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Yvonne Brink. 1993. The octagon: an icon of Willem Adriaan van der Stel's aspirations. SA Archaeological Bulletin Goodwin Series 7

Two of the three octagonal features in the Cape archaeological record are known to be associated with Willem Adriaan van der Stel. The third, the voorhuis at Nieuwland, is generally attributed to Ryk Tulbagh. The paper questions this widely-held opinion and argues for a Van der Stel link with the third octagon as well.

When contrasting the longitudinal design of Newlands House with the traditional transverse Cape Dutch style, and comparing the social background and the social aspirations of the two governors, Van der Stel emerges as the more likely candidate for the design of the dwelling The octagon could have served as an icon for his fascination for French geometry and European status symbols.


One of the most arresting features of Willem Adriaan van der Stel’s Vergelegen is the octagonal wall which integrates the whole complex (Markell 1993). A second use of the octagon is known from descriptions of the church built at the Cape during the first few years of Willem Adriaan van der Stel’s governorship. Van der Stel’s journal entry of 28 December 1700 reads as follows:

New foundations were marked off by the Consistory of a proper depth and width, that a suitable edifice might be raised on them in the form of an octagon (Leibbrandt 1887:152).

The geometric motif was repeated inside the church in theshape of the pulpit (Hall 1992).

In this paper I want to focus on the figure of the octagon, to explore its significance for Willem Adriaan van der Stel and to relate Willem Adriaan’s fascination with it to another octagonal feature hidden away in the archaeological record of the Cape - the voorhuis in the lodge at Nieuwland, now known as Newlands House.

Whereas connections between Willem Adriaan and two of the only three known Cape octagonal features rest on firm foundations, the third octagon, the voorhuis of Newlands House, has been attributed to Governor Ryk Tulbagh, who is believed to have built a new house at Nieuwland in 1751 with a gabled facade and a pitched roof of thatch (Visser 1989).

I shall argue here for a revision of this opinion also held by De Bosdari (1953), Fransen and Cook (1980) and most other people (Lewcock 1963). There are strong indications that the octagonal voorhuis ought to be attributed to Willem Adriaan van der Stel. Visser (1989) provides sufficient documentary evidence to demonstrate that Tulbagh did indeed bring about changes at Nieuwland. The question is whether or not these changes involved the building of a completely new dwelling. It is an important problem, because if Van der Stel was indeed the designer of Newlands House, it means returning to this dwelling the fifty years of its history written off by authors such as those mentioned above. It also means that in Newlands House, which has retained much of its basic shape, we have some visible remains of a building dating to the earliest years of the eighteenth century, a rare phenomenon in Cape architecture.

Newlands House

Finding a Van der Stel link with the government farm Nieuwland is not difficult. Visser (1989), Dc Bosdari (1953) and Fransen and Cook (1980) all acknowledge such a link. Theal tells the story more fully: since the Company farm Rustenburg was unable to produce enough food for supplying hospital, garrison and ships,

Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel caused a new one to be laid out a short distance beyond Rustenburg and spent much money on its ornamentation. In this garden, which bore the name of Newlands [sic], a lodge was erected, which grew half a century later into the favourite country residence of the Governors (Theal 1964:399-400).

The question I shall try to answer is: did Ryk Tulbagh merely alter the Van der Stel lodge, or was the old lodge abandoned and a new residence built from the foundations up as De Bosdari (1953), Fransen and Cook (1980) and Visser (1989) believe? Thompson (1968), perhaps taking Theal’s words about the lodge “growing into” the favourite country residence of the governors literally, says that Tulbagh gave it a Cape Dutch facade, implying alterations rather than rebuilding. Since no archaeological report is available on the excavations carried out during restoration of the place after it burnt down in 1981, we have to rely on information from other sources.

The earliest existing diagram of Nieuwl and is that drawn by Josephus Jones in 1791 and housed in the archives of the Topographical Services at Deift (Fig. 1). Two features are of interest here: an ill-defined, but undoubtedly L-shaped dwelling which the legend specifies as the gouverneurs huys (governor’s house), and a geometrically designed sterrenbosch (star wood, a wood with diagonal paths, French in origin [Oldenburger-Ebbers 1990]). Were these relics from Van der Stel’s time which were merely kept in order by Tulbagh? Or were they entirely Tulbagh’s handiwork?

