Tour of Koopmans-De Wet House
Surviving records indicate that 18th century townhouses, especially those of the more prosperous burghers, were well furnished with paintings, mirrors, carpets, curtains, gold and silver objects. Porcelain from China and Japan was much in evidence, as well as Dutch Delftware. Pewter was used extensively, particularly in the early part of the century, but very little has survived. Copper and brass kitchenware and other domestic articles were the rule. Furniture was made out of indigenous woods, especially stinkwood, as well as imported woods. With Batavia in Java being the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, and the Cape being the important halfway house, it was natural that eastern woods, furniture and goods would be brought to the Cape. It is also possible that other colonial furniture such as Portuguese and French could have reached the Cape.
Most of the interior woodwork, the doors and shutters, are made of deal. The jambs and posts of the doors as well as the floors and beams are made of teak.
This is where a formal visitor to the De Wet family would enter the house during the early 19th century. Most other people, such as delivery men or servants and slaves, would go straight to the courtyard or kitchen area, entered through an alleyway from Long Street.
A tablet commemorating Dr W F Purcell's contribution to the restoration of the house and its establishment as a museum is seen to the right as one enters the building.
Originally there was a screen dividing the entrance from the inner hall. The hinges are still to be seen. The console table in the Neoclassical style and the hanging lamp are part of the original Koopmans-de Wet collection.
During the late 18th / early 19th Century, the rooms to the left and right of the entrance hall were probably formal and restricted to family and visitors and their personal slaves. It would be here that business was done, social and political gossip exchanged and the family's achievements put on display.
Today the drawing room reflects many aspects of this Dutch colonial life. Amongst the furniture is a gabled bureau-bookcase, indispensable around 1800. This one has been adapted as a display cabinet. The sofa, dated to c.1770, came from the Cape Orphan Chamber and is mentioned in the Chamber's inventory. Two small portraits on the wall depict Rev François Le Sueur, minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in Cape Town from about 1729 to 1744, and his wife, Johanna Catharina le Sueur, née Swellengrebel (1711–1740). Johanna Catharina was the sister of Hendrik Swellengrebel, Governor of the Cape from 1739 to 1751.
Various Cape personalities are depicted in the miniatures above the fireplace: Petrus Borchardus Borcherds, born in Cape Town in 1786; Susanna van der Poel, née Smuts, born in 1743; an unidentified gentleman and an unidentified lady from the late 18th century; and a miniature of Anna Geertruida Wykerd from c1830. The fireplace itself is a very rare feature of the period, probably owing to climatic conditions, lack of firewood or danger of fires. Instead, foot warmers were used in which a container with hot coals was inserted. There is another, probably 19th century, fireplace in the music room of the house.
With the Cape being the halfway station between Europe and the East, many Eastern ceramics found their way here, such as the blue and white porcelain tulip vase, the famille rose dinner and tea services from the late 18th and early 19th centuries and the Japanese imari covered jar from the same period.
The stinkwood gabled display cabinet built into the wall, dated c.1750, originates from the farm Leeuwenjacht, Paarl. It was installed by Dr WF Purcell [link]. Its contents comprise a variety of famille rose porcelain made for Rudolph Cloete of Constantia, 1790–1800. A duplicate of this cupboard can be seen in the morning room. They were used as display cabinets for glass or porcelain.
This room probably functioned as a combined bedroom and gathering place in the early 18th century. But as the century progressed rooms became more specialised, and by the late 18th century it would have become a gathering place for visitors or for doing business, or it could have been a dining room as it is now.
Food would have been cooked in the kitchen, perhaps by Kito, the slave cook, and his helpers (see tour of the kitchen [link]), and carried through to the dining room on porcelain and earthenware dishes from China, Japan or Britain. Blue and white Chinese export porcelain (Nanking or Canton) was particularly well-liked at the Cape, and is used in this room to lay the table. It continued to be made in diminishing quantity during the 19th Century.
Notice the Cape buffet from 1780–1800, with its zinc basin, fold-out leaves and folding shelves. It depicts the early development of the sideboard, and was used for washing up glasses and porcelain in the dining room, as well as to contain bottles and a warming plate. The display cabinet on stand dates from 1775–1800 and houses a selection of late 18th and early 19th century silver tableware. Much of this was reputedly bought in 1834 by the Van Breda family of Oranjezicht, with money given as compensation for freeing their slaves.
The Cape at this time was known for its hospitality and the availability of vast quantities of food. The types of food that were eaten must be seen against the background of the various cultures that settled at the Cape – a combination of French, Dutch, German, Eastern and Malay flavours. Porcelain, silver and glassware were much used as can be seen on the dining table.
