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Government House (Tuynhuys)
Cape Town, Western Cape

Louis Michel THIBAULT: Architect 1790
Gabriël Theron (Gawie) FAGAN: Restoration Architect 1968

Date:1790 : 1968
Type:Government Buildings
Status:Extant
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Tuynhuys, the Cape Town office of The Presidency, has in various guises been associated with the seat of the highest political authority in the land for almost two and a half centuries. The building seemingly had modest beginnings with the earliest known reference to the site being in 1674 when the Dutch East India Company first built a "garden house" to store the tools for the Company's large garden first established by Jan van Riebeeck in 1652. In about 1682, the toolshed was converted into a guesthouse to entertain foreign visitors of the Governor Simon van der Stel.

The building was renovated and enlarged numerous times until 1751 when it was first recorded that the building was being used as a summer residence by the Governor, a custom which the historical record seems to bear out for all the Dutch Governors that century. By 1790 the building was known as The Governor's House in the Company Gardens ('Het Governiurs Huys in de Compagnies Tuyn') and by this time - as reflected in the drawings of Josephus Jones circa 1790 - the gardens side of the building already had its rococo balusters with its stucco drapes and Greco-Roman sculptures.

From a design perspective, the building, incorporating both Louis XVI-style, Neo-classicism and Baroque elements, was influenced by 18th Century Dutch and Dutch East Indies architecture of the time. Similar facades, windows, doors and fanlights can be seen in Colonial buildings built in the same period in places such as Amsterdam and Batavia (modern-day Indonesia).

The plans for the building and the overall design are largely credited to the French architect Louis Michel THIBAULT (1750- 1815) who studied under Louis XVI's Architect-in-Chief. However, the artistic detail of the outside facades, including the sculptures of the infant Mercury and Poseidon drawn from Greek mythology holding the banner on which the VOC emblem of the Dutch East India Company was emblazoned, are variously attributed to a sculptor Jacobus Leeuwenberg, a Dutchman and sculptor Anton Anreith (1754- 1822), a German, both of whom are known to have worked extensively in the Cape in the last quarter of the 18th Century. Yet it is not as well known that much of the infrastructure of the Cape at this time was built by slaves, including the actual construction of buildings.

By the late 18th century slaves drawn from Madagascar, Angola, India, Java, Malaysia etc. outnumbered settlers in the colony. In more recent years historians have acknowledged the fact that certainly during the period around 1790 skilled slaves were the only artisans in the colony. Their artisan skills were to a great extent relied upon, a fact borne out by the recorded comments of many early travelers to the Cape, one of whom famously wrote that no settler would: "put his hand to any kind of handicraft". Skilled slaves often undertook building and artisanal work for wealthy farmers, businessmen and government. These slaves were so well-established that in the early 19th century visiting British royal commissioners recorded that recently arrived English and Irish settlers were often apprenticed to local slaves from whom they were learning trades.

Saddlery, masonry, cabinet-making, wood-work, carpentry work, and plastering, such as in gables and pediments, have long been skills associated with slave craftsmen - especially those of South East Asian descent - and their descendents in the Cape. The actual manufacture of the Tuynhuys door as well as the construction of the building is shrouded in the mists of time and history. Yet research on slave history in the Cape give insights from which it is possible to make an informed deduction. Historian Robert C.H. Shell has speculated on the provenance of a not dissimilar front door to be found at Genadendal, the President's Cape Town residence (previously known as Groote Schuur Estate). It is documented that the Genadendal door was bought in the early part of the 20th century from the demolished original farmhouse of the Elsenburg farm in Stellenbosch by Cecil John RHODES for his estate.

According to Shell the original door might very well have been the work of a slave called Rangton van Bali, who was captured on the island of Bali and sold into slavery in Jakarta to Jacob de Jong, a well known Cape slave trader. He was brought to the Cape where he was in turn sold to Samuel Elsevier, the Fiscal of Governor Simon van der Stel, to whom Elsevier was related by marriage.