A second diagram (Number 37/1798) from the Deeds Office, Cape Town is more clearly defined (Fig. 2), and shows a floor plan which seems to coincide with that of the Jones drawing. The ‘bites’ taken out of the short leg of the inverted L are courtyards and the one at the end of the long leg exists to this day. Tulbagh’s Cape Dutch facade would have graced the end of the long leg immediately behind the three trees. Visser (1989) calls this the east front.

After Tulbagh’s time there were further alterations to the dwelling. Lord Charles Somerset elaborated the east front with bow windows and a verandah, but by the winter of 1827 the front part of the house had fallen into decay and he whole of the east front, that is the stoep and the three roms behind it, were removed (Visser 1989). Even today one enters directly into a very long passage with rooms one behind the other on either side and exiting into a courtyard at the west end.

Additions to the south side during Somerset’s time made the plan resemble an upright T rather than an inverted L. One at first tends to feel that it is this addition which makes the place look distinctly ‘odd’ in terms of traditional Cape Dutch architecture. What really makes it look odd, however, is the fact that it is not a traditional Cape Dutch house at all. Cape Dutch houses are transverse houses, which are very different to the longitudinal houses typical of Dutch urban architecture. Cape Dutch houses have their front rooms one beside the other with entry into a long side which forms the facade. The seventeenth century Dutch town house had its narrow end to the street and rooms were placed one behind the other with a passage most often running from front to back (Jones 1986). Lewcock (1965:18) characttrizes the two types as follows:

The central space projecting backwards at right angles to the facade creates a plan generally called the ‘transverse’ plan, in opposition to a plan whose major development or axis takes place parallel to the long facade of the building.

Newlands House is a longitudinal house with a very long Passage (Fig. 3).

Using evidence mainly from archaeological excavations in conjunction with information from archival documents, I have demonstrated elsewhere (Brink 1990, 1992) that substantial seventeenth and early eighteenth century dwellings were most often longitudinal houses resembling Dutch town house types. Through the second and third decades of the eighteenth century, more and more dwellings were turned through ninety degrees, thus becoming vestigial Cape Dutch houses, or what Hall (1991) refers to as the “core form” from which typical Cape Dutch plans could develop. Traditional Cape Dutch architecture was not well established until the mid to late 1730s.

Newlands House was never turned through ninety degrees. To this day its basic floor plan is that of a longitudinal house and this explains its odd appearance. The plan is not an inverted T like the traditional Cape Dutch T-plan with the front entrance in the transverse axis. Its front entrance remains at the narrow end of the long leg of the original inverted L. In other words, its design strongly suggests 1700 rather than mid-century as its date of construction. Tulbagh’s gabling of Newlands House shows that he wanted a new, up-to-date Cape Dutch house. It is extremely unlikely that he would have used a longitudinal plan to try to achieve his aim in 1751. I believe he did the best he could with Van der Stel’s old lodge.

Visser (1989) gives no details about the archaeological findings and we must bear in mind that when he says that nothing recognizable remains of the old lodge built by Willem Adriaan, the opinion is that of an architect and not of an archaeologist. The grounds for this statement remain undisclosed. But he makes it very clear that he considers the ‘original’ building, which it was his brief to restore after destruction by fire in 1981, to be the house built by Tulbagh. According to Visser (1989) the foundations of this original dwelling went down about 1 m below ground level and were of enormous Table Mountain sandstone boulders, some as much as 1 m in diameter. From ‘floor level’ up, the walls were of lightly fired bricks two and a half bricks thick, and covered with lime plaster. They measured 700 mm including the plaster. From this meagre architectural description it is not possible to judge whether these features belonged to an early or a mid-eighteenth century construction. But it does not preclude an early eighteenth century date.

Visser proctaims “the most exciting find of all” to be “the foundations of the original east front, which consisted of the same type of material as the rest of the house.” Surprisingly, “the original entrance hall was an octagon” and “the stonework triangles in the corner of the outer square walls were integrally bonded to the square, in other words, part of Tulbagh’s original construction” (Visser 1989:26).

Somerset’s alterations included the incorporation of a lead-covered dome over the entrance hall, which Visser sees as “a response to a geometry that already existed in the building” (Visser 1989:26), a geometry which, of course, he attributes to Tulbagh. Since, according to Visser, all of the original features date to the same period, knowing who built the octagonal voorhuis becomes of crucial importance. Was Ryk Tulbagh really a more likely candidate than Willem Adriaari van der Stel for designing such a unique feature in Cape Dutch architecture?

