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Libertas – 18th Century Murals in South Africa

As is typical of Cape Dutch architecture, Libertas has a geometrically aligned façade. Photo: James Fennell.

Located in the vineyard belt outside the historic university town of Stellenbosch, South Africa, this celebrated “Cape Dutch” farmhouse dates back to 1699. Restored in the late 20th century, it is home to a fabulous collection of 18th century murals by the Dutch artist Jan Adam Hartman.




Should one be blessed with the good fortune of a gentle helicopter flight over Cape Town and its vast hinterland, one would be surprised at the alphabetical nature of some of the grander houses on bird’s eye view. The celebrated “Cape Dutch” houses of South Africa are, without exception, built in the shape of an “L”, a “T” or an “H”. More often than not, these homes began life as an “L”, had a further “⎯” added in the early 18th century to make a “T” and finished up as a perfectly geometric “H”. It’s all about extensions, gables, reconstruction and, that most Dutch of concepts, order.

Located in the vineyard belt outside the historical university town of Stellenbosch, Libertas – the 320-year-old farmstead of Mrs. Yvonne Blake – is a splendid example of a Cape Dutch home that has evolved in this way. Moreover, its interior walls are richly decorated with some of the most spectacular frescoes in South Africa. Fifty years ago, a visitor to Libertas might not have been bowled over by these ancient murals but, following a critically acclaimed restoration project in the 1990s, Jan Adam Hartman‘s 18th century masterpieces cannot fail to delight even the most philistine of art connoisseurs.

Libertas has possessed a colourful history since the first sandstone bricks were laid in 1699. Among its earliest owners was celebrated colonial wit and general trouble-maker Adam Tas, a Dutchman who wed the wealthy widow of the property’s original German owner in 1703. Tas was an unrepentant critic of the then Dutch province’s beleaguered governor, W. A. van der Stel, for which he was escorted in chains to the Castle prison in Cape Town. Upon his release in 1707, Tas is said to have exclaimed “Tas is Free!” and named his home “Libertas” in honour of the occasion.

A mural by the Dutch artist Jan Adam Hartman. Photo: James Fennell.

As is typical of Cape Dutch architecture, Libertas has a geometrically aligned façade. Running its full length is the traditional Dutch stoep (or veranda), built to keep the lime-washed walls of the house white. The lower portion of the wall are sandstone and clay while the upper half is composed of unbaked bricks and clay. It’s a time-consuming job keeping Libertas free of that often-intrusive South African dampness – Mrs. Blake must ensure that the roof and exterior woodwork are repainted and the walls lime-washed at least once a year. Moreover, the potential of the lime-wash to blind sunny day visitors with its brilliant white reflective sheen requires the walls to be given a deliberately uneven coat. Special attention must be paid to maintaining the building’s impressive gables, designed to support a food and storage loft, as these finely sculpted crests could easily be suffocated under excessive lime-wash.

Without doubt, Libertas’s chief attraction are the magnificent Hartman frescoes decorating the interior walls of the entrance, lounge and living room. The Cape was a wealthy place in the 18th century; its colonial society enjoyed a tremendous period of affluence until the Napoleonic Wars brought their boom-time to a halt. Few societies have resisted the temptations of prosperity to jolly their homes up for the benefit of their descendants. Almost all Cape Dutch houses – and at their peak, there were at least 3,000 of them – were given substantial face-lifts during the late 18th century. In general, this involved typical trompe l’oeil architectural engravings – dados, pilasters, cornices and such like. In the case of Libertas, the redecoration was considerably more imaginative.

Jan Adam Hartman was a promising young Dutch artist who arrived in South Africa during the 1770s to improve his ill health. He found employment as tutor to the six children of the Hoffman family, who had inherited Libertas earlier in the century. Hartman’s prowess with a paintbrush soon convinced the Hoffmans to commission him to execute frescoes throughout the interior of their (recently remodelled and now H-shaped) home.

Photo: James Fennell

A fresco is a painting done in water-colours on damp plaster, resulting in a mural with a very long life. Hartman seems to have combined his paints with egg-white so that the end results are significantly stronger and more enduring than those of his contemporaries. A further advantage of having frescoes painted directly onto one’s walls, as opposed to hanging paintings, is that nobody can effectively steal them.

Hartman’s frescoes are dated to 1779, the year in which the artist sadly and for reasons unknown took his own life. For the most part, these frescoes illustrate the seasons, arts and industries of the time as well as depicting images of a symbolic or religious theme. One entitled “Mischief” shows a young boy tickling the nostrils of a pretty girl as she sleeps beneath a tree. Another, appropriately located above the drink’s cabinet, shows Bacchus living it up as only he knew how. The most poignant of these frescoes is an unfinished one of two cherubs, painted in only two colours, which Hartman was working on when he died. The artist himself is shown in a self-portrait in the living room (or ante-kamer), keeping a watchful eye over the evidently mischievous Hoffman children.

Mrs. Blake concedes that, for all their grace and elegance, Hartman’s frescoes do rather dictate the entire interior design of Libertas. “In a house like this you don’t live as you would like to live. You live as the house allows you to live. It is difficult to maintain the original atmosphere and still watch cricket and rugby on the TV with your friends, so we have tried to make modern adjustments to combine the old with the new“.

Robbie and Yvonne Blake inherited Libertas in 1956 and promptly set about a restoration of the property to the splendour of its Hartman-Hoffman hey-day. The initial priority was to re-equip the building with original Cape Dutch period furniture. Two experts in this field, Jonathan Wood and Dr. Barry Biermann, were on hand to offer advice and Robbie Blake spared no expense in following their recommendations.

We wanted it to look like it had been lived in. It must not be too grand. Every carpet had to look as though two centuries of people had walked upon them“, explains Mrs. Blake.

Where items the Blakes specifically required were unavailable, they had them custom-made. The beautiful teak and yellow-wood dining room table and chairs, for instance, are exact replicas of those in the Burgerwacht House in Cape Town. To obtain permission to copy this furniture was quite an accomplishment and the Blakes had to promise that the suite would only be used at Libertas. When I visited Libertas in February 2000, work was underway on the restoration of the original Dutch yellow brick flooring. The sash and casement windows were still in good condition, with some panes showing the pearly finish created by adding silver during the glass-making process.

Hartman’s frescoes were painstakingly cleaned with an acetone mixture and revarnished by Mrs. Coethe Cohen, a German student living in Cape Town, starting in 1962. The restoration was widely hailed as one of the most formidable achievements in the field.

It would have been all too easy for the Blakes to have abandoned the costly restoration project and hidden Hartman’s faded frescoes behind a series of mirrors, portraits, drapes and conveniently high wardrobes. The Blakes are to be commended for their dedication. One thinks of Navarre, another successfully restored Cape Dutch home, whose owner Mrs. Win Chennels drew inspiration from a visit to Libertas.

Despite the aesthetic wonders on its walls, Libertas still exudes a remarkably homely atmosphere. As Mrs. Blake said, the house is essentially a farmstead. Either way, Libertas has surely earned its place among the grand houses of the Cape.

This story featured in Irish Tatler in September 2000, as well as Home Journal (Hong Kong) in 2002.