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Sharing the History of Cape Town… One Room at a Time

Poised between land and sea, between the ancient Table Mountain and bustle of the working historic harbour that is the V&A Waterfront. We are ideally positioned, not just to explore all the many delights that Cape Town offers, but to delve back into history. Indeed, it is the early formation of the Cape as a refueling station, that has inspired our decor and infused our identity. Antiques, murals, rare furniture and even our bedcovers tell the many tales of the Cape, the story woven throughout every floor and in each and every one of our totally unique 120 rooms. Let us peel back the layers of modernity and take a peek at the early years of the ‘Cape of Good Hope’, and how it marries into the sense of time and place we hope to impart to our guests and visitors with our ‘home away from home’.

 

The Company’s Gardens

Image by @Hcorver

While nomadic indigenous people have long populated the shores of the Cape, Dutch settlers arrived in 1652. They were sent by the Dutch East India Company (Dutch: Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or simply VOC), with instructions to establish the Cape as a halfway refueling station for ships travelling to Asia. They quickly established the historic Company’s Gardens (still in existence today), to provide the fruit, meat, wine and vegetables, as well as the remarkable canals that channeled freshwater down from the mountain to the gardens below. These too, can be seen in certain parts of the CBD and form a part of the City Cycle Tour.

Image: @FromCapeTownWithLove

At Cape Grace, our second floor is home to the Company’s Gardens Two Bedroom Suite. The curtains in the lounge display is a reproduction of the VOC mandate given to the settlers to create a refreshment station for the company, dated 30 December 1651, while the tapestry in the lounge shows a bird’s eye view of the Company Gardens – a reproduction of an etching created in 1719 by Peter Kolbe.

Citrus was a key part of the VOC plantings, and this is captured in the Lemon Bedroom. Lastly, in another bedroom, the bedcover is a stylised layout of the Company’s Gardens, with the broad strip carrying the scientific names of many of the Cape’s flora.

Of Food and Fine China

The Dutch were quickly followed by the first wave of Asian immigrants, who were banished to the Cape by the Dutch Batavian High Court. The mix of skilled artisans, slaves and even royalty, formed the basis of our Cape Malay population, with many families settling in the much-photographed colourful Bo Kaap area. At Cape Grace, our style of cuisine is directly influenced by our Malayan heritage, Chef Malika van Reenen deft at weaving the heavenly spices, scents, and flavours into aromatic culinary delights inspired by over 300 years of Cape cooking.

 

Of course, as a port, ship life was and continues to be an important part of the Cape (if maritime history intrigues you, we strongly recommend that you visit the Chavonnes Battery Museum, where you can actually stand on Cape Town’s original shoreline).

Cape Town’s treacherous shores meant that ships often met a watery end (we have the rescued ship’s manifests and broken china to prove it). However, the ones that made it through, were often laden with treasures, sourced from Japan, China, Europe and Indonesia. Much of our decor pays homage to ships and popular finery that met our shores.

Imari was the name of the port in Japan that controlled the Japanese porcelain, most of it being sourced from a town called Arita. It was in the 1640’s that new techniques were introduced into the processes that enabled the ceramicists to work with colours, such as red and gold. Over the years the red, blue, white and gold porcelain became known as simply Imari, and often recorded in inventories of Cape Town homes – symbols of wealth for gentry and officials. In our Imari Three Bedroom Suite, the tapestry in the living room depicts reproductions of various Imari plates, combined with names of select VOC ships. The three bedrooms respectively showcase Imari porcelain, Japanese lace and the story of the voyages undertaken to bring these to the Cape.

Ironically, despite the fact that the Dutch East India Company (VOC) held the monopoly on the export of Japanese porcelain between 1656 and 1756, collectors at the Cape had to acquire these pieces surreptitiously as they did not form part of the official local imports.

 

The Castle of Good Hope

Image by Craig Howes

We could not speak about the history of the Cape without mentioning the castle! The Castle of Good Hope, the first permanent European fortification in the area, began in 1666. Finally completed in 1679, the castle is the oldest building in South Africa.

At Cape Grace, this vital piece of history is brought to life in the Castle of Good Hope Two Bedroom Suite. The tapestry in the lounge showcases the Castle layout surround by the names of the five bastions. The Castle layout is a reproduction of an etching published in 1719 by German astronomer Peter Kolbe, commissioned by the Dutch government to compile an all-round description of the Cape.

 

Finishing off with Furniture

The Cape Grace collection is one of the most important and comprehensive public collections of furniture and artifacts owned by and displayed in a hotel in South Africa. The collection consists of more than 300 pieces of original antiques that were all made or used locally.

The term Cape Furniture refers to all furniture made at the Cape between 1700 and 1900. Society in this far-away colony was highly stratified right from the beginning of the Colonial Period, and the furniture that was made locally reflects this social segregation. Three main categories can be identified: Patrician Furniture, Country Furniture and Folk Furniture.

Around the Governor and other top officials of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) a patrician society soon started to express its own standards and tastes. This resulted in the development of a Patrician Furniture, popularly referred to as “town” furniture. It was made for and used by the wealthy officials who lived in 18th and early 19th century Cape Town.

Cape Country Furniture forms the biggest part of the Cape Furniture heritage. Even though Country Furniture took its stylistic inspiration from the more sophisticated Patrician Furniture made in Cape Town, these pieces were anything but second-best or watered-down copies.
 Furniture with a robust character and made from a combination of light and dark timbers was popular. Most of the country pieces were made by qualified craftsmen who adapted the patrician fashions to suit their clients’ tastes and aesthetic sensibility.

Finally, Folk Furniture was made in remote locations by craftsmen and women who often had little or no official training. This genre developed out of necessity; in this case, the needs of the farmers and pioneers who travelled to the deep country in search of opportunities. With limited access to professional furniture makers, these intrepid men and women had to make everything they needed, including their own furniture, often using nothing more than a pocketknife and the endemic timbers they found in the veld.

Iconic pieces from each distinct category are dotted throughout the hotel. We invite guests to ‘hunt’ them down, ticking them off the list available from concierge. For those invested in learning more about antiques and art in the Cape, we also offer an exclusive day-long tour. Speak to our concierge for more information and availability.

 

Blog post by Tarah Darge

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