Thursday, July 28, 2011

The spoons

Photograph courtesy of David Murray,
Before Groot Constantia I collided with Cape silver at the slave lodge, one of the oldest buildings in Cape Town, a difficult place.

The British dealt with it by rolling their government offices over the top, and later the Supreme Court. However, the record-keeping of the Dutch was so meticulous that the ghosts are chillingly present. Hundreds, thousands of names survive: Titus, Hannibal, Scipio, Moses, Solomon—choices closely allied to the naming of horses and other livestock. Fortune, Aap, Pattat, Pickle Herring, Dikbeen van de Kaap (literally thick-leg): gestures of contempt. A more systematic method gradually evolved, which at least provided Abram Solena van Java, Ticia van Mosambique, Jabinoe van Zanzibar, Nasfoe van Batavia, Claas van Malabar, Matombar van de Rio de la Goa, Cupido van Bengalen, Paria van Bali, Walale Jerrirano, and Maas van Nias the benefit of some vestigial memory of place, which leaves Angala, Thaviemma, Kafisie, Marimoreo, Schkanaljar, Onbelatie, Lubbert, Bappa Saeya, Sidie, Sabienpoin, Nareloe, Ontong, Fortamij, Tauhite, Oemar, Ringe, Baakka, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera... How do you make sense of the grim legacy of this building, and the evidence it furnishes of global displacement, misery, and death?

Photograph courtesy of David Murray,
I suppose it is redemptive, in a way, to scramble upstairs and discover something wholly beautiful, but upon much reflection afterwards, of course there is in this a ghastly paradox. The same colonial society that was capable of inflicting such unthinkable suffering upon innocent people, upon entire communities, purely for the benefit of the shareholders of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, could at the very same time produce a species of object that attests to the remarkable aesthetic judgment of its silversmiths, their sensitivity, their instinct for volume, shape, balance, and perfect proportion—spoons!
Photograph courtesy of David Murray,

Until then I had been wondering where in the Cape I would find any really substantial evidence of the earliest colonists’ aesthetic engagement with their remarkable surroundings—taking into account the ferocious Protestantism they brought from Holland, and their nose for business. Upstairs at the slave lodge, of all places, the penny dropped.

Photograph courtesy of David Murray,
Here are glorious basting spoons (“druplepels”), serving spoons (“opskeplepels”), and teaspoons (“teelepels”) by Johannes Combrink (ca. 1781–1853), Willem Godfried Lotter (fl. 1770–1810), and Marthinus Keet (fl. 1819–1860); sauce ladels (“souslepels”); soup ladels (“soplepels”), and mustard spoons (“mosterdlepels”) by Frederik David Waldek (b. 1808), Cadier Abdol (fl. 1847–1854), Dominique Baudouin du Moulin (fl. 1822–1833), Johan Voigt (fl. 1783–1791), Lawrence Twentyman (fl. 1818–1832), and Jacobus Johannes Vos (fl. 1800), all brought from the collection of the South African National Gallery.

I suspect the plainness and the general schemata were imported from Georgian and Regency Liverpool, but the sensuousness of the bowls, their sculptural flair, their generosity without “fatness,” to say nothing of the harmony of each transition from bowl to stem, the shapeliness of the whole article, its simplicity and refinement, the avoidance of embellishment, and the mastery over form—these set the Cape silversmiths apart. By any measure these men were major artists, but—really, seriously—who were they?

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