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The creation of the stone Frieze

This edited account of the carving of the decorations on the Mutual Building has been provided by Giovanni Adolfo Camerada, grandson of the late Adolfo Lorenzi (1900-1995). Between 1937 and 1940 Adolfo, together with his four brothers, were responsible for executing the extraordinary decorative carvings on the building, in particular the frieze that surrounds the building. It depicts major events in the history of the country and is reportedly one of the longest such friezes in the world.

The story of the decorative carving on the Mutual Building has never been fully and accurately presented, and this account is intended to correct that. There are many books, transcripts, journals and reports on the matter, but the majority simply re-state the limited details of the first accounts, which were sometimes inaccurate and misleading. A key issue is the frequent attribution of the actual sculpting work to Ivan Mitford-Barberton, when in fact it was undertaken by Adolfo's team of Italian masons.

Giovanni explains that he has developed this overview using a variety of resources, publications and reference works, and by means of personal interviews and his own memories of listening to the stories of his grandfather and all the family.

Giovanni now tells us what he knows ...


Childhood memories

I grew up in Cape Town with my late grandfather and grandmother, in their house. Our family was always together, celebrating whenever we could find an excuse to do so. There were always big meals prepared for such occasions. A pot of food was always bubbling away on the stove, carefully conjured up by my grandmother. My Grandfather was never a man who created problems or trouble for anyone.

The house was always full of visitors. If it wasn't the neighbours from up the road, then it was the fruit delivery man or the local mailman that you would find sitting at the kitchen table, in deep discussion with my grandfather. Very often you would see them with a glass of red wine and some olives or cheese, sitting and just listening to wonderful old stories about my grandfather's travels and experiences. I remember most of the events and stories very well, as does my mom, her sisters and the rest of our family.

I remember Mitford-Barberton visiting my grandfather, he used to come and visit us often. Mitford-Barberton seemed so tall, thin and mysterious. I remember the big dark overcoat he wore draped over his shoulders, and his dark grey hat.

On one occasion he brought my grandfather an ugly looking sculptured head, made out of red clay. More than likely Mitford-Barberton had made this head himself, and for some time it stood in my grandfather's shed on a makeshift marble workbench, amongst his tools. Whenever you walked into the shed, you could not miss that head. It just caught your eye. That funny, eerie looking red head, amongst the placid natural pieces of unfinished works and tools, just sitting there staring into nothing. You always felt like it was watching you, even when you were nowhere near it. Sometimes as children we were too scared to go into my Grandfathers shed because of that head looking at us. We would frighten each other and run like hell when someone mentioned it.

Mitford-Barberton asked my grandfather if he could make a head like it, but out of granite. We don't know why he had wanted this particular clay head made out of granite, we can now only guess why. It seems that Mitford-Barberton was not able to work in granite, nor marble and stone mediums. He worked primarily in softer mediums such as soapstone and wood. For example, on another day, Mitford-Barberton came to visit and started telling my grandfather how he should rather carve and started criticizing my grandfather's work. Promptly Adolfo handed him a hammer and chisel and said: "Here now, you show me how. Show me how to carve." Mitford-Barberton put the tools down and left.

Years later whenever I asked my grandfather about the head, he would say: "Oh dees is bladdy rubies" (he couldn't pronounce "rubbish" so he just said "rubies" - he spoke with quite a heavy accent). We still have the head in our possession, and it could well now be worth a fortune.

My mom (and her brother and sisters, of course) all know the history of this. My mom's elder sister (my aunt) was 6 years old when she used to go with her mom (my grandmother) to take her dad lunch, when they were working on the Mutual building. She remembers very well. The problem is, nobody has ever come forward and broadcast the detailed history of this aspect of the building.

