On my 13th birthday my parents gave me a fantastic book by GE Pearce on Eighteenth Century Architecture in South Africa, in recognition of my burgeoning interest in buildings.
Pearce was A.R.I.B.A. and Professor Emeritus in Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand. Originally published in 1933 (Mine is the third and last edition of 1968), the scholarship and the detailed plans and elevations drawn to scale distinguish this book as the definitive text on the subject. Each building illustrated with photographs and measured drawings and the book has to be one of my favourites.
I got it out last night to have a quick flick through, as one does at 11 o’clock at night, and tucked inside the dust-jacket I discovered a full set of my very first architectural photography efforts! These pictures were one of the main reasons why I started being obsessive about both photography and architecture. They are printed on glazed single weight paper and are pretty much as they were when I received them back from the chemist in 1976, a testament to the thorough washing they must have received! (Chemical residues are the main cause of silver image deterioration.)
The pictures featured a study of Stellenberg the nearest Cape Dutch house to our home and I remember my visit very well. The house belonged to the Ovenstone family at the time who were, and I presume still are, a pretty influential local family and my father kindly arranged for me to visit it one week-end. So armed with my Kodak Instamatic 33, which produced square images 24×24, we arrived at the grand gates. My heart was racing, partly because of the anticipation of being let into the grand building and partly with the anxiety of meeting the very wealthy inhabitants.
But I needn’t have worried, they were great, warm and welcoming and soon I was roaming around with my camera whilst my father sat inside talking the man of the house no doubt. I had spoken to my uncle (see http://wp.me/p32AWy-3V) prior to the day and he had advised me not to try to do anything inside as the camera I was using couldn’t do long exposures so they would look rubbish. So I took nearly all my pictures outside but had a good look round inside too just because I was interested. Then they asked if I would like to go up into the loft which really was the icing on the cake. Funnily enough I have no recollection of what the space looked like but I did take a picture of the window which was an early lesson in the limitation of film over the eye!
These buildings have a definite appeal and an assured place in the history of the South African vernacluar. But this acknowledged and having just spent two years working on the Canterbury Cathedral book photographing some exquisite workmanship I was interested to note just how rough and primitive the work is on many of these buildings.
This is no doubt the main source of their charm and beauty: these were buildings built out of rough landscape with limited skilled craftsmen and limited materials and it is really only the wealth and ambitions of their owners that saw the structures come into fruition.
Stellenberg was the perfect introduction to Cape Dutch Buildings and historic architecture in general, and almost without doubt, were it not for the welcoming Ovenstones and my Instamtic 33, I would not be photographing (and loving) architecture today.