Masterpiece:  The Queen of Sheba sits in the centre of the tapestry,  Africa.,   owned by Cecil John Rhodes. Picture:  IZIKO SOUTH AFRICAN NATIONAL GALLERY
Masterpiece: The Queen of Sheba sits in the centre of the tapestry, Africa., owned by Cecil John Rhodes. Picture: IZIKO SOUTH AFRICAN NATIONAL GALLERY

Fibre "is not meant to last forever", says Louise Man-Nel. Yet, her job requires her to try and arrest time. She is probably the only experienced textile conservator in SA and her meticulous attention is focused on a 17th century Flemish tapestry that usually hangs in a staircase at Groote Schuur in Cape Town.

The "Big Barn" was built by the Dutch East India Company around 1657 and four intricate tapestries were hung inside.

In 1893, it was bought by Cecil John Rhodes. He hired a then unknown architect, Herbert Baker, to renovate the building. A beauty of a house with barley-sugar chimneys, gables and teak beams was the result. Rhodes filled it with beautiful things – including artefacts from the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, which no doubt Zimbabwe would like to have returned.

The house was bequeathed to SA after Rhodes’s death and became the prime minister’s official abode. FW de Klerk was the last statesman to live there. Nelson Mandela chose to move the president’s residence to Genadendal (previously Westbrooke), on the same estate.

Intricate detail: Textile conservator Louise Man-Nel in front of the tapestry, Victory, one of a set of four in the house. Picture: JANINE STEPHEN
Intricate detail: Textile conservator Louise Man-Nel in front of the tapestry, Victory, one of a set of four in the house. Picture: JANINE STEPHEN

Now, time ticks away inside Groote Schuur. Cabinet ministers and officials who live on the estate can use the house’s impeccable rooms — awash with antiques and leather-bound books — for events and President Jacob Zuma and former president Kgalema Motlanthe stayed there briefly.

But aside from the 200-odd visitors a month who book a tour, it has become a hushed and thoughtful place. Exquisite inlaid travelling chests (old people’s laptops, says the guide), grandfather clocks and ceramics stand in the dark. Drapes and doors are usually kept closed to protect the treasures within from sun and air.

There is activity in the "family room", however. A makeshift work space has been set up, a dehumidifier hums. Man-Nel, wearing white gloves and a head torch, pours attention on a tapestry named Africa.

It is gently rolled up on a special stand, with just the top section exposed: a hint of palm tree leaves and ancient stitches.

But Africa is not in great shape. There are bald patches where the silks have more or less disintegrated — inevitable as the tapestry’s weight pulls on the fragile fibres

A digital image shows the whole. It was made before European explorers had reached far into Africa, so it is based on Biblical imagery. The Queen of Sheba sits in the centre, with a Lion of Judah and a Nubian slave at her sides. Other figures, fauna and foliage make up a rich whole.

The hand-woven tapestry is one of a set of four in the house. It was designed by Antwerp-born Lodewijk van Schoor (1650—1702) and is known for designs such as the "Four Seasons" and "Continents".

Continents are also represented on two of the other Groote Schuur tapestries: America and Europe. For many years, the fourth was thought to represent Asia, but it is Victory – part of another set.

Bought in London in the 1800s, Africa and Europe were aptly given to Rhodes by an uncle, and Victory and America to his cousin Miss Peacock. They were later presented to Jan Smuts when he was living at Groote Schuur and the quartet was reunited.

But Africa is not in great shape. There are bald patches where the silks have more or less disintegrated — inevitable as the tapestry’s weight pulls on the fragile fibres.

In the 1970s, restorers added a Velcro strip to affix it to a wall. When it was taken down, says Man-Nel, "the Velcro and backing were literally holding together with two or three stitches. It was just a matter of time and we would have found it all fallen down, torn beyond repair."

She has cleaned the tapestry, sucking out ingrained dirt. All detritus is carefully stored in plastic pill boxes, matched to the square of tapestry it came from. A considerable amount of black soot was sucked out – possibly dating back to a fire that ripped through the house in 1896.

Man-Nel learnt her trade at a state-funded foundation for textile restoration in Haarlem, Holland and worked on tapestries that hung in the Noordeinde Palace in The Hague.

Although South African museums and several other sites contain all sorts of textile items, from period clothing to beadwork, "no museum has a [full-time] textile conservator", says Man-Nel. Besides much-needed repair work, this means that "general housekeeping" is often neglected. "There’s a huge, huge gap" for specialised conservators in SA," Man-Nel says.

The South African Institute for Heritage Science and Conservation is launching a postgraduate diploma in Technical Conservation Studies in 2018, which could help alleviate the shortage of experts. The University of Pretoria will also offer a master’s degree in Tangible Heritage Conservation Studies in 2018 or 2019, the only one of its kind offered by a university in sub-Saharan Africa.

But right now, Groote Schuur is in need of attention. In the drawing room, hand-painted leather panels dating to 1680 (and newer copies ordered by Rhodes) are bubbling from the walls. There is a problem with damp and the roof is said to need repair. The Department of Public Works — which is responsible for upkeep — had still not respond to queries by the time of going to printpublication.

The Africa tapestry has been rescued in the nick of time. The work that has been done to strengthen and save it from further deterioration should last for up to 50 years.

As Man-Nel says, "conservation is a developing science" and by then more advanced techniques may be available to beat back time.

• Tours of Groote Schuur must be booked in advance. Contact Najwaa on 021-686 9100.

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