The project and the people

The whole theme for the Old Mutual building in Darling Street was primarily designed by the main architects Louw & Louw, in association with Fred Glennie. Fred Glennie was Old Mutual's preferred in-house architect and had previously undertaken a number of projects for them, and was familiar with their requirements. For the purposes of the project, the main architect travelled overseas with Fred Glennie to learn everything that could be learned about skyscrapers. In this way, the Mutual Building was set to become one of the tallest and most externally ornamented buildings in Cape Town (and for the matter in the country). At that time, it was to be the largest, most sophisticated and highest building structure ever built in Cape Town. The Old Mutual directors wanted a building that stood out, signifying the company's strength, its sophistication and most modern style and standards – a significant landmark. It was decided to work the frieze in red granite panels, and to have it circumference the whole building on its three visible sides.

The very first Newspaper report about the carvings was published on Tuesday, January 30th 1940, by the Cape Times. However, it was inconsistent and through its innaccuracies it initiated a long history of misunderstandings. For example, at one point it explained that “the whole of the design, construction of the building and the decorations have been carried out by South Africans, using South African Materials”, whereas elsewhere it admitted that the sculpting work was undertaken under Mitford-Barberton's supervision "by highly skilled Italian craftsmen".

But on the building itself, the work has been attributed solely to Mitford-Barberton, as "Sculptor". It would of course be physically impossible for one man alone to complete and do all those carvings on the building, and so the sole attribution of this work to Mitford-Barberton is inappropriate. Yes, he did the working sketches on the panels, but it was my grandfather and his brothers who physically undertook and did the actual carving work. My late grandfather Adolfo Lorenzi was the team leader and main sculptor, assisted by his four brothers, namely: Ferrucio, Guilio, Umberto and Luigi.

J.R. McKillop & Co. Pty Ltd, (established in 1880) were marble and stone specialist contractors with an office and a working yard located in Voortrekker Road, Maitland. They were particularly involved in employing stone cutters for their various stone supply projects, including grave headstones and tombstones. They also became involved in undertaking decorative monumental work, putting the skilled immigrant Italian foreigners to good use. James Andrew Clift, a director of McKillop, later formed another company to quarry out marble and granite stone to supply building and monumental projects. Here he worked hand in hand with McKillops (and other monumental companies), undertaking larger joint venture projects, one of which would be the Old Mutual Building.

By late 1936, McKillop and Clift managed to secure the contract for the building. They were to provide the granite and conduct the proposed extensive exterior sculpturing works for the new Mutual Building and the main contractor was a Joseph Rubbi. He knew my grandfather Adolfo and our family very well (also Fred Glennie, the architect) and he arranged for my grandfather to do the work. (It is interesting to note that most people thought Joseph was Jewish because he socialised with them to obtain business and because he avoided internment at Koffiefontein, but in fact his real name was Giuseppe Rubbi, he was an Italian builder).

The late Mr Ivan Mitford-Barberton was responsible for sketching out the architect's theme for the frieze and for making up a Plaster of Paris mould of a typical panel. The mould was then used to show the client Old Mutual (and of course the architects as well as the masons) how the final product would look. A few changes were done in discussions with the masons, and - upon approval by all parties - work could then begin. It was in 1938 that Adolfo and his four brothers started carving out the granite panel frieze designs in the masons yard located in Maitland. Mitford-Barberton kept a watchful eye on proceedings, sometimes changing the sketches as the carvings progressed, with much frustration to Adolfo.

The granite panels were first individually cut to size on the ground and prepared by the stone cutters. As soon as the design was sketched out on the prepared panels, Adolfo immediately got to work on it. He used a small hand-held pneumatic chipping tool, finishing off the finer detail by hand with hammer and chisel. He worked and chipped away furiously at each panel. His brothers worked alongside him, doing the final dressing work. On completion of the carvings on each panel, it was shipped off to site and erected onto the building. It was then fixed into its respective position and the final touches applied in place.

