Situated in the hub of Cape Town on Greenmarket Square, the Old Town House houses the Michaelis Collection. The building was formerly the City Hall, built in 1755 in the Cape Rococo style.
Donated by Sir Max Michaelis in 1914, the Michaelis collection consists of a world-renowned selection of Netherlandish art from the seventeenth-century Golden Age. There are works by Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Jacob van Ruisdael, Anthony van Dyck and numerous others.
The role played by building and collection in the cultural life of the Mother City is enhanced by its prominent position right in its historical centre on Greenmarket Square. But this role also continues after-hours, as the popular venue for chamber-music concerts and lectures on a variety of cultural topics, meetings by cultural organisations and receptions in the Van Dyck and Frans Hals Rooms or in the intimate courtyard behind the building.
And, in addition to the permanent collections, there is a consistent flow of special, temporary exhibitions widening the scope of the museum to cater for the cultural interests of all Capetonians and tourists alike. Thus, the Michaelis Collection in the Old Town House has become a place to which to return from time to time.
History of the Michealis Collection at the Old Town House:
This museum is 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.
The story of Max MIchaelis:
Sir Max Michaelis was born to Jewish parents in 1852 in Eisfeld, Saxe-Meiningen, Germany. He attended the commercial school in Nuremberg and afterwards sailed for South Africa where he arrived in Port Elizabeth in 1876. He then moved to Kimberley in 1878 where he rose to prominence as a diamond dealer, founding the Cape Diamond Mining Company, which was later taken over by De Beers. He later moved to Johannesburg where he became manager of the Central Mining and Investment Corporation, which conducted the business of Wernher, Beit and Co. Michaelis thus became what is termed a “Randlord”; a plutocrat whose incredible wealth was based upon his mining exploits in this country. Between 1896 and 1919 he lived in England, retaining his ties to South Africa and still working for the same firm. He returned to Cape Town in 1919, settling at Montebello in Newlands, which is today an arts centre. He made numerous gifts and benefactions, including gifts to other art museums, bursaries and the establishment of a Chair of Fine Arts at the University of Cape Town.
Michaelis’s gift of the Michaelis Collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings to the Union of South Africa in 1914 was a ploy to obtain a knighthood, unfortunately made on the eve of the First World War. Despite his gift made in 1914, his German birth precluded him from obtaining it until well after the War’s end. He was duly knighted in 1924. He eventually died in Zurich, Switzerland in 1932. His gift of the Michaelis Collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings is the most substantial gift of art made by any South African Randlord. It was substantially expanded with further gifts by his wife, Lilian, Lady Michaelis in 1933. She also made gifts to the South African National Gallery and the Pretoria Art Museum. She later founded the Lady Michaelis Orthopaedic Hospital in Plumstead, Cape Town, which has now closed. The Michaelis legacy and name lives on in the following South African institutions:
MICHAELIS COLLECTION OF DUTCH AND FLEMISH PAINTINGS
MICHAELIS ART LIBRARY, JOHANNESBURG
MICHAELIS SCHOOL OF FINE ART, UNIVERSITY OF CAPE TOWN
Portrait drawing of Sir Max Michaelis by John Singer Sergeant
Portrait of Lilian, Lady Michaelis, by Edward Roworth, oil on canvas
Friends of Michaelis:
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In 1993 a society of Friends of the Michaelis Collection was established. Its aim is twofold: to stimulate interest in the collection and the activities of the Museum, and to channel financial and active support for its work. At a time of decreasing governmental subsidies for cultural institutions like ours, this will help provide a much-needed lifeline.
In return, its members receive free invitations to the exhibition openings, lectures, concerts and to all the many other cultural activities organized by the Friends of the Museum itself, free of charge or at a reduced rate. They also qualify for occasional discounts on publications, etc.
Thus, members can enjoy the privilege of belonging to an ever-growing support for one of Cape Town’s most beloved cultural institutions.
Contact us to request the application form for joining the Friends of the Michaelis Collection.
Ordinary membership: R35 p.a.
Ordinary membership (family): R50 p.a.
Life membership: R350
Life membership (family): R500
Corporate members (minimum): R100 p.a.