Full o’ Fancy

PHOTOS Jac de Villiers WORDS Lin Sampson

Amassing such treasures as Staffordshire china and a chair from Westminster Abbey when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, the director of the Irma Stern Museum has created an ode to romance in his cosy Atlantic Seaboard flat.

Christopher Peter has meticulously curated his apartment in Green Point to a froth of fantasy. The result is a sense of the museum, intricate in its outlay, intimate in detail, colourful in execution.

“I wanted to make a distilled jewel box of what I already had, a place of memory and longing, a sort of artistic despair rather like the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, opened by the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and based on his novel with the same name,” explains Christopher, director of the Irma Stern Museum at the University of Cape Town.

It is an ode to romance. “The energy that filled me as a child sprung from the influence of the glamorous models that I saw in fashion magazines,” he reminisces. “I recall my mother’s ballgown hanging on a wardrobe on a farm in the Eastern Cape in the late evening light with sweet peas outside. She would be going to a dance at the country club, which we always called balls, and I would be painting her sandals gold for the fifth time. That was my duty and I adored it.”

Christopher beams: “I had such a wonderful family. I was at boarding school in King Williams Town, and it was my birthday and my grandmother brought me a reproduction of a Spanish dancer. I had fallen in love with it and she’d had it framed. It was the most scintillating moment of my young life!”

With his Florentine face and etiolated body, Christopher has about him a papal elegance. He is a foot soldier of the unexpected. Today he is wearing a shirt with violets on the cuffs and collar, and persimmon trousers. He employs the same method with the inanimate, mixing plates from Mr Price with valuable Staffordshire china.

The paintwork is a crushed rainbow, and violet is sprinkled throughout – on walls, on chairs, on cushions. There is a pair of cufflinks enamelled with violets and bunches of violets in vases throughout the house.

“It all started when I fell completely for Elisabeth ‘Sisi’ Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. She was this extraordinary woman, beautiful beyond the meaning of the word,” Christopher narrates. Elisabeth, known as the reluctant empress, was a fugue figure, thin as a pin, she wished to be still thinner and was sewn into her leather riding clothes.

“The violet thing is part of her,” he continues. “The tragic madness of the 19th century has something so edgy, so fragile, and yet so glamorous, it draws me. I made a pilgrimage to Sisi’s museum just outside Budapest. I cannot tell you how much I adored it.” It was there that Christopher came across a shop with only violet-inspired products.

Renovating the flat took courage, Christopher confesses: “I was scared of green. I had always lived in red. The colourist Freya Lincoln helped me. The scheme is based on my favourite flowers and the green of the surrounding gardens.”

“Then, I turned the whole flat around, with the help of designer Marco Helfer. Like the famous architect Borromini, he managed perspectives that trick the eye.”

Walking into the apartment is like opening a Christmas cracker. Light dances off ruby-coloured glass, and shines through jade and paper-thin porcelain. Among this tinselly glory are the silver cups won at agriculture shows in the Eastern Cape where he grew up.

Like the cups, every item has a provenance. I was once in a car with Christopher when he suddenly stopped, rushed into a shop in a sweat of excitement and bought an overpriced chair, which had been in Westminster Abbey when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned.

The apartment is as fabulous as a Fabergé egg with its layers of glossy mineral pigments, yolky yellows, seaweed greens, cyclamen pinks, which curdle with nicotine and violet. There are also glimpses of red, which designer Nicky Haslam calls une touche de rouge.

“There’s no austerity here,” nods Christopher. “Because it is an Edwardian block, the height of the ceilings gives it grandeur. I was looking for lushness, opulence and finery – on a small budget.”

Freya Lincoln 021 671 8327
Marco Helfer 082 471 1571