07 March 2013

“Farm on Kirstenbosch at the foot of Table Mountain”

An old sketch sheds some light on the old, late eighteenth century farmhouse at Kirstenbosch.
by J P Rourke, Compton Herbarium, Kirstenbosch*
While researching material in connection with the British Admiralty’s 1801 H.M.S. Investigator expedition to chart the coast of Terra Australis, as Australia was then known, an interesting sketch of some early farm buildings at Kirstenbosch unexpectedly came to light. Between 16 October and 5 November 1801, H.M.S. Investigator put into Simon’s Town while en route to Australia, allowing the scientists on board some three weeks to explore the Cape Peninsula. William Westall (1781–1850), the expedition’s landscape artist, completed seven pencil sketches of Cape Peninsula scenes including one dated October 1801, titled ‘Farm on Kirstenbosch at the foot of Table Mountain’.
    Drawn over 200 years ago, this may well be the earliest known illustration of what the farm buildings at Kirstenbosch looked like in the late eighteenth century.
    Although the recorded history of the Kirstenbosch estate effectively begins in October 1657 when Leendert Cornelissen of Zevenhuysen was granted the right to work the forests as a ‘vrijtimmerman’ and woodcutter, nothing is known of the first buildings that were constructed there in this early period. No doubt they were fairly basic, primitive shelters that soon succumbed to torrential winter downpours for which this area is renowned.
    A century later, round about 1760, a group of woodcutters previously based at ‘’t Paradijsbos’ (Newlands Forest), began to work forested areas a little further south in the place now known as Kirstenbosch. With the passage of time a ‘poshuis’ for this new ‘buitepos’ was duly established.
    In 1790, during the Dutch East India Company’s declining years, the Here Sewentien ordered the Cape administration to reduce the number of buiteposte in order to cut costs. However, the Kirstenbosch buitepos was strategically so important for the supply of essential timber that it continued to be manned by two woodcutters from 1791 until the British took over in 1795. A dwelling and outbuildings constituting the original poshuis existed on the estate at this time but very rapidly fell into a state of disrepair.
    A clear reference to the condition of the buildings was made by Lady Anne Barnard who arrived at the Cape in May 1797. Her husband Andrew, secretary to the first British governor at the Cape, had been offered the use of a weekend cottage called ‘Paradise’, at Newlands. The dwelling at Kirstenbosch had also been recommended to the Barnards but was rejected. According to Lady Anne it was little more than ‘a heap of stones.’ We may therefore deduce that some time between 1797 (the ‘heap of stones’) and 1801 (Westall’s sketch), the British authorities began to reconstruct the Kirstenbosch homestead. By the time Westall arrived on the scene it had acquired a distinctly English appearance. Westall shows the main building as double-storied with solid end gables, parapets and square cappings, while what appears to be a chimney peeps out above the main roof. Indeed, Westall’s image depicts a structure not unlike some early 1820 settler homes in the eastern Cape that were based on designs adapted from English farm buildings (according to R. Lewcock.)
    Later, in 1811 Kirstenbosch was divided into two freehold land grants; the upper portion of Kirstenbosch with the old farmhouse pictured here went to Col. Christopher Bird, Deputy Colonial Secretary; the lower portion to Henry Alexander, Colonial Secretary. By now the farm buildings were again in a serious state of disrepair. Bird considered rehabilitating the dilapidated farmhouse but decided it was beyond repair. However, he did plant a number of chestnut trees adjacent to the derelict structure. These trees, their offspring and a few crumbling stone foundations behind the present-day Goldfields Education Centre, still mark the site to this day. Having abandoned the re-building plan, Bird sold his part of Kirstenbosch to Alexander, a mere sixteen months after receiving his grant. 
    Meanwhile Alexander constructed a new house on his portion of Kirstenbosch. This was peculiar on account of the bedrooms having no windows. Later owners of Kirstenbosch were the Eksteens and Cloetes whose gabled home was an enlargement of Alexanders’ house and had survived until about 1901 where after it was demolished. In 1923 the original teahouse and restaurant was erected over the ruins of the Cloete homestead. This too has subsequently been demolished and is currently being replaced by the Centre for Home Gardening.
    William Westall’s sketch of 1801 is thus the only currently known image of the old farmhouse that played such a central role on the early history of the Kirstenbosch estate.

Fairbridge, D. 1918. The two ruins at Kirstenbosch. The Journal of the Botanical Society Part 4: 12.
Fairbridge, D. 1924. Lady Anne Barnard at the Cape of Good Hope. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Lewcock, R. 1963.  Early nineteenth century architecture in South Africa. A.A. Balkema, Cape Town.
Sleigh, D. 1993. Die Buiteposte. VOC-buiteposte onder Kaapse bestuur, 1652–1795. HAUM, Pretoria.
Perry, T.M. & Simpson, D.H. (ed.). 1962. Drawings by William Westall. The Royal Commonwealth Society, London.
Robinson, A.M. (ed.) 1994. The Cape Journals of Lady Anne Barnard 1797-1798. Van Riebeeck Society 2nd Series no. 24.

The Syndics of Cambridge University are gratefully acknowledged for granting permission to reproduce William Westall’s sketch. I am indebted to Antonia Malan for her helpful comments.

DRAWING: The Old Farmhouse at Kirstenbosch, from a pencil sketch by William Westall, October 1801. This is the only currently known image of the old farmhouse that played such a central role on the early history of the Kirstenbosch estate.

*This was published in the December 2002 edition of Veld & Flora

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