The History of Ellerman House
There are more than 1000 artworks at Ellerman House, which can tell the story of the development of art in South Africa. The house, built in 1906, was originally a haven of peace and tranquillity for generations of seafarers and travellers. In 1988 it was acquired by Paul Harris, renovated and extended to include 11 rooms. A serene modern villa was added in 2004 and in 2013 they welcomed another villa and The Ellerman House Wine Gallery; unique in concept and architectural execution. Now Ellerman House is an alluring, enchanting and fascinating sanctuary for its guests who are beguiled by the artworks ranging from 1820 to the most recent contemporary works.
The art collection grew with the house developed. The earliest works in the collection by Edmund Pink and Thomas Bowler reflect the colonial history of the Cape of Good Hope and are fittingly exhibited in the house with its Edwardian charm and homely atmosphere. As one moves through the house one becomes aware of the passage of time as reflected in the visual readings of the paintings. One realises that art is not a practice devoid of social and political influence.
Before 1907 artists in South Africa looked to the West for artistic excellence. Frans Oerder (1867-1944) and Tinus de Jong (1885-1942) whose work can be seen in the library, where exponents of Dutch Romanticism. Their paintings are emotionally loaded, idyllic landscapes that show the grandeur of nature with picturesque atmosphere. Artists such as J H Pierneef (1886-1957) and Jan Volschenk (1853-1936) expanded the landscape tradition to identify with the aims and aspirations of Afrikaner nationalism. Pierneef’s paintings of empty, ordered landscapes can be seen in the lounge of Ellerman House, and are highly prized collector’s pieces.
In Sept 1948, the Exhibition of Contemporary South African Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture opened at the Tate Gallery in London and subsequently travelled to Europe and Cape Town. This event heralded one of the principal aspirations of local artists, that of international recognition of their art abroad. Many of these artists such as Cecil Higgs (1898-1986), Terence McCaw, Maggie Laubser (1886-1973), Irma Stern (1894-1966) and Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993), who are well represented in the Ellerman House collection, campaigned for a fresh vision in the South African art world.
By 1976 a significant shift occurred in the canon of ‘high art’ from representation of the land to a sophisticated rhetoric of the nation’s objective modernity that was in tune with the aspirations of a modern nation state. Public art showed a dramatic shift towards ‘figurative abstraction’ with just enough ‘earthiness’ to register it as African. For example, Alexis Preller’s blend of abstraction, symbolism and surrealism was nourished by romanticised notion of the exotic and an historical trope. Walter Battiss’ work was ever-receptive to new influences such as Picasso, Pop Art and an infusion of petroglyphs of the San.
After viewing about 500 works in the main house, one can meander through the garden past many large contemporary sculptures to the lower terrace where the Contemporary Gallery is situated. In 2002 Paul Harris began acquiring more contemporary pieces and since these did not fit well in the main house, the need for a separate space became evident.
Approximately 60 works are exhibited here and new works are regularly added. The artists here, such as Sam Mnlengethwa, Anton Kannemeyer, Lionel Smit, Angus Taylor, Marco Cianfenelli, Cameron Platter and William Kentridge, are amongst the most celebrated contemporary artists in South Africa.
The modern Villas are home to larger, mostly contemporary works that suite the ambiance of the villas. The work of Deborah Bell, Phillemon Hlugwani, Regi Bardavid, Georgina Gatrix, Vusi Khumalo, John Meyer and Christene Dixie can be seen here. Just below Villa Two is the Wine Gallery with functional artworks by Angus Taylor incorporated into the architecture.
Apart from guided art tours through the collection, guests to Ellerman House can book guided city art tours to the top art galleries in Cape Town and there are also art tours organised to the wine farms that have art collections.