Cape Town: halfway to Sydney 1788-1870 installation view Photo © Jenni Carter for Sydney Living Museums

Cape Town: halfway to Sydney 1788-1870

Cape Town: halfway to Sydney 1788-1870 showcased for the first time outside South Africa over 150 rare artworks from the Oppenheimer family’s internationally renowned Africana collection at the Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg.

The exhibition presented the rich tapestry of colonial Cape Town society and architecture, it explored Cape Town’s strategic importance in trade and political networks as well as early English explorations in the harsh interior of Southern Africa.

Featuring exquisite watercolours and dramatic oils from South African artists such as Thomas Baines, Henry Clifford de Meillon and botanical artists John and Margaret Herschel along with delicate sketches, rare books and journals the exhibition documented a particular British way of seeing, documenting and living in the Cape Colony between 1788-1870.

Visitors were fascinated by the extraordinary connections between the two British colonial settlements of New South Wales and the Cape Colony. 

Above all, visitors were surprised at the number of cape plants which were imported by settlers such as Elizabeth and John Macarthur to Sydney soon after the establishment of the colony and have since thrived in Sydney gardens. These and many other stories were presented in the exhibition.

From the first fleet until the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Cape Town was the critical halfway point for making the long journey from Britain to Sydney. Missionaries, military officers, explorers and settlers, the personnel of empire - moved between these places. It is their untold stories of greed, ambition, progress and industry which intrigued.

Sir Richard Bourke was acting governor of the Cape (1826-1828) before becoming governor of NSW (1831-1837); Lieutenant Henry Waterhouse’s purchase of Spanish breed merinos at the Cape in 1797, signalled the beginning of Australia’s fine wool industry; explorer Thomas Baines travelled to northern Australia after significant exploration at the Cape; Scottish naturalist, William Paterson, who made significant Cape botanical discoveries, rose to become the lieutenant governor of New South Wales. 

A modern day traveller, photographer John Williams, complemented the exhibition with his photographs and writings of Cape Town today and of the places and buildings documented in the exhibition.

This exhibition showcased extraordinary artworks from the Oppenheimer family’s Brenthurst Library in Johannesburg. The collection was established by Sir Ernest Oppenheimer (1880-1957) who became keenly interested in Africana when he was working as a partner of the Diamond Syndicate in the Kimberley in the early years of last century. His son Harry (1908-2000) followed in his father’s footsteps by continuing to collect fine manuscripts, artworks, rare books and pamphlets. Now Harry’s daughter, Mary Slack continues to enrich the collection.

'There were such strong ties that if something happened in Sydney, Cape Town knew about it virtually within weeks’

Curator Susan Hunt

14 May 2005 - 7 August 2005