Willem Adriaan van der Stel

Knowing that Willem Adriaan was associated with the only two other octagonal features thus far discovered at the Cape, we need to argue for his involvement with the third. This can best be done by analysis of the architecture landscaping at Vergelegen. We have a fairly detailed diagram of Vergelegen which, through professional excavation, Markell (1993) has shown to be remarkably accurate in many respects.

The concept of built structures as physical manifestations of the dreams and aspirations of their producers has been well documented. In the Cape colonial context, for instance, Hall et at. (1990) have discussed the Castle at Cape Town and point out that, although it was set up as a defensive work, it also stood “as a symbol of Dutch colonial aspirations” (Hall et al. 1990:22). What concerns us here is the more personal aspirations of Willem Adriaan van der and how these were manifested in buildings with which he was associated at the Cape during the first decade of the eighteenth century.

Willem Adriaan was in his mid-teens when he came the Cape with his father in 1679. Five years later he to Holland where he spent the formative years of his young adulthood. He did not return to the Cape until he was appointed Governor in 1699 (Boeseken 1964). This eldest son of Simon van der Stel was born into the upper echelons of the Dutch merchant world and mixed with the ‘most high’ in VOC circles from childhood onwards. His paternal grandfather had been the governor of Mauritius. His maternal grandfather was mayor of Amsterdam. His father, of coure, preceded him as governor at the Cape (Boeseken 1964).

The Van der Stels were reasonably wealthy, but not wealthy enough to rank as landed gentry in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, Willem Adriaan, assisted, no doubt, by precedents set by his father and grandfathers, occupied important posts in Holland. He was, for instance, kerkmeester (lay member of the church administration) of the Zuiderkerk and schepen (equivalent to city councillor) of Amsterdam in 1691 (Boeseken 1964). This would have allowed him a certain amount of social mixing with the upper echelons at a time when French influence in the Netherlands was at its height. His dreams of grandeur and higher status might have been inspired by visits to the country estates of colleagues and friends who could indeed afford such luxuries.

A Status Symbol in the Netherlands

By the early seventeenth century the status value of a country estate was well established in the Netherrands (Hopper 1990). De long says that it was mainly among the merchants and regents of Holland that possession of a country estate, that is “a unit consisting of a house, a garden, and n many instances lands belonging thereto” became popular and always confirmed “a desired higher status” (De Jong 1990:16). There can be little doubt that Willem Adriaan van der Stel was a likely candidate for aspiring to the high status that a country place would bring.

Although De long (1990) warns against speaking too readily of a French garden style, or even of a Le Notre style in Holland in the second half of the seventeenth centuiy, French influence on Dutch architecture and landscaping should not be underestimated. The essays in Hunt’s (1990) volume confirm that it was, in fact, immense.

Biermann (1989) sees Prince Willem Adriaan of Nassau’s estate at Zeist as evidence of the fact that the Dutch aristocracy had adopted many aspects of the French way of life, albeit in a less ostentatious form. Although much smaller, the Nassau estate was modelled on the Palace of Versailles. There are many other examples. The famous (1990:29) Dutch gardens of Rijswijk, Honselaarsdijk (Fig. 4) and Huis are largely of French design. They all date from the time of Frederik Hendrik, William Ill’s grandfather, whose interest in garden art stemmed from his French oriented education (De Jong 1990). The seventeenth century garden at Clingendael is an early example of a Le Note style garden in Holland. Its designer, Philip Doublet, had access to illustrations and texts documenting “the recent flowering of French garden architecture” in the Netherlands during the 1670s. Doublet also reshaped the parterres at Huis Ten Bosch according to a design by Le Notre (De Jong 1990:3 8-39).

According to De Jong, it became fashionable for members of the Dutch aristocracy to send their gardeners to France to learn the art of garden design. But he also makes it clear that this 'art’ must not be placed on the same level as painting or sculpture, for instance. The designing of a garden was rather seen as a product of science - a combination of horticulture, surveying and mathematics” (De Jong 1990: 22). The famous garden designer Daniel Marot was first referred to as a mathematician, and surveyors, too, played an important part in garden layout:

Their knowledge of mathematics and surveying formed the technicai and scientific basis for the architectural shaping of nature in both landscape and gardens (De Jong 1990:22-23).