Rangton was a skilled carpenter who eventually bought his own freedom in 1712 and practiced as a successful artisan until his death in 1720. Shell speculates that it was Rangton who would have made the original majestic door of the farmhouse at Elsenburg farm which Simon van der Stel had granted Elsevier in Stellenbosch. This was the very door which was bought by Rhodes, a known collector of architectural artefacts, a hundred years later.

From what we now know about the role of skilled slaves in the construction of Cape buildings during the late 18th century, and the historical reconstruction of the life and occupations of slaves such as Rangton, it is reasonable to suggest that the original Tuynhuys building, its doors and windows, may very well have been executed by slaves.

After the second British occupation in 1806, the building, now called Government House, underwent a complete change of character. In accordance with the fashion of architectural simplification which swept the Cape at the time, the decorative façade and other baroque adornments from the Dutch period were plastered over and concealed, to create a Georgian-style building typical of the period. Governor Lord Charles Somerset extended the building on both sides to accommodate a ballroom, a magnificent staircase and fireplaces. It is said that he wanted the building to be suitable for a representative of the Monarchy. Indeed in 1947 the British Royal family stayed at Government House on their visit to South Africa.

In 1968, Cape Town architect Gabriël FAGAN undertook the complex task of restoring the building to its former 18th century glory. The 1790 drawing by Josephus Jones and another by the French architect THIBAULT were used by FAGAN to recreate the garden façade of the building. The Jones sketch shows a frieze and balustrade of 24m which was built over at the time of Lord Charles Somerset. After careful excavation it was discovered that the stucco garlands and other floral decorations and relief work, conforming to the Jones drawings, had remained reasonably intact.

The two Greco-roman sculptures had however not survived. Mr FAGAN commissioned Sydney Hunter to recreate the entire balustrade while the wood carvings were executed by the Greek craftsman, Josef Vazirkianzikis. FAGAN was mindful of the incremental additions and changes over the centuries, and these he sought to reflect sensitively in the restoration. Consequently, Tuynhuys, as it was named in 1972, was restored as authentically as was possible to its 18th century state, while incorporating the best features of later additions to the building. The result has been a harmonious synthesis.

[An article extracted from the website of the Presidency by Nazeem Mahatey, sent to us by William MARTINSON, March 2010]

Government House, Government Avenue, was originally a garden house for the first Governor, Simon van der Stel, in 1682. Later, as a summer residence for Dutch and British Governors, the house underwent a never-ending series of changes in the hands of Thibault, ANREITH, SCHUTTE, William Somerville and, inevitably, Herbert BAKER. The good, classical appearance it achieved when Schutte remodelled it in 1800 has disappeared and, until recently, the house resembled those of the late 19th century Georgian period, having a low-pitched slate roof and typical Georgian chimneys. A large, lavishly decorated Ballroom added by Lord Charles Somerset, although slightly altered in 1901 and now used for State receptions, is an elegant survival. At the time of writing the house is being restored to its late 18th century appearance.

(Greig 1971:89)

After 1925 William JONES was government overseer of works and therefor responsible for work done at Government House. There is a receipt (right) which reads "Cape Town 15 July 1825, Received from Mr William Jones! Three hundred and Twenty three Rix dollars - payment for Plasterwork done in Government House between 13 and 30 May 1825. Signed H Schutte".


Writings about this entry

Crump, Alan & Van Niekerk, Raymund. 1988. Public sculptures & reliefs Cape Town. Cape Town: Clifton Publications. pg 38
Fagan, G. 2005. Twenty Cape Houses. Cape Town: Breestraat Publikasies. pg 54-61
Greig, Doreen. 1971. A Guide to Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins. pg 89
Hartdegen, Paddy. 1988. Our building heritage : an illustrated history. South Africa: Ryll's Pub. Co. on behalf of the National Development Fund for the Building Industry. pg 35
Pearse, GE Fig. 33. Plan of Government House: in Pearse, Geoffrey Eastcott. 1957. Eighteenth century architecture in South Africa: pp 39
Fassler, J Plate 11. Government House, Cape Town. Detail of facade (1798) [Reconstructed from the sketch of Herman Schutte 1798 by D. H. Schutte 1910 J. Fassler Delt]: in Pearse, Geoffrey Eastcott. 1957. Eighteenth century architecture in South Africa: pp 61