Art Nouveau in Oudtshoorn

By A. Holtzhausen of the C.P. Nel Museum
from RESTORICA– APRIL 1987, pp. 21-26

[I opted to translate this article from Afrikaans via Google Translate to enable search engines greater access to its content. It makes mention of feather palaces that are not frequently referenced elsewhere.]

In articles that describe Oudtshoorn’s ostrich feather palaces and other buildings, the term “Art Nouveau” is often mentioned, which may sound strange to the layman. In this article, this term is introduced to the reader and how it applies to the architecture of Oudtshoorn and the Klein Karoo.

Paris

Art Nouveau is a term used for an international style of art that flourished between 1895-1905. It is named after a Paris store that sold modern objects and works of art, the “Maison de L’Art Nouveau”. In Germany it was called Jugendstil, in Austria Sezessionstil and in Spain Modernista. As is so often the case in art history, it was resistance or protest against existing orders and customs that led to different new periods of style. Art Nouveau was no exception in a time when the sterile boom of contemporary art and architecture reflected 19th-century industrial technology and mass production.

William Morris

Already in 1861, the English “Arts and Crafts” movement, under the direction of the poet, artist and craftsman William Morris, sought to reunite the division between work and pleasure and the art and craftsmanship that arose from it. The solution was sought in a return to nature as a concept and dexterity as a means of depicting it. The result was organic shapes rendered in a highly decorative style with strong fantasy elements.

Characteristic of this is the emphasis on a dynamic, flowing line, better known in English as the “whiplash line.” Seagrass, flowers, French “fleur-de-lis” (lis = lily), creepers, wavy hair curls and flames were common motifs not only used in visual arts, but also in architecture, furniture, wallpaper, poster and textile design, glass, ceramics, book illustrations, even jewelry and women’s fashion.

Ostrich Feathers

Because ostrich farmers, livestock dealers and traders of the Little Karoo have experienced so much unusual wealth at the turn of the century with the export of ostrich feathers, they also competed to build homes, each grander and more lush than the last. The higher tax revenue also gave local authorities the opportunity to erect equally imposing public buildings, of which the old Boys High School and the current C.P. Nel Museum is a good example. Regular contact with foreign countries through export and import trade also brought the Art Nouveau style to Oudtshoorn.

Cast Iron: Decoration and Fantasy

The Village House Museum in Hoog/High Street (1904) and Gottland House (1903) and the Sladowski House (1907) in Baron Van Reede Street are good examples that represent the characteristics of Art Nouveau. One is the emphasis on decoration and fantasy. The influence of the American architect, Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) may also apply here in his view that decoration and ornamental elements should emphasize the structure of a building. Plant-like curls, flowers, stems and leaves in cast iron decorate the roofs, towers, eaves, balcony railings and railings of these homes. Its fantasy element is emphasized by the contrast of white or cream fine “cast iron” against a backdrop of a blue sky, red or green roofs and sand-colored, rough stone walls. However, it is only the lavishly decorated overall image that is Art Nouveau in character and not the cast iron designs themselves, which are rather classic and Victorian. Only Sladowski’s grille is typically Art Nouveau with its lily motif in flowing, linear wave patterns. The same design adorns an old section of the Queen’s Hotel next to the C.P. Nel Museum (see photo). Interestingly, this combination alternates rows of straight, vertical lines with the organic, limp curves of lily motifs.

Color and Stained Glass Windows

A combination of simple organic and geometric line designs was also ideal for colored stained glass windows. The above three houses, as well as many others in the town and on farms in the area, boast this beautiful Art Nouveau character. The decorative use of flat surfaces, bright colors, and dynamic lines was inspired by the influence of Japanese printing and Chinese and Japanese ceramic designs. Often the theme was based on symbolic painting. Flowers, birds, and butterfly wings were popular, as were completely abstract decorative patterns. An exceptionally beautiful example of this is the front door with side panels and housing of the J. Nochamson House in Hoog/High Street (1912) which is currently converted into apartment units. Semi-abstract patterns in dynamic, organic flowing lines and flat tones of crimson, purple, blue, light and dark green colors leave the visitor to this home with a startling wonder. This represents another style feature of Art Nouveau, namely the use of color as a decorative element in architecture.

Wallpaper

Color as a decorative element was also applicable to the use of wallpaper with Art Nouveau designs for interior decoration. Examples of these in their original state in houses in Oudtshoorn are almost unavailable today, but reasonable pieces and scraps are found in the C.P. Nel Museum, preserved for research. For example, there is a beautiful piece with a landscape scene consisting of vertical brown trunks that are reflected further in winding riverbeds, a low corrugated hillside as a horizon line and crowned with green shrubs. Flat levels of olive green in different shades contrast strongly with a bright yellow sky. The design itself is typically Art Nouveau with flowing, organic stylized lines. Apart from color, it is precisely the highly linear, decorative plant-like designs of Art Nouveau with a sensual undertone that could best be illustrated in wallpaper as an architectural element. (See sketch of wallpaper sample.)

