A heritage manor house in Joburg blends Japanese design ideas with its owners’ remarkable collections
Ahistorical horticultural show garden, built at the highest point in Johannesburg, has found new life in the hands of Jonty Mark, a sports editor, and husband Vincent Truter, a curator and creative director. The immense property includes a manor house, two charming stone cottages – built from the stone of the quarry below it in Bezuidenhout Valley – and, at its acme, a pale-pink 1950s ‘ summer pavilion’. Today, Lightning’s Nest seamlessly combines the couple’s love for nature and design into a creative living environment where an extraordinary collection of natural objects lives comfortably alongside high design.
When it was opened to the public in 1905, this site boasted one of the city’s most exquisite gardens, famous for its rare plants and spectacular views. But, after years of neglect while changing hands over the past century, it had become a jungle of wild species. Since buying it 15 years ago, the couple has tamed each of the spaces dramatically – in the garden and in the buildings – carefully embracing ancient Japanese philosophies to guide what should be kept and what should be removed.
The show garden’s original cast-iron street lamps have remained, for instance, and still light the way up the winding stone staircase at the base of the property, which meanders through decades-old beds of clivias, a waterfall and well-established, towering trees.
At the top of the stairs, a grand stone Herbert Bakerstyle manor house opens up to reveal a sitting room on one side, and the dining and kitchen areas on the other. The classical arrangement of the space is
made contemporary with eclectic interiors, created by Vincent, who used the four elements as a theme: a room each for air, earth, fire and water.
In the ‘earth’ room, a brown leather couch sits low on the floor, grounding the space among the shine of antique silk kimonos from Vincent’s travels to Japan, rare crystal specimens and an unusual collection of carved wooden fungi. And Vincent’s passion for gardening is made clear via the massive 27-year-old staghorn fern in the dining room, which hangs above an Art Deco games table in place of a traditional chandelier.
On the other side of the hall, bold turquoise walls, botanical fabrics and hordes of rare seashells capture the ‘water’ element in the home’s old front parlour, which Vincent has converted into his shiatsu and movement room. It’s also where he keeps his comprehensive array of shells – one of the largest such collections in the southern hemisphere, Vincent explains, all carefully arranged in beach-sand-filled boxes according to their biological taxonomy.
Upstairs, the elemental approach continues in the private areas, where one of the bedrooms embodies the concept of ‘air’. The crisp white room combines bleached cane furniture, a handcarved bed from Cameroon, light maple woods, dried indigenous leaves and pale purple linen. The second bedroom down the hall is on the opposite end of the spectrum: it’s painted a dark emerald green from floor to ceiling, and furnished with black linens, heavy curtains and unusual ebony wood sculptures.
At the top of the garden, the summer pavilion overlooks a spectacular ‘Pink Champagne’ bottlebrush tree that the couple spent months trimming and training into what Vincent describes as ‘ a giant bonsai’. The wind-gnarled, twisted trunk bends low to avoid the elements, and has become the ideal (if ‘accidental’) seat from which to view the picturesque expanse beyond.
Set at an airy 1 808m above sea level, this impromptu bench must be one of the most beautiful spots in Johannesburg and, like Lightning’s Nest itself, provides a perfect lesson in how a house – even when it’s also a grand manor – can live comfortably with nature.
T HIS PAGE, F ROM TOPUsing handmade ceramic teaware, homeowner Vincent Truter prepares a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in the kitchen; in the ‘earth’-toned lounge, a turn-of-the-century handwoven silk obi graces the wall, alongside a larger silk textile. In the corner, on a lucite table from Modernist in Parkhurst (modernist.biz), are a vintage wicker lamp from Granny’s Attic in Kensington (grannysattic.co.za) and a quartz crystal sourced through a mineral specimens dealer. A glass Tone stool by Marcel Wanders for Kartell catches the light in the foreground.
T HIS SPR EA D, CLOCKWISE F ROM LEFTOn a chest atop Vincent’s collage table, an anatomical illustration from Collector’s Treasury in Joburg reprises the lattices of flanking seafan corals; a Dokter and Misses lamp prototype arcs over a vintage medical-examinationturned-shiatsu bed for Vincent’s practice in the ‘water’-themed room; overlooking his shell collection is a portrait of playwright Anton Chekhov, sourced from the Russian National Archive in Moscow. An inherited French-style display shelf showcases additional objets.