By a stroke of good fortune, Louis Michel Thibault, engineer, land surveyor and architect of extraordinary talent, settled at the Cape at a time when both his skills and his natural gifts were in great demand. In the 32 years that he lived here, he worked hard. He designed gates and sentry boxes and even a lions’ cage; he surveyed roads and planned, for Cape Town’s Parade, a fantastic fountain that was never completed. But far ~ more important are the buildings, both public and domestic, for which he was responsible particularly those involving collaboration with the master of sculpture, Anton Anreith.
Together, their works represent a heritage for which, at the Cape, there is no comparison.
Thibault was born near Amiens, France, in 1750 and, some 20 years or more later, enrolled as a student at the Academie Royale d’Architecture in Paris. At that time, the director of this institution was Ange-Jacques Gabriel, leader of his profession and architect-in-chief to Louis XVI. Thibault proved to be a brilliant student and in 1776 had the honour of presenting to the king a model of a French order of architecture – three Corinthian columns on a triangular ground plan – that he had designed in terracotta Once he had qualified, Thibault turned his mind to the other skills in which he, as an architect, was expected to be competent. In 1781, therefore, he began to study military engineering as a protege of Colonel Charles Daniel de Meuron, commander of a Swiss mercenary regiment based in Neuchiitel. Two years later, when this regiment was engaged by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to defend the Cape against a possible attack by the British, Thibault was among the officers who accompanied it to the Cape Colony. He arrived in Cape Town on 7th February 1783, on board the vessel Le Fier. He did not remain with the regiment for long. On Friday, 5th August 1785, he resigned his commission and joined the service of the VOC. The following year he married a local girl and, with her and their children, remained at the Cape for the rest of his life.
Fortunately for Thibault, the Dutch governor at the time, Cornelis Jacob van de Graaff, was interested in architecture and supported him in his work. This led to his appointment, in 1786, as inspector of public buildings, a post that brought him into contact with his lifelong associate, Anton Anreith. Then followed 20 years during which he was to serve with four different governments. In 1795, he was captain in command of the Dutch Military Engineers fighting against the invading British. By 1800 he was employed by his former enemies as surveyor of buildings. When the Batavian Republic assumed command of the Cape in 1803, Thibault once more became inspector of public buildings, an appointment that was confirmed by the British after their return as conquerors three years later. In 1811, having acquired the necessary qualification in land surveying, he was promoted to the position of government land surveyor of the Cape of Good Hope.
To the traditional vernacular architecture which Thibault found at the Cape on his arrival, he brought the benefits of a classically trained mind and French finesse, for he was both an intellectual and an artist. There are few records that give absolute proof of the buildings for which Thibault was solely responsible, but his inimitable touch may be recognised in many of those of the period that are most famous and considered most beautiful. Those attributed to him include the Kat balcony at the Castle of Good Hope, the Koopmans-de Wet House, the wine cellar at Groot Constantia and the houses Uitkyk at Stellenbosch and Monbijou (formerly De Wet House) at Tulbagh. He is also credited with designing numerous gables, including those of Groot Constantia, Stellenberg, Tokai and Old Nectar. The Old Drostdy at Tulbagh is one of the few buildings that we can ascribe to him with certainty.
Authorities have stated that the so-called Cape Dutch style did not come naturally to Thibault, who remained a Frenchman to the end. He died in Cape Town in 1815, leaving his wife and daughters almost destitute.
Nevertheless, his memorial remains in the many elegant buildings that grace the southwestern Cape and bear the touch of his sensitive hand.