Adolfo preferred to remain independent, subcontracting his special masonry skills to McKillop & Clift - . His brothers, however, remained under the employ of McKillops and Clift on a permanent basis. To this day, J.A. Clift still has a stone masonry business yard in Paarl. They are one of the oldest surviving stone supply contracting businesses in the Western Cape. They also have a small museum in their yard with a display of memorabilia, old photographs and some of the plaster moulds of the sculpture works undertaken by the masons over the years. Adolfo's brothers can be seen on one or two of the photos. I also have photos of my grandfather carving out the Elephant's Head and Monkey's Head, both of which can be seen on the Mutual Building today.

Arrest and internment

In 1939, when World War Two broke out, my Grandfather and his brothers were on the job finishing off the carving works, but they were arrested and interned because they were not South African nationals. Even though he had a job, was married and had three small children with another on the way, Adolfo was sent away with his brothers to a camp in KoffieFontein. (During World War II, Koffiefontein served as a POW (Prisoner Of War) camp for about 2,000 Italian soldiers. About 800 pro-Nazi South Africans were also detained here. One of them, John Vorster, became a president of South Africa.)

The Social Welfare Department offered relief to Adolfo's wife. With an air of graceful governance, of being the woman behind her man, with much pomp and pride, she flatly turned their offer down, telling them a good few strong words of her own.

Little progress was made on the frieze sculpturing works for the Mutual building. Only the granite blocks were being supplied to the yard, cut and sized into its panel profile. Quite a few panels still needed to be carved out. The actual sculpting work ground to a halt and the yard became crowded, stacked up with un-worked panels.

The architect Fred Glennie, together with Messrs McKillop and the main contractor, J Rubbi, immediately sent a letter to the P.O.W. General Headquarters and Administration Office, requesting them to release Adolfo and the brothers. Amongst other things in the letter regarding his marriage and the concern of his small children, they stated that they needed him to complete the sculpture work, as there was just no one else that could carve on the granite. When the Union officials learnt of Adolfo's craft and his work that he was doing, after a few weeks in the camp my grandfather was released with two of his brothers to continue work on the building. However as a condition, they had to report on a regular basis to a facility in Paarl. He worked under duress, under an armed guard, and it was at this time he was instructed to carve out Mitford-Barberton's name on the building.

Wherever he went though, he had to get a permit. This permit explained his whereabouts, was date stamped and signed accordingly by a magistrate. Often an official would call in on site to check up on his whereabouts. It must have been terribly stressful, frustrating and annoying for Adolfo.

Attribution of the work

Of course, it is not unusual for architects and project managers to make use of the talents of other people in executing their works. This is particularly true of large scale commissions like the decoration of a large building such as the Mutual Building; the sheer logistics of such an exercise would make it virtually impossible for a single person to complete the work within the project time frames. Then, as now, the "named" project manager would be responsible for overseeing the work, while the actual work would be farmed out to other often more skilled artists or craftspeople.

The Mutual Building is mentioned in numerous publications, but mentioning only the name Ivan Mitford-Barberton, not the carver, the sculptor, the man or the men that actually laboured and put the chisels to the granite. It is not fair that only Mitford-Barberton's name is displayed on the building as being “The Sculptor”, as this just puts a whole different perspective on things and people don't understand or know the truth. There are not many people that are aware of the significant distinction, as this is all they see. For the record, it is important to note once again that Mitford-Barberton's name was carved out by my Grandfather, who did so because he was instructed to do so, while under arrest as a "prisoner of war" in South Africa. Mitford-Barberton - a well-known and respected artist at the time - simply took all the credit for himself.

Although my late grandfather was occasionally recognised for some of his other works, he never really got the credit that he so clearly deserved. All that hard work, all that blood and sweat (and injustice), can't just be left and allowed to be forgotten and go to nothing. The proof is in stone. We have them.

Afterword

Some years later, my Grandfather also did the Granite Elephant Head (similar to the Mutual one), on the Wale Street Chambers Building, corner of Wale and Long Street. Guess what? This is also written up elsewhere and is said to have been done by Mitford-Barberton. Wrong again.


Last updated: 26 November 2017
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