Rethinking the William Fehr Collection

Dr William Fehr (1892 – 1968) was a Cape Town based businessman with a passion for collecting historical art and objects. The collection went on public display at the Castle during the 1950s, and portrays aspects of South Africa’s painful colonial past – including maps, portraits, and depictions of historical events, animals and flowers. As custodians of the collection today, we have begun to explore contemporary issues and multiple narratives, with the aim of critically reinterpreting this important historical archive.

An important consideration when assessing the works in the Fehr Collection is to ask questions – such as, from what perspective did the artists create the works; what is the significance of what is portrayed; what has been omitted, or is ‘silent’, in the representations; and how has the artist’s perspective shaped the landscape – natural and cultural? Think about what John Berger pointed out in Ways of Seeing, namely ‘The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe’. We encourage viewers to look closely at the works on exhibition, and to explore the stories behind the pictures, to not take things at ‘face value’, so to speak, but to delve into the multiple meanings of the histories depicted here.

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Rethinking the William Fehr Collection Installation Views, 2017. Photograph: Nigel Pamplin. ©Iziko Museums of South Africa.


Rethinking the William Fehr collection

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This image shows how a part of the William Fehr Collection was exhibited in the past -
more or less unchanged - from the 1950s until 2015.

 

Fehr’s private collection of art works and decorative art objects went on public display for the first time at the Castle in 1952. This happened at the time of an apartheid government event, the Van Riebeeck Tercentenary Festival, which celebrated the arrival at the Cape of the first Dutch commander, Jan van Riebeeck, on 6 April 1652. Yet the event was highly contested, and a large proportion of the population boycotted it and hosted rallies opposing it on the Parade next to the Castle. These rallies challenged the celebration of colonial arrivals, and marked the date of 6 April 1952 as the launch of the Defiance Campaign against the oppressive apartheid laws of the time.

The core of the Fehr Collection comprises historical art works dating from South Africa's colonial past. It is a closed collection, which means that works from other collections have not been added since the collector, Dr William Fehr, passed away in 1968. The collection has thus not grown and adapted to contemporary times.

How can we today view a collection which offers glimpses of South Africa’s past through a colonial lens? Do these art works have different meanings for different people? Can they help us not only to understand our colonial past but also encourage dialogue around how we see this past today, and what it means to our present?

The current display is presented as the beginning of a process to radically reinterpret and redisplay this important historical archive for contemporary viewers. The collection requires discussion, debate and interrogation by the public of the 21st century, and your insights and views are eagerly encouraged. You are welcome to share opinions about this ‘work in progress’ with us in the comments book, or via info@iziko.org.za. 

The Fehr collection is managed by Iziko Museums of South Africa and is listed as a declared heritage collection with the South African Heritage Resources Agency.

 


Beyond the object

We encourage you to look in your mind’s eye beyond the polished wooden surfaces of this selection of historical furniture from the Fehr collection, and to think about the craftsmen who created the pieces, as well as the men and women who cared for these objects.

Turn around and look behind the large gable-topped cabinet to get a sense of the maker's hand constructing this imposing piece of furniture. Who were these craftsmen? And who were the people who polished the wooden, copper and silver surfaces? Who pressed the linen and packed it onto shelves inside such cabinets? Who carried candlesticks and lamps to light the home when darkness set in? So many enslaved people played an integral role in colonial domestic life – washerwomen, water carriers, sedan chair bearers, wagon drivers, the women who looked after the kitchens and tended the children, acted as wet-nurses, and knitted, sewed and did fine embroidery.
 

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Left: Fetching water from the pump at the top of the Heerengracht (present day Adderley Street), Cape Town, 1833,
before slave emancipation. Artist: Sir Charles D’Oyly (1781-1845). William Fehr Collection (B72).
Middle: Milk carrier and washerwoman in Cape Town, c.1830, before slave emancipation. Artist: H.C. de Meillon (d.1856).
William Fehr Collection (H152).
Right: The pump house in Prince Street, Cape Town, 1824, which water carriers frequented to draw water supplies for homes. Artist: John F. Comfield (b.1799). William Fehr Collection (C65).

