Treasures from Yesterday

Treasures from Yesterday

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Tucked away within a stone’s throw of the bustling motorway, and yet nestling within its own secluded corner of tranquil reflection, is The Brenthurst Library. What a very special place it is!

The Library houses the Oppenheimer collection of manuscripts, artworks, rare books, pamphlets and maps relating to southern Africa, spanning the period from the early explorers in the 16th century to the mid-20th century. It has grown into one of the finest privately owned Africana libraries in the world and includes approximately 20 000 books. The artwork on show is fascinating and includes a number of very special paintings as well as a set of detailed pencil sketches from the war. Some of the maps date from the 16th and 17th centuries.

The collection was started by Sir Ernest Oppenheimer in the early 20th century. His son Harry expanded it into what is now an internationally recognised institution. Marcelle Graham, the present Library Director, both cares for it and ensures its ongoing relevance and development.

The present building was specifically designed and constructed, and was opened in February 1984. The architect, Hans Hallen, wrote at the time:
“ There are hints in the design of the classical Grecian treasuries at Delphi and Delos, the ceiling vaults of Roman and Romanesque crypta, and the early work of Sir Herbert Baker in the Transvaal. But the building is none of these: The Brenthurst Library, though rich in allusion and association, is a building of our own times, designed for a unique occasion.”

Associated with the Library is The Brenthurst Press established to publish fine limited editions on the history and natural history of southern Africa. A number have been published and include a majestic production of François Levaillant and the Birds of Africa as well as The Jameson Raid: a Centennial Retrospective. Having recently read a biography on Jan Smuts I spent an absorbed 15 minutes in the latter and could very happily have continued.

Housed also on the premises is The Bindery. It practises the restoration and preservation of paper and leather and associated crafts such as leaf-casting, paper making, hand-marbling, gilding, binding and tooling, utilising innovative techniques to the highest archival standards. Allan Jeffrey manages this specialist craft and I spent some fascinating moments with him as he explained parts of the process and showed me some of his work. Included in this was a hand-made box, made to look like a book. Resting very snugly inside is a precious book the cover of which has begun to show signs of deterioration. It is always a great privilege to talk to a true craftsman and to see his work.

Understandably, since it is a private collection housed on private property, the Library is not open to the general public. It does, however, have a programme of exhibitions, and visits may be arranged. The current one includes The Mammals of Southern Africa which are glorious, especially as they were composed in the years before digital photography, and when wild life did not stand still! There are also occasional lectures on subjects relevant to southern Africa.

It is good to know that such an extensive collection, relative to a part of the history of southern Africa, has been put together and exists within the country. It does need to be preserved.

The website is worth a visit, and contains the information needed by anyone who might be interested.

Yesterday becomes a stepping stone into today. Always step higher.

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