This room, known as the gaandery, functioned as the centre of the house, and was the point from which the mistress of the house, Margaretha Jacoba Smuts, could organize the daily life of the household. Sitting close to the window overlooking the courtyard, she would be able to see the comings and goings of her slaves, mother her children, check who entered at the front door, and perform any other tasks that were required.
When the mistress of the house needed to go out, she would be taken in the sedan chair, which would be carried on poles by two slaves: one in the front and one at the back. The sedan chair in this room belonged to Maria Margaretha Horak, and dates from the early 19th century.
Rooms at this time were lit mainly by candles placed in sconces fixed to the walls, in silver candlesticks on candle stands, or in brass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The chandelier hanging from the ceiling bears the name Martinus Lourens Smith and dates from c.1780. It is one of a set made for the Lutheran Church in Strand Street, built by Martin Melck (who was Marie Koopmans-de Wet's great-grandfather).
To the left of the lower hall is an area currently used as a staff room, but which Mrs Koopmans used as a summer bedroom.
Small sitting room
Items of interest in the small room on the left, on the way to the music room, include a Cape 18th century day-bed and a box of amboina and ebony. It is said that the box was a shroud box, in which Mrs MM Horak (Marie Koopmans-de Wet's maternal grandmother) kept her burial clothes. This is the same Mrs Horak to whom the sedan chair in the lower hall belonged. There is also a display cabinet with small personal accessories, such as shoe buckles, perfume bottles and snuffboxes, from the late 18th and early 19th Century.
The engravings on the wall depict views of Amsterdam and the Cape of Good Hope. One of these views of the Cape shows the mountains in reverse, and was possibly intended for use with a light placed behind it.
The music room with its square piano from c 1830 is characterised by the beautiful spiral friezes and medallion painted above the fireplace. In one corner stands a Cape gabled corner cupboard with a Japanese Imari porcelain garniture set on top of the cornice. Such garniture sets were made especially to decorate gabled cupboards, and there is a similar set in the dining room.
Important ceramics in this room include a covered baluster jar which dates from the 17th century, which is one of the earliest pieces in the house. Armorial porcelain can be viewed in the display cabinet. An interesting example is a plate from the first half of the 18th century (middle shelf), adorned at the centre with the arms of John White, an Englishman who came to the Cape in 1700. He married into a Dutch family and identified himself so closely with his new country that he chose to be known as Jan de Wit. He became a prominent Cape resident and held official positions on several occasions during the 1730's and 1740's. The plate formed part of a dinner service ordered from China between 1740 and 1750. De Wit died in 1755. This item of armorial porcelain is possibly the earliest in South Africa.
The settee was once used in the Wale Street office of the civil commissioner of the Cape, prior to which it was used in the office of the Council of Policy at the Castle.
Morning room and kitchen
The present morning room, cooler than the kitchen with its open hearth, was a spot where heat-sensitive food might be prepared on a marble-topped table, or where the final touches would have been added to dishes on their way to the dining room. There is a 19th century Frisian tail clock, a common sight in the kitchen area of many a Cape home.
In the kitchen itself, one can visualise the displayed equipment display in use. A slave, the "houseboy" July, might prepare a fire in the hearth early every morning, and hang a kettle of water over it, poured out of the water-vat in the corner. Later he might pour the hot water into a washing basin to bring to his mistress upstairs for her ablutions, keeping some aside to make himself a warm drink. He might sit for a while on one of the simple spindle chairs kept for the less grand areas of the home while he had the time.
The fire needed to be kept going all day long in order to prepare food for the various meals. Meals were large, considering that there were five children in the family, and at least seven slaves in addition to this.
The cook, Kito of Mosambique, might prepare and boil a ham in one of the pots hanging over the fire, or he might be preparing a stock, simmering on a trivet close by. At the same time loaves of bread could be baking in the oven to one side of the hearth.
Preserving food was an important ongoing activity, changing with the seasons. During late summer Kito might look out for extra local fruits to preserve for winter; or he might buy an extra-large quantity of fish going at a bargain price, in order to pickle or dry it for the leaner months. Such food would be stored upstairs in the pantry, in earthenware jars such as the martavaans or wooden vats on display. And in addition to all this, young July would probably still need constant supervision as he performed one of any number of tasks: washing dishes in one of the wooden tubs; polishing the silver; churning the butter; mincing the meat; skimming the fat off the stock; or adding some more wood to the fire.
