History of the Michaelis Collection
In the Old Town House
In this museum, one of the most exquisite little art museums in the country, both the collection and the building in which it is housed are of great aesthetic and historical importance.
The early Cape Dutch building, one of the architectural gems of the Mother City, houses a precious and internationally renowned collection of the artworks by 16th to 18th century Dutch and Flemish masters.
Situated on Greenmarket Square in the heart of old Cape Town, the Old Town House was one of the first double-storey buildings when it was erected in 1755-1761 under the governorship of the popular Rijk Tulbagh. The Cape-silver trowel with which its first stone was laid by Baerendt Artois, member of the Court of Justice, is still on view in the Museum.
With its proud three-arched portico, its gay green shutters against the white and yellow plasterwork, its exuberant moundings and fanlights and its quaint belfry the Old Town House, for all its modesty, is as endearing a little Rococo building as any found in Europe.
The Old Town House also known as the Burgher Watch House reminds one of the days that the little settlement on Table Bay became a City with its own civic pride and institutions. It served, at one time or another, as the seat of the Burgher Watch, as that of the Burgher Senate, as a magistrate's court and as a police station. Then it became Cape Town's City Hall which it remained until, in 1905, the City Hall on the Grand Parade was completed.
City Hall becomes art gallery
For a while, the future of this important link with the past was uncertain. But a splendid new use for it was found as a result of the mediation of Lady Florence Phillips, wife of "Rand baron" Sir Lionel Phillips, to whose initiatives the country owes a number of fine cultural institutions. It was she who had prompted the British art collector Hugh (later Sir Hugh) Lane to assemble a collection of Netherlandish old master paintings that could one day form the nucleus of an art museum in South Africa. And when a new use was sought for Cape Town's Old Town House, it was she who found her friend Max (later Sir Max) Michaelis prepared to purchase the Lane collection and present it to the South African Nation in 1914. Thus he could show "his gratitude for the many happy and prosperous years ... spent in this beautiful country".
Sir Max Michaelis, whose bronze bust by sculptor Moses Kottler can be seen over the fountain in the courtyard, was a British-born Johannesburg businessman. The Michaelis Collection is not the only institution that benefited from his generosity. His name is also associated with libraries, a hospital and with the Michaelis School of Fine Art.
The City of Cape Town responded to Sir Max's gift by making available the Old Town House, and present it to the Union Government. The architect J.M. Solomon was commissioned to restore the building. He adapted its interior to its new function and gave it the appearance of a 17th century Dutch guild-hall, though leaving the exterior largely as it was first built. The magnificent stairway and the panelled and beamed Frans Hals Room upstairs – once the home of the City Council – are especially worthy as a setting for the fine collection on its walls. The new art museum – the first in Cape Town – was opened to the public in 1916.