the Boy Scouts. His handwriting looks like a seven-year-old’s, too. One cover page is even in orange crayon. Military genius though.

In the gallery room, with its lights normally kept off to preserve the watercolours, there’s an orchid sitting in the cold, dark air-conditioned room.

“It seems happy enough,” Sally quips. More wonders and treasures are filed away here.

We finish the brief tour in the bindery and conservation room. Classical music plays softly in the background. This is one of the few dedicated art and book conservation facilities left in South Africa. I meet Judith and her assistant, Mike.

When I look at what she’s doing, she’s restoring the binding on a first-edition copy of H Rider Haggard’s 1890 novel, Eric Brighteyes.

“Pity it’s falling apart,” I tell the young book specialist. She smiles and shows me another book she just finished. The spine on this one looks fine.

“This one looked even worse before,” she says.

They take me through the tricks and tools of their trade – everything it takes to keep the past alive or bring crumbling artefacts back from the dead.

When I’m ushered back out to the 21st century, I’m still buzzing a little with the richness of South African history.

And just how bloody rich the Oppenheimers are. While the rest of us were busy braaiing, they were collecting everything in sight.

But make an appointment one day. Go and see it for yourself.

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