n De Arte - The gift that keeps on giving : Cape Town's Michaelis Collection at the Old Town House : collecting and curating

Volume 2012, Issue 86
  • ISSN : 0004-3389
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Housed in the Old Town House, one of Cape Town's oldest civic buildings which was built in 1755 in the Cape Rococo style (1), the Michaelis collection of Dutch and Flemish art of the Golden Age is the largest of its kind not only in South Africa, but possibly in the southern hemisphere. There is certainly nothing like it in Australia or New Zealand, and nothing in Brazil despite the Dutch trading connections there. As Jillian Carman (1994) shows, of the well over 400 works of this era in South African public and private collections, the majority are held in the Michaelis Collection. As such, it is an extraordinarily valuable resource, not only in terms of the relative scarcity of works of this era (it is a sobering thought that of the literally millions of Dutch works painted in the 1600s, it is estimated that a mere 1.5 per cent have survived into the twenty-first century), but also as a historical and archival resource that can inform and complicate our understanding of South Africa's colonial history. As Hayden Proud (2012), the current curator of the collection puts it, 'it all just goes to show that these works are in fact fragile survivors, even if they now seem (for us in South Africa) a colonial imposition'.

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