The above mentioned estates all belonged to the high aristocracy, but the idea of possessing a country estate caught on among a merchant class which, as De Jong (1990:29) says, was becoming more prosperous “and wished to measure itself against the old country nobility so that they themselves could form an elite.” A country estate thus became a symbol for the kind of status to which Willem Adriaan van der Stel aspired.

A polder (land reclaimed from the sea) known as the Watergraafsmeer and later the Diemermeer near Amsterdam catered for those with such aspirations. It was reclaimed and dyked in 1629 specifically for the purpose of providing plots of land, large by Dutch standards, with space enough for Palladian style country villas (Kruizinga 1948). Here, as Biermann (1989:27) points out, “in the freer open spaces single, or at most two-storeyed dwellings, often with decorated front gables such as were seldom seen in the Netherlands, could be built.

The Diemermeer was flooded twice, but the polder was re-established each time and in 1725, after its second restoration, it was openly hailed as “the New Versailles” in a poetic prospectus proclaiming it the ideal place for the erection of “pleasure palaces” (Kruizinga 1948). Long avenues of trees were laid out to provide suitable approaches to these country haunts of the cream of Amsterdam society (Biermann 1989).

From Versailles to Vergelegen

Clearly, what only the very wealthiest could afford in the Netherlands the far less wealihy could achieve at the Cape. Indeed, Biermann sees Willem Adriaan van der Stel's Vergelegen and his lavish lifestyle as direct copies of the Diemermeer quasi-French way of life. The huge farm with its large, gabled house incorporated into an octagonal garden was the ultimate in country places of the “miniature Versailles” variety (Biermann 1989:27). It was also more deeply into the country than any other Cape country place of the time and the name was no doubt meant to emphasize this fact. Although Van Riebeeck’s farm Rustenburg and Simon van der Stel's Constantia also bear witness to French influence, Willem Adriaan was undoubtedly the governor most obsessed with the grandeur and the “rage for scientific learning” (Schama 1989:44) of the French elite.

Biermann (1989) has called Vergelegen a “miniature Versailles”, but it is more realistic to compare the Van der Stel residence with the smaller dwellings of Versailles than with the royal palace itself. These houses were the private residences of people attached to the court and most were built between the late seventeenth century and the end of the eighteenth century. Although small by the standards of the high French nobility, even the smallest are large compared to Vergelegen.

According to French & Eberlein (1926), there is a wide diversity of individual styles among the French houses, but they nevertheless display three main common characteristics. These are also present at Vergelegen. First, a garden is always an essential part of the composition. Second, in nearly every instance the complex stands within high, protecting walls. Third, they give the impression of self contained compkteness; utility buildings or subsidiary structures form an integral part of the design in so far as they arecoordinated in relation to the main feature - the master’s dwelling - to give balance to the plan (French & Eberlein1926).

The French dwellings I am discussing here are town houses, but French & Eberlein (1926:2) point out that the owners’ aim was to secure privacy and the complexes have an air “of almost rural detachment." The quarters of the concierge in these complexes can be correlated with the dwelling of the farm manger at Vergelegen, as they are incorporated within the scheme, but are separate from the main house and usually near the gate.

Not being farmsteads, the French houses lack cowsheds and pigpens, but “the rabbitry and fowl runs [were] well-nigh indispensible adjuncts of a French house”, and at Versailles these were incorporated into the whole schema, as were other outbuildings (French & Eberlein 1926:11).

Geometry played an important part, both in house plan and in garden layout, especially in the earlier examples. Very often access to the garden was through the house. We recognize these features at Vergelegen as well. In the geometrically planned gardens, trees and shrubs were more important than flowers. For the owners, balance, form and line counted for more than colour (French & Eberlein 1926). We cannot say for sure that this was also the case for Willem Adriaan, but the suggestions are there, in the plan at our disposal.

It is interesting to compare more closely one of the earlier and smaller Versailles houses, the Chateau du Chesnay, with the Van der Stel dwelling, highlighting differences as well as similarities. The basic geometry is different. That of the Chateau is based on the rectangle (Fig. 5), while at Vergelegen it is the octagon. But there is similarity in patterning. Both figures are divided into quarters separated by cross-paths which come together in a broken circle (the Chateau) and a broken octagon (Vergelegen).

