7 Decades: The Sketchbooks of Cecil Michaelis

Cecil Michaelis was the founder of the Montebello Design Centre. He was both an artist and a philanthropist and, with great aplomb and considerable eccentricity, he always attempted to live up to his father’s deathbed wishes that he lead a useful life.

Montebello Design Centre is testimony to this. He understood design and the contribution it could make in a very contemporary way. His sketchbooks are another type of testimony; they show a life well lived.


The sampling of sketchbooks on loan to Montebello from Cecil’s third wife Amata’s family reveal as much about him as the art of living with a sketchbook in your pocket.

In this exhibition, where the themes of journeys, land and the documenting of them keep asserting themselves, Cecil’s sketchbooks offer a glimpse into the journeys of Cecil himself. Journeys to different lands, journeys to war, journeys of self discovery, journeys of curiosity and journeys into the heart.

I never saw Cecil with a camera, but he always had a sketchbook and a blunt pencil – one of those that builders use – in his jacket pocket.

He used his sketchbook in the same way that we take photo snapshots today – the quickly observed moment and the candid capturing of it. They reveal the quirky eye of the person behind the image, the sense of humour and curiosity and tenderness, the finely observed moment. Only, the sketch is not a photograph. It is intensely personal in a way photographs seldom are.  Like handwriting, it has the signature of the sketcher contained within the quality of line and the intensity of observation.

Cecil’s sketchbooks were the diaries of his life. They span the different decades and continents, and reveal unselfconsciously some of the consistent themes and interests of his life:

Sketchbook as travelogue
Africa, Europe, the UK, the USA and the Orient – he traveled immensely. In one sketchbook there might be an Oxford College; an elegant lady crossing a road in Paris; little birds skittering in the shallow waters of Hermanus, his beloved sea-side retreat in the Cape; and horses that could well have been from the stables of Montebello itself.

Sketchbook as war journal
On several occasions Cecil told me a story about his World War II experience as a soldier during street fighting in Paris.  While others were wielding their guns, Cecil took out his pencil and sketched the skirmishes. While conscious that he was lucky not to be court marshaled, he was proud to tell me that some of these sketchbooks are now on display in The War Museum in Paris – testimony he felt to the pencil being mightier than the sword.

Sketchbook and everyday life
His love of beautiful women and most especially his 2nd wife, Lill, whom he met on the streets of Paris on Armistice Day, during the celebrations, and whom he draws again and again; his tenderness towards small children and animals; his obvious enjoyment of trees and landscape; and his fine eye for capturing the character of a person or animal with a few strokes of pen or pencil. All these show his constant engagement with and sensitivity to the variety of the everyday world around him.

– Tessa Graaff, Director Montebello Design Centre, October 2011

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