Image 1: An aerial photograph of Oliewenhuis shows the garden’s formal layout with the main garden path as focal point, c. 1990s. (Photo: Oliewenhuis Art Museum)
The style and design of a garden often determine how it is experienced and appreciated by humans. Informal landscape gardens are best enjoyed by wandering around and exploring them serendipitously. In these gardens elements such as colour, texture, scent and sound stimulate the senses. On the opposite end of the scale, formal gardens are essentially visual gardens. In most cases, formal gardens may only be fully appreciated when seen from above. By viewing a formal garden from the air, the full extent of the garden’s formal design comes into its own. While the Western Cape, specifically Cape Town and the Boland region, are known for the many historically significant formal period gardens that have survived the ravages of time, including Stellenberg and Leeuwenhof, such gardens are scarce in Bloemfontein and the Free State. However, one Bloemfontein period garden that has not only stood the test of time but is also best appreciated from an aerial perspective, is the formal terrace garden of Oliewenhuis Art Museum.
Typically, gardens are vulnerable and ephemeral man-made creations. This is even more so the case with period gardens such as the Oliewenhuis garden. Without the necessary maintenance and care they wither and die within a short period of time, often without leaving any recognisable tangible remnants behind. Due to circumstances this fate has befallen a number of Bloemfontein’s historic gardens, such as Hamilton Park and the Prince’s Rose Garden at King’s Park, to name but two. Fortunately, the Oliewenhuis garden has survived to this day.
The well-known white gabled manor house on Grant Hill (previously Grant’s Hill) in which Oliewenhuis Art Museum is currently housed was originally built as the official Bloemfontein residence of the Governor-General of the Union of South Africa (1910-1961). The classical Cape-Dutch-style house was completed in 1942 by the Public Works Department (PWD). Seemingly, the garden’s layout was conceptualised even before the house was built, because the Bloemfontein newspaper The Friend reported as early as 1938 that ‘an exceptionally fine garden layout’ was being planned to complement the house. It also appears as if the garden was envisaged as a terrace garden from the beginning because the newspaper also reported that the planned garden scheme would ‘conform to and take advantage of the naturally rocky nature of the surroundings’. Evidently, the character of the natural environment had had a huge influence on the garden’s original design and layout in the sense that it defined an important feature, namely the terraced flowerbeds. Although a basic garden was laid out soon after the building’s completion, the garden as it exists today was only completed after the Second World War (1939-1945).
The front garden displays a predominantly formal design meant to complement the classical Cape-Dutch architecture of the house. Not only does the garden’s formal design do justice to the house, it is also emblematic of the garden style preference that reigned supreme in South Africa during the time when the garden was laid out. South African gardens remained predominantly formal until the end of the 1950s, after which gardens became more informal and natural-looking. The garden at Oliewenhuis may be described as a formal terrace garden that is oriented according to the north-south axis. A straight garden path is aligned with the house’s front door in order to visually establish the north-south axis (Image 1). In actual fact, the garden path is the garden’s main feature and its importance is further emphasised by terraced flowerbeds on both sides of the garden path (Image 2). This arrangement also reinforces the axial view from the original garden gate in Harry Smith Street, leading right up to the front door and straight through the back door (Image 1).
Highlighting the garden’s classical design, clipped privet (Ligustrum spp.) hedges were planted to ‘edge’ and partially enclose sections of the flowerbeds. These substantial dark green hedges also emphasise the terraced steps and keep the overall design regimented, orderly and unified. Prominent period features of the garden – some of which do not exist anymore – include a long pergola that was constructed behind the house and a lily pond situated not far from it. A rectangular formal rose garden was laid out parallel to the pergola (Image 3). Essentially, the Oliewenhuis garden is a structured garden. In addition to the long garden path, the other permanent features such as the terraces, broad steps, and the stone retaining walls add a strong architectural element to the garden. During the early 2000s the pergola and rose garden were removed to make way for a restaurant and kitchen facilities that were added to the main building. Fortunately, the lily pond was left intact.
Among the famous visitors who had either stayed over at Oliewenhuis or had just briefly paid a visit, the British royal family is probably the most well-known. During March 1947 King George VI, his wife, Queen Elizabeth, and their two daughters, princesses Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret, visited Bloemfontein as part of their South African tour. The basic garden that was initially laid out in front of the residence during the early 1940s was greatly enhanced and developed for the royal family’s visit (Image 4). In the months leading to the visit between 200 and 300 workers were on site daily to construct the terraces, stone retaining walls, steps and decorative masonry, among other things.
The royal family stayed in the stately residence for three days, namely from 7 to 9 March. Despite a busy schedule they still found time to wander around and enjoy the garden. Coming from England that was still in the grip of late winter, the distinguished visitors must have appreciated Bloemfontein’s sunshine and clear skies. Official photographs that were taken of the family in the front garden and under the pergola (Image 5) were published in local newspapers.
Over the years the Oliewenhuis garden was well-maintained and also developed by the planting of trees for shade, among them exotic trees, such as oak trees, including the cork oak (Quercus suber) and the evergreen oak (Quercus reticulata), as well as cypress trees (Cupressus spp.). Indigenous trees, such as karee (Rhus pendulina) were also planted later (Image 6). The randomly planted trees created a park-like atmosphere in some areas of the garden. In addition to the trees, small shrubs, notably ornamental broad-leaf privets clipped into fashionable topiaries (‘lollipops’), were planted on both sides of the garden path (Image 7). Unfortunately, some of the trees have died due to the severe drought conditions that were experienced in recent years and also because of the concomitant tight water restrictions that were enforced.
Despite the setbacks, the Oliewenhuis garden has stood the test of time and presently it is still a major attraction in Bloemfontein. Fortunately, most of the original features of the front garden have remained intact and visitors may still appreciate the garden’s original blueprint as outlined by the steps, terraced flowerbeds and masonry. Because of its historical significance and popularity among Bloemfontein’s residents, the Oliewenhuis period garden must be maintained and preserved for posterity.
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Oliewenhuis Art Museum Photographic Collection.
Schoeman, K. Bloemfontein: Die ontstaan van ’n stad, 1846-1946 (Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 1980).
Die Volksblad, 31.10.1934, p. 7.
The Friend, 31.10.1934, p. 7; 4.12.1937, p. 12; 17.6.1938, p. 9.