 

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Left: A washerwoman walking down Table Mountain. Artist: William Howard Schröder(1851-1892), undated. William Fehr Collection (B70). Platteklip stream was the workplace of washerwomen who in earlier times were slaves and washed laundry for their families, burghers and Castle soldiers.
Middle: Fish market, Cape Town, 1833, before slave emancipation. Aritst: Sir Charles D’Oyly (1781-1845). William Fehr Collection (H73).
Right: Sedan chair covered in painted leather, made in Europe, 18th century. Carried by enslaved men, sedan chairs were used at the
Cape during the 18th century for transporting members of the wealthier families, possibly women only. Good Hope Collection (GH91/30).


Conquest, conflict and dispossession

In search of new trade routes between Europe and Asia, European nations like the Portuguese, British and Dutch rounded the Cape of Good Hope from the 15th century onwards. The settlement of Dutch and later British colonists led to conflicts and acts of dispossession, which impacted negatively on indigenous societies in southern Africa.

Cape Town is inextricably bound to the sea and its trade routes, as depicted in maritime paintings in this display. They show ships anchored in Table Bay, symbolic of economic prowess and colonial power. Table Mountain was an iconic symbol, depicted both realistically and unrealistically by visiting artists. The mountain had many names, the Khoekhoen calling it Hoerikwaggo, meaning 'mountain of the sea'. 

But the paintings are silent about the impact of colonial arrivals on the lives of the original inhabitants of the Cape peninsula. Besides the practical need for fertile hunting and grazing lands, there was a spiritual bond with the land - their place of birth and ancestral burial ground. The paintings do not reveal the resistance of Khoekhoe herders and San hunter-gatherers against colonial settlement. 

Colonial settlement gradually expanded beyond the shadow of Table Mountain. The advancement of traders, hunters, farmers and missionaries inland, and the arrival of British settlers in the present day Eastern Cape, severely affected indigenous societies. 

In the Eastern Cape wars raged between colonists, local kingdoms and chiefdoms for over a century, from 1779 to 1879. Scenes of some of these conflicts are depicted in art works in this exhibition. These are colonial perspectives by mostly visiting European artists.

This room played a powerful role during Dutch colonial, or VOC, rule when the Council of Policy and Council of Justice held their meetings here, issuing laws and regulations which affected everyone living at the Cape and beyond. 
 

About The Castle of Good Hope

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A view of the Castle from the Parade, c.1850-1853. Artist: Thomas William Bowler (1812-1869). William Fehr Collection (C33). 

 

Built on San and Khoekhoe ancestral land, the Castle is South Africa's oldest existing building. The Khoekhoen referred to the Castle as 'kui keip' or stone kraal. Originally built at the water's edge, before land was reclaimed, the Castle served as the Cape headquarters of the Dutch East India Company or VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie). It replaced Jan van Riebeeck's four-pointed fort which was situated on the present day Parade. Foundations for the five-pointed Castle structure were laid in 1666, with building work carried out by soldiers, sailors and enslaved people until completion in 1679.  

During Dutch colonial times, military, political, judicial and economic life was centred here. There were barracks for soldiers and sailors, apartments for high-ranking officials and officers, rooms of state for the Council of Policy and Council of Justice, workshops and stores. In 1811, during the Second British Occupation, the Castle became an entirely military entity when government functions were moved to the converted Slave Lodge in today's Adderley Street. 

During the apartheid era the Castle's position as an exclusive military space was cemented. In the early 1990s this position was challenged when a museum curator opened up Castle spaces for the hosting of contemporary art exhibitions through which artists could engage with the contested history of the space. In 2004 Iziko Museums hosted a major exhibition celebrating South Africa's ten years of democracy.

In 2004 Iziko Museums hosted a major exhibition titled Democracy X which celebrated South Africa's first ten years as a democratic country. The Castle is presently managed by the Caste Control Board under the auspices of the Department of Defence.  In 2016 the laying of the first foundation stone 350 years earlier was commemorated through a programme called 'Freedom from Oppression'. The quest to make the Castle more accessible to all continues

The Rethinking of the William Fehr Collection texts were developed in 2017 by Esther Esmyol, Curator of the William Fehr Collection.