In the article below, journalist Lucille Davie explores Brenthurst, arguably Johannesburg’s most splendid garden. The piece was first published on the City of Joburg's website on 2 February 2004. Please note that tours of the garden are no longer available. Click here to view more of Davie's work.
There’re not many people around town who have 45 gardeners tending their garden. But then there’re not many people around town who have 45 acres of gardens that need tending. One person who does is Strilli Oppenheimer of Brenthurst, in the heart of Parktown.
Those 45 gardeners are doing a magnificent job – the gardens are breathtaking. Led by head gardener and horticulturist Dawid Klopper from Kirstenbosch, who joined the team at Brenthurst two years ago, the gardens range from gracious avenues of planes and oaks, to indigenous grass enclaves, beautifully manicured circular lawns, and several miniature forests. All this is interspersed with tumbling fountains and sculptures, and several kilometres of stone pathways.
What’s extraordinary is that all this is in the middle of the suburbs, just below the Johannesburg Hospital, and just above the M1, so Joburgers have driven past it hundreds of times, unaware of this delightful slice of paradise.
An extraordinary garden (Lucille Davie)
The garden is 70 percent indigenous, with trees and plants from Australia, South America, New Zealand and Japan enhancing the splendour.
The estate begins on Federation Road, some of which is incorporated into the property, and runs right up to the southwest border of Killarney. It retains remnants of the original Sachsenwald forest, huge eucalyptus trees soaring upwards, helping to block out the roar of traffic from the freeway. The forest was planted by the first mining magnates to supply poles for supporting the mine shafts as mining went deep level. The forest started in Parktown and moved down the hill to the zoo and Zoo Lake, and several of its original trees, over 100 years old, can still be seen in these locations.
Brenthurst was originally built on the steep rocky slope of the estate in 1906. It’s been occupied by the Oppenheimers since 1922, when Ernest Oppenheimer, who founded Anglo American in 1917, brought his family to live at Brenthurst. Harry Oppenheimer, his son, grew up on the estate. He died in 2000 and his son, Nicky lives in Little Brenthurst (a smaller version of the large Herbert Baker mansion at the top of the hill) with his wife, Strilli. Brenthurst is occupied by Oppenheimer’s daughter, Mary Slack.
During World War II the Oppenheimers moved into Little Brenthurst and allowed Brenthurst to be used by the Red Cross as a 50-bed hospital, called the Brenthurst Auxiliary Hospital. Hundreds of patients from the Mediterranean and the Middle East were treated. Dr Jack Penn established Africa’s first centre for plastic surgery at the hospital. He pioneered new methods of treatment, followed worldwide.
Strilli Oppenheimer is a firm believer in natural gardening, and uses no artificial fertilizers or pesticides, says Klopper. The roses are kept free of bugs with a mix of garlic, milk and copper, and the vegetables are sprayed with a mixture of garlic, onion and vegetable oil. Marigolds and nasturtiums are planted in between the vegetables, to break the predictability of beds and to “confuse the insects”. The vegetable beds receive an 8cm deep mulch and they are weeded. Some areas are selectively weeded, to allow endemic plants to remain. The gardens are fed by borehole water.
The Oppenheimers have an estate in England, Waltham Place. On the Waltham Place website she explains her gardening philosophy:
I am a gardener of place, who seeks to work with the nature of the place, adapting and evolving the planting to its ecology rather than producing a decorated garden. Natural gardening is all about your relationship with the garden, and its evolution, using your knowledge of plant systems and families. We are staunch believers in all aspects of organic husbandry and in the holistic management of the estate. We seek to combine forces with nature, rather than fight against it, and to explore the boundaries between garden and nature. In doing so, we have created a haven to an abundance of insect and animal life, fungi and indigenous flora. This is our legacy, our investment in the future.
The gardens are opened to group tours, given by Klopper. He starts at the bottom of the estate, alongside the freeway. Macadamia trees have been planted on this western edge, in an effort to try and block the noisy traffic.
Down this end of the estate is the Oppenheimer African Library, a squash court and Little Brenthurst, a Herbert Baker design in Cape Dutch style. Also down this side is an avenue of 90-year-old planes, curving gently around the road up to Brenthurst at the top of the hill. The fallen leaves from the planes are left to drop on the road and the grass edging, and, says Klopper, when the wind blows up the avenue, it resembles a cathedral with the spiralling leaves caught in the dramatically rising trunks.
The base of the trees are planted with clivias, cannas, wild rhubarb, agapanthus, and shrimp plants. Nothing is removed from this section, it’s left completely natural, even the weeds are left to propagate.
The front lawn of Little Brenthurst is also completely natural – the indigenous grass is ankle length with paths mowed through it. Only indigenous plants grow in this garden. No watering is done here, only rain water nourishes the garden.
