The beauty of some of the genuine treasures of life, is that they are hidden. They have managed to live out their entire existence quietly, unself-consciously and often quite obscurely, away from the bright lights and polished packaging of the modern media.
So rare are they, that we tend to assume they aren’t there.
But on an in-flight travel magazine I found an article about Katherine Love and the Lindfield house in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, where she lives.
The house-museum appealed to me not only for the treasure trove of antique objects that would given curious insights into the everyday routines of the Victorian upperclass, but also for the trendy architecture of the building. The work of Sir Herbert Baker (South Africa’s Louis Vuitton of late 20th century architecture but without the possibility of cheap mass imitation), would have made it one of the must-have properties in Johannesburg, and probably still does.
I was of course also curious to meet Katherine herself. For how does living in such surroundings, especially if done completely authentically, leave trace marks on a person’s character? I admit that my sensors were put on alert for signs of eccentricity, affectation or even delusion as I arrived early and waited in anticipation.
At the appointed time she appeared, as promised in the write-up, dressed as a Victorian housemaid, looking quite at home in the long black dress, apron and white cap.
Her soft-spoken gentleness gave her the presence of an other-worldly being – one perhaps whose philosophy is that the time, place and pace at which one lives is a conscientious decision, and she has made hers long ago.
Well-versed in her art, we are introduced to the most extraordinary collection of Victoriana, all of which have been safely accumulated and passed down by the women in her family since the 1800s.
There is the beautiful and delicate, the marvellous and contrived, and then the curious and wholly unexpected. It seems the Victorians really did think of everything.
My favourite was the moustache protector, a curved piece that sits across a tea-cup specially made for gentlemen. If necessity is the mother of invention, then just imagine the embarrassing scene that must have warranted this – with a young man’s reputation hanging precariously in the balance after accidentally soaking his bristles in his Early Grey in a moment of wild abandon.
But great-aunt Fanny had no room to let her guard down either. Say what you like about the tight-laced and puritanical nature of the Victorians, but I was shocked to see that a ladies’ undergarment had to be made of more-or-less two separate pieces tied together at the waist, which created a gaping hole in their nether-regions.
For she was apparently so well-dressed that there was simply no time to get those layers off when the call of nature came. All kinds of practical questions came to mind, and I was convinced there must have been a piece missing, but I respectfully chose to bottle my curiosity out of respect for the dignified host.
And then there was a cage construction made of concentric hoops which ladies wore to fill out their dresses – with the fashion coming abruptly to an end after it was discovered that when sitting down too quickly, one side would bang against the edge of the sofa forcing the other end up into the air and thus breaking the poor lady’s nose. (And moreover, I thought to myself, also giving that underwear and its contents an airing that was not be forgotten.)
Amusements aside, this was a place where time seemed to stand still. Every room was really a shrine to taking one’s time in the world:
– The front room for drinking tea with visitors who “called” on you when it was your “at home” day of the week;
– The music room dedicated to performing an array of beautiful instruments, and spending long hours entertaining your way through its vast collection of sheet music;
– The wood-panelled library, where a large leather armchair invited you to sit by its fireplace and read from its well-stocked collection with a pipe in hand; and
– For the non-smokers, a private recess offering a writing desk for hibernating amongst its letters, newspapers, and magazines.
Well, perhaps such a lifestyle is over-romanticised by those who have the luxury to pass through for just a morning, rather than live the actual experience, but the sense of a different pace of life seemed real enough.
And so emerging back into the daylight (Victorians kept their houses dark in order to protect their delicate silk curtains and woollen carpets from the ruins of sunshine), we were invited to sit on the veranda, while Katherine disappeared into her kitchen.
Lulled by the patient pace of the morning, the heat of the summer sun and the indulgence of a mini-high tea, it was natural to slip into a state of contemplation. We made comparisons with our modern lifestyle, whether technology had brought us an advanced quality of life, and, either way, how important some of the rituals of the past still are today.
Moreover, thinking back on it later, I realised I had observed not a drop of theatrical embellishment, no feverish displays of passionate attachment to this piece or that, and no delusions nor fantasies over the nature of her existence here. Measured, objective and forthright in answering all our questions, she emitted only a quiet appreciation of what had been left to her, and a resignation that this was indeed her means of livelihood – though how much by choice, I had little idea.
And so with her heritage and home revealed, I resigned myself that Katherine herself would remain a mystery – and perhaps this was entirely appropriate to the carefully constructed world of the delicate and private Victorians of yesteryear.
Much as I may have come with wanting my curiosity to have been satisfied, I left with far more: the sense of having being brought to a place of peace.