Other activities might spill over into the courtyard. If his craft wasn't being rented by someone else, the slave Jonas van de Kaap, a cooper, might be making vats in order to augment the income of the family, with one of his little children looking on. And Lafleur and Lendor, the slave woodcutters, might just be returning home with loads of wood that they had gone to fetch, bringing with them some of the local gossip they picked up on the way. If it was Sunday, Lafleur and Lendor would perhaps take the mistress to Church in her sedan chair, with Jonas trailing behind, carrying her special church chair. The church chair on display has the names 'D W Willem Marais' and 'P H du Toit' carved into it.
The staircase is not the house's original one, but was replaced in 1913 by a staircase from another old Cape Town building.
Along the walls there are some historical views of Cape Town and Table Bay.
Outer buildings in the courtyard
The ground floor of the outer buildings in the courtyard was probably used as a coach house and stables.
The question arises where the slaves might have slept. Perhaps Jonas, Citie and their children (Hector and Jacob) slept in one of the two upstairs rooms, and the others in the other one. It is likely, too, that some of the personal slaves slept in the house close to their mistress, so that they could be at hand immediately if their help was needed in the night.
There is a small original wall painting of a mid-19th Century ship in the top right-hand room.
Today this room contains amongst others a late 18th century Cape linen-press. Imagine Citie or Theresia pressing and ironing the linen, or placing it between the two boards of the linen-press and then applying pressure by turning the spiral screw. From here the linen would be folded and placed in the drawers of one of the armoires in the bedrooms.
The pantry is connected via a trapdoor to the kitchen below, but the stairs / ladder that once led down to the kitchen was removed by Dr WF Purcell [link] during the restoration of the house. Imagine this room around 1800, packed with cream-coloured Staffordshire tableware, as well as blue and white porcelain from the East. In addition, perhaps, martavaans filled with pickles, preserves and the like, wooden bins containing grains and flour, and strings of onions hanging from the roof.
During the 18th century the upper hall would probably have been used for general chores of a more intimate nature. Picture here a wet-nurse nursing a young unweaned child, or Kado the tailor working on clothes for the family.
Notice the portraits of Admiral Christiaan Blom and his wife Helena Louisa, which show costume typical of the 2nd half of the 18th century. The identity of the woman depicted behind Admiral Blom remains a mystery. The staircase in the corner leads up to the flat roof, from which incoming and outgoing ships could be seen.
While beds during the early part of the 18th century were often downstairs to show off their valuable drapes, sleeping became a more private affair during the late 18th century. Bedrooms moved upstairs and these rooms were refurbished with bedroom furniture. Four-poster beds remained common at this time.
The two linen armoires in the main bedroom (on the left) are from the Koopmans-de Wet collection. One of them boasts Cape silver mounts made by DH Schmidt. Silver furniture mounts were popular at the Cape, where the art of the silversmith was intensively practised. It is noteworthy that the first owner of this property (in 1699) was Reijnier Smedinga, a silver assayer from Friesland.
Only by the early 19th century did attention to personal hygiene warrant the presence of washing facilities such as bidets and basins in a bedroom. There is an example of an 18th century bidet in the second bedroom [use image with bed's new drapes] (on the right).
Of note in this room too is the cheval mirror in the French Empire style. It was reputedly part of the cargo intended for Napoleon Bonaparte's friend, the Countess de Bertrand, who chose to stay with him when he was banished to the island of St. Helena. Being of French origin, the islanders prevented the cargo from being off-loaded and sent it on to the Cape. The cargo was put up for auction on the quay and the mirror was bought by Mrs Koopmans-de Wet's maternal grandfather, JA Horak. It remained in the family from then on.
It is not known what the original purpose of this room, situated between the two bedrooms, was. A study of the plasterwork reveals that there was once a doorway through to the main bedroom, and it is believed to have been a dressing room.
Today this room is hung with banners discussing the life and times of Marie Koopmans-de Wet, and creates an awareness of the less famous, but nevertheless present, people who made it possible for Marie to maintain her upper-class lifestyle.
In Pieter Malet's [link to occupants of the house] time this must have been another bedroom to accommodate some of his 16 children. Today this room is a library, as it was during the ownership of Advocate Johannes de Wet, the father of Marie Koopmans-de Wet, and some of the shelves and books in the bookcase date from this time.
Note the early 19th century watercolour of the Table Valley indicating some of the settlements and names of the owners.
A door leads from the upper hall into a short passage with friezes painted on the wall. These rooms were possibly used as pantry and store rooms. According to Dr Purcell [link] all walls, windows, ceiling beams, and flooring are part of the old structure of the house. The rooms have now been adapted to allow disabled access to the upper floors of the house.
Until recently this part of the house was occupied by the resident curator but is now used for educational activities amongst others and is not generally open to the public.