Then the tour winds its way up the hill, on stone paths which are inlaid with small circular granite drill cores in various shapes, discards from the gold mines. It makes for clever and creative pathways. These were used by one of the estate’s gardeners, Joane Pim and described in The Brenthurst Gardens by Alan Huw Smith as “one of the most remarkable South African landscapers”, believed to have “pioneered landscape design in South Africa”; she left “an indelible impression on the industry as well as on generations of town planners and landscape architects”.
She began on the gardens of Brenthurst in 1959, leaving her impressive stamp on the garden, building on the work of numerous gardeners before her. She worked on terraces around the main house and created an indigenous garden above the house, with aloes, proteas, Cape heaths and indigenous trees. These days it contains a charming water wheel from Japan and has a Japanese slant to its plantings. Different varieties of cycads are dotted among the garden.
Dick Scott took over the gardens in 1974 when she died, and he further developed the wild garden, “encouraging and matching indigenous plants for their temperament and ability to live together”, according to Smith.
Oppenheimer has taken this several steps further, creating an holistic garden, in what must be described as Johannesburg’s most splendid garden.
From Little Brenthurst Klopper leads the group up the hill, a fairly steep climb but with cleverly designed pathways and steps that disguise the steepness. On the way is the rose garden, created by Pim as a spiral circle shaped like a snail’s shell and positioned within a sunken square. Taller roses grow around the outside, with an edging of soft grey lamb’s ears. The roar of the traffic is now a distant hum.
The tour flows through other sections of the gardens: the fragrance garden, meant to attract butterflies, a favourite of one of the Oppenheimer children, who died at two.
This leads into the children’s garden, with two beautiful 70-year-old bronze statues of children Peter Scott (the late ornithologist Sir Peter Scott, sculpted by his mother Kathleen Scott) and a young girl, called simply The Enchanting Girl (sculpted by Edwin Whitney-Smith). Peter is standing naked on his toes, stretching into the sun with his arms stretched upwards, with the girl down a grassy avenue looking at him from the middle of a pond.
Indigenous grass garden
Then a garden containing a bright green circle of grass, around which indigenous grasses grow profusely, which, says Klopper, is “always unpredictable” as “one year one species of bulbs appear, then isn’t seen again for a number of years, and then another one appears the following year, depending on conditions like quantity of rain”. This garden also relies entirely on rain water.
These gardens each look up at Brenthurst, the main house, usually with a water feature or a sculpture facing up the hill, starting at the bottom with an elegant Cape bell.
The next garden is dominated by Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s bronze Venus Victorieuse, one of only a few sculptures he did, and completed around 1914. It’s a large lady, with an apple in one hand, renamed by Oppenheimer as “Eve and the apple”. It was brought to Brenthurst by Harry Oppenheimer in the early 1970s. There are several castings of the sculpture; the Brenthurst casting is signed and dated 1914 and stood for many years in the grounds of the artist’s home at Cagnes. She stands facing the house, the “piece de resistance of the lawns”, says Smith.
“Eve and the apple” (Photographed by Lucille Davie)
The garden also contains several Japanese sculptures, and Oppenheimer is taking this theme to its extreme. She is establishing a Japanese garden to the east of the main house which will contain an 18m waterfall with male and female elements, falling into a lake below.
The Japanese Emperor’s head gardener and his team will be spending six months over the next three years designing and creating this garden; it promises to be a stunning addition to the garden.
Klopper is excited about the project, and is actively imbibing this new knowledge. Oppenheimer wants to share the knowledge, and invites interested people to come along, join in the creation and learn from these experts.
Man and Woman sculpture
The final part of the tour sees the pathway winding its way again down the hill, and looking down through the trees is a huge striking two-person sculpture, called “Man and Woman”, by South African artist Louis le Sueur, sculpted in 1969. It consists of two figures, the female looking up at the male, resting on her arm, which is perfectly aligned to the slightly bent tree behind her. The male figure is over six metres tall, and the sculpture is perfectly positioned, surrounded by lush lawns and tall trees.
Klopper tells a story about the sculpture. A year back a man calling himself Schmidt claimed he wanted to visit the garden to view his father’s sculpture. This was puzzling as no one by that name was represented in the garden. He duly came to view the “Man and Woman”, and explained. His parents never married, and he had been put up for adoption. He had only recently tracked down his father, who told him to examine the sculpture to see how much pain he had suffered over the adoption. The woman in the sculpture has her heart torn out, leaving a gaping hole. Both figures are distorted and contorted, with pained expressions.
“Man and Woman” (Photographed by Lucille Davie)
Beyond this is the large vegetable garden and the cuttings garden, with plants grown for the house. Then there’s a nursery; a tennis court with decorative trimmed plants around its edges, the only examples of topiary on the estate, and a stone Baker house, originally built as a studio, and occupied by Klopper now.
Klopper considers himself to be “so fortunate” to live and work in the garden. The tour members undoubtedly also considered themselves to be fortunate to have walked the pathways of this garden, judging by the contented sighs as we reached the gate again, two hours later.
Lucille Davie has for many years written about Jozi people and places, as well as the city's history and heritage. Take a look at lucilledavie.co.za