The Chateau du Chesnay garden is separated from the house by a terrace with steps leading up to it. At Vergelegen the steps to the front door lead from a path. Neither house appears to have a stoep. Unlike the garden at Vergelegen, the main garden at the Chateau is separate from the dwelling complex, but in the latter plan the complex surrounds a forecourt which, while preserving the unity of the basic rectangular geometry, is nevertheless eight-sided (Fig. 5).

The stark symmetry of the Versailles dwelling is broken by the placement of the stable yard outside and to one of the complex. Notably at Vergelegen symmetry persists even beyond the perimeter wall where placement of the out-buildings emphasizes the division into quarters. Like the French dwellings, and unlike traditional Cape Dutch dwellings, Vergelegen has no wings added to the back. Extensions to the French main dwellings are always at the sides, and Vergelegen has such symmetrically placed attachments, although they give the appearance of being little more than lean-to’s.

Even the rather ‘small’ Chateau du Chesnay is much larger than Vergelegen. It has four quite simple dormer gables with a more ornate inward scrolling central gable directly above the front entrance. At Vergelegen there are three gables of which the central one is also more ornate with inward scrolling of a different design. In both buildings symmetry is carried through from ground floor to garret by window and door placement and pilasters.

There is a big difference between the two dwellings in roof structure. Vergelegen appears to have had a hipped roof of thatch, whereas the Chateau has a mansard roof which, in fact, was designed by Mansart himself (French & Eberlein 1926). Like most mansard roofs of the time, it is of lead.

I believe that there are sufficient similarities between the two complexes to be able to say that little short of the courtly grandeur of the French residences discussed above attered could satisfy Willem Adriaan van der Stel’s dreams and aspirations and he strove, on a much reduced scale, to incorporate into his own country place as many as possible of these features. For some idiosyncratic reason, of all the geometric shapes found in the houses in France, he seems to have been most fascinated by the octagon. It seems almost to have become the icon for the high status he wished to bestow upon himself and to communicate to the rest of Cape society. The octagon appears in the French dwellings, but judging from the work of French & Eberlein (1926), it does not occupy a more important place than any other mathematical figure. The most striking use of the octagon depicted in this work is in the ‘Octagon Room’ of Le Pavillion de Musique, a dwelling in which the use of a variety of geometric forms is taken to its extreme. The front entrance gives access to a trapezoidal vestibule leading into a circular hall which in turn leads into the octagonal dining room.

Whether Van der Stel took his ideas for his symbols of grandeur directly from France, or whether they came to him via French influence in his homeland is unknown and less important than the fact that he manifested his passion for a French way of life in the buildings with which he was associated, that he used geometry to express this passion, and that his favourite figure was the octagon. As I see it, he is a far more likely candidate for the building of an octagonal voorhuis in the lodge at Nieuwland than was Ryk Tulbagh.

Ryk Tulbagh

What mattered to Tulbagh was being a member of the Cape elite, not the elite in Holland or France. Understandibly, when it came to establishing a suitable residence for the governor, he thought in terms of Cape Dutch and not French architecture. Mentzel (1787) described Tulbagh as upright and modest” (cf. Spilhaus 1973:241) and he was certainly more frugal than spendthrift Willem Adriaan. He might weIl have been concerned with saving the Company the unnecessary expense of building a whok new dwelling by redoing an old lodge in the Cape Dutch style.


We have, then, on the one hand, a person to whom status mattered almost from birth. A person who was associated with all three of the buildings in which octagons feature, and a person who would have built, in 1700, a longitudinal sructure rather than a Cape Dutch one, as this style had not been developed by that time.

On the other hand, we have a more modest person, born of simple folk, who spent his formative years at the Cape where the Cape Dutch style was fast developing and was probably well established by the time he became governor. French influence would not have touched him greatly. I believe that he would hardly have been the person to build an octagonal voorhuis into a longitudinal early eighteenth century style dwelling. I believe that the Newlands House of today rests on foundations built in 1700 by Willem Adriaan van der Stel. It is, therefore, a rare and very important artefact of the archaeolog$al record of the Cape. I eagerly await the archaeological report on the excavations cried out at the time of reconstruction as, one way or another, it is bound to have an effect on the arguments put forward here.


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