Sandstone

Another style feature of Art Nouveau is the use of natural building materials and solid construction in architecture, in response to 19th-century steel and concrete mass-production buildings. It would thus promote crafts and craftsmanship, combined with art. Oudtshoorn’s old architecture meets this ideal in that the buildings from the ostrich feather flowering era are all of chipped sandstone, creating a solid, heavy look. However, sandstone was not deliberately used for this reason, but rather because it was locally available and a logical choice for a building material that could provide shelter from the extreme temperatures of the Little Karoo. It was also extremely suitable for decorative elements on the exterior of the buildings as it was soft enough to cut shapes and patterns from it. Examples of this are seen especially in public buildings.

Cornices

A very specific abstract Art Nouveau style feature is featured here, namely long or short square pillars crowned with a very flat, projecting platform, usually on the cornices of a building. At the Standard Bank building in Church Street (1904) it is located above the two large side windows. This style attribute can be traced back to the Scottish architect Arthur Mackmurdo (1851-1942) who used it as a personal style feature in his architecture. (The Reid brothers of Cape Town responsible for the design of the Standard Bank building were contemporary to Mackmurdo and originally came from England in Plymouth, so they undoubtedly “borrowed” this style from Mackmurdo and applied it to their own architecture.) An interesting fact is that the wooden counters inside the Standard Bank building show exactly the same style characteristic. On the accompanying photo, the long thin “pillars,” flattened with distant platform pieces, are clearly visible. That it has become a particular Art Nouveau style can be confirmed by looking again at the cast iron grille of Queen’s Hotel and Sladowski House. The top third of them crowned the same “pillars” with the platforms, only on a much smaller scale. It is also often seen in furniture pieces from that period, as well as in book illustrations, letterheads and other designs of various kinds.

Verandas

[The work of] Henry van de Velde (1863-1957) of Brussels, regarded as the creator of Art Nouveau architecture, was characterized by long, daring undulations and rounded corners rather than rectangles.

Although corrugated roofs of verandas had already made their appearance throughout the Victorian period, the trend accorded with Van de Velde’s view that Art Nouveau allowed no straight lines. Art Nouveau also contributed to this by adding other sections of the roofs of houses, for example to the fish-scoop bay window of the house in Baron Van Reede Street in photo (j). The wall with windows under the tall spire tower is also rounded. Curved wall angles later became a feature of the Art Deco style, which followed directly on Art Nouveau.

These basic style features also apply to different types of architectural elements in buildings, such as door and door locks, window clips, lampshades, fireplaces and wall moldings.

Art Nouveau as a popular style died an early death, mainly because its best works were too expensive and not suitable for mass production. The dynamic, flowing, rhythmic line designs of Art Nouveau were very applicable to the architecture of Oudtshoorn, because it was symbolically representative of the thriving ostrich feather industry (1900-1913) and the wealth and growth it brought about.

Bibliography

Figure captions

  • Figure 1: The distinctive “whiplash line” of Art Nouveau speaks for itself in this sketch of a beautiful cast iron fireplace in “Foster’s Folly” (1904).
  • Figure 2: A typical example of a plant-like Art Nouveau wallpaper design from the old Standard Bank (1904)
  • Figure: The Village House Museum [Le Roux Townhouse] in High Street, Oudtshoorn (1904). Emphasis on decoration and fantasy as an Art Nouveau feature is beautifully depicted in the lavish lace-cast ironwork at home.
  • Figure: Art Nouveau-style cast iron grille with a lily motif in front of the Queen’s Hotel, Oudtshoorn.
  • Figure: The wooden counters inside the Standard Bank building (1904) with their upright pillars crowned with distant platform pieces.
  • Figure: Beautiful Art Nouveau stained-glass windows of the front door with side panels and residence of the Nochamson House (1912) in High Street. A kaleidoscope of crimson, purple, blue, light and dark green colored glass.
  • Figure (a): Organic Art Nouveau floral designs adorn the brass fireplace shade of the beautiful cast iron fireplace in the Onverwacht farmhouse, while the flowers on the tiles were executed in a more stylistic Art Nouveau design. The tiles are pale yellow, with crimson roses and leaves in green shades.
  • Figure (b): A cast iron fireplace border with Art Nouveau designs originating from La Hermosa house in Adderley Street.
  • Figure (c): A brass door plate and doorknob in flowing, organic Art Nouveau design.
  • Figure (d-g): Colorful Art Nouveau stained glass designs, all in house “La Hermosa” in Adderley Street.
  • Figure (h): Door and living windows with stained glass of the Schoeman residence which is currently known as “The Experimental Farm.” The exterior of these colorful windows is lined with brass instead of lead.
  • Figure (i): A smaller Art Nouveau residence of another [Israelsohn?] house in Adderley Street.
  • Figure (j) A good example of a house in Baron Van Reede Street [Marincowitz House] with a rounded wall angle below the tower section and rounded corrugated iron roofs.

[Yes, three different figure numbering approaches are used within the article.]