About Miss Helen and the Owl House: Red

For Helen Martins, bringing light and life into her home was one of her biggest accomplishments. During her creative period, between 1945, after the death of her father, and her own suicide in 1978 she created a wonderfully light and colourful home, reflecting light through shaped mirrors and shattered glass.

Helen loved the colour red, which she felt was the colour of passion. Her ‘precious red glass’ was a lot harder to find than brown beer bottles during her creative period.

It is also the colour of the honeymoon room, where a red sun with “jealous”, green eyes keep watch.

The window between the long bedroom and the honeymoon room as well as the kitchen window was replaced with red glass, which would have cost her a considerable amount of money.

Sue Ross tells in her book “This is my world” that Helen used to have her mirrors ordered and delivered to Nieu Bethesda. Her orders were very specific, and many shapes can be seen inside the house still. Especially mirrors cut into the shape of handheld mirrors were her favourite. There are also crescent moons and suns throughout the house.

In the book, a tale of Helen and her lover of 21 years, Johannes Hattingh, regaled by his daughter tells the story of Mrs Hattingh’s ruby and diamond brooches and rings. The transformation of her house was also what brought the couple together as this is when they started spending time together. 

His daughter, Machteld, also tells of a bright red velvet chocolate box with a little mirror on top, which Hattingh had given to Mrs Hatting in 1915. His daughter tells how badly Helen wanted the pretty box that Mrs Hattingh used as a jewellery box.

My own grandmother, Freda van Heerden, tells of a day when she ran into Helen Martins during a shopping spree in Graaff-Reinet. “She used to come across as very neglected, duty from working with cement and her hands were very dried and scarred. On that day, however, she was dressed in a beautiful red dress. Very fancy! It seems that her sister, Alida, had just passed away and Helen had inherited all her sister’s clothes.”

Colour was very important to Helen, who filled her home and garden with sculptress from glass, a feast for the eyes.

Yet, her red glass was supposedly very precious to her.

It was her wish that she be cremated and that her ashes be mixed with red glass and mounted on Oswald her favourite owl who stands sentinel at the back door. “But the dominee might think me a little strange …”

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