Dr William Fehr (1892-1968), collector of art as history
The name of Dr William Fehr should be familiar to many of those who have visited Castle Good Hope in Cape Town at least once during the last fifty years. Young and old may recall certain portions of that unique structure, while others might remember only its imposing exterior. Some visitors have retained warm memories of high rooms and graceful furniture, colourful porcelain and vivid pictures. Others may remember a more abstract sense of glowing hospitality, generous space, reasoned balance and quiet dignity. Those well-proportioned rooms offered the viewer a sense of participation in times past while still enjoying times more recent.
This apparently simple and seamless interaction still affords an opportunity to enjoy matters of art and history in an unhurried way. Without clutter, imposed restrictions or barriers of glass to interfere with reverie, visitors can linger within displays. A natural sense of order soon reveals itself in an unfolding story of life in and around historic South Africa. An appropriate juxtaposition of objects helps present a spectacle of people, places and things distant yet familiar, combining quality materials with polished craft that often rises to artistry.
For the perceptive viewer William Fehr’s Collection bound together many hundreds of objects as though they filled illuminated pages in what he believed to be a gripping historical narrative, a romantic novel of travel and adventure. The displays embraced a variety of cultural perspectives that blended East, West and Africa, while reaching back to the late 15th century and the stirrings of worldwide territorial and economic expansion. This panorama of commerce, social endeavour and the family quickly became a popular and comprehensible destination at Cape Town through Fehr’s careful juxtaposition of selected objects, inviting Á¦sthetic enjoyment as well as an appreciation of their various historical circumstances. With as much concern for the past as for the future, Fehr made all this available in perpetuity to the public as a major cultural and educational resource.
Many clear interconnections had evolved in my own close reading of the Collection itself as a text. The better to have a critical grasp of Fehr’s epic vision of South African history and all those who helped shape it, the need arose to enquire into the nature of the man who had gathered the pictures and objects together, preserved and unified them originally for his own and, ultimately, the public’s enjoyment.
Thus the ancestry of William Fehr became a necessary and valuable course through which to understand his life, as well as provide substance to his Collection as a pictorial biography of South Africa. No other private collection of South African pictorial narrative could claim to be as large, comprehensive or integrated a treasury of artwork, gathered as an Á¦sthetic and historical unit. The only other comparable accumulation of pictorial narrative, that of the (then) Africana Museum in Johannesburg, was not the creation of a single private collector but rather the work of many Municipal hands.
The nature of my own methods should become apparent. The process was put in motion by meeting with William Fehr’s daughter, and also his widow. I was generously allowed by them to study Fehr’s papers, a process which had not previously been undertaken. Included among the documents were photos, letters, newspapers, family records and a quantity of Fehr’s own manuscript.
Over many months a picture began to emerge not only of William Fehr, but also of the sources from which he drew his combined passion for history and art, which came to be embodied in his Collection, and was reflected in his serious personal efforts to help preserve and secure appreciation of South Africa’s cultural, architectural and natural heritage, among which was the successful demarcation of the heart of Cape Town’s Old Malay Quarter as a National Monument. This little-known achievement was the direct result of some twenty years’ efforts on Fehr’s part as an active and vocal member of the Historical Monuments Commission.
Fehr had been firmly convinced of the importance of family ties and consistently recognised the macrocosm of humanity reflected in its smallest units. As businessman, family man and a concerned member of society, Fehr was conscious of the need to help support and develop an understanding of varied ethical and moral systems if the youthful South Africa was to prosper during increasingly demanding times that followed the Second World War.
Fehr’s milieux, like those of his antecedents, and enduring today, had been closely bound in commercial networks. Yet, as had been tragically revealed, the education, health and happiness of society could suddenly and seriously be disrupted. Fehr maintained what he felt to be an innate human need to enjoy beauty, whether natural or man-made, as an aspect of individual and collective prosperity and heritage. From such diverse material Fehr had forged a durable link between historical and Á¦sthetic worth and helped make this union available to all at a time when such broad social thinking had not been the norm.
William Fehr was born at Burgersdorp on the 17th of April 1892. The town was then a remote frontier outpost hardly fifty years old. Only in the 1880’s had the railway been laid there, linking the Cape Colony to the south and the Free State and Transvaal to the north. With increasing prosperity Burgersdorp became a cultivated little centre, though one ever aware of its beautiful and often harsh environment with its various inhabitants and migrants. By day in Burgersdorp one might hear the rumble and grind of ox-wagons, while the evening could offer a learned lecture, an improving debate or the performance of a fresh work by Gilbert & Sullivan, all on the outer edge of the Cape Colony.
Early in the Boer War, Burgersdorp had been the scene of serious tensions. As a well-known merchant in the town, Carl Fehr was also aware of potential dangers. Late in 1901 Carl Fehr returned to his homeland with his small family, this being his wife Maria née Maskew, and their three children Gordon, Bertha and, the eldest, William.
In Germany, at picturesque Wiesbaden, famed for its curative waters and cultivated atmosphere, William Fehr with his sister and brother enjoyed further study before moving in 1910 to Berlin. From the German capital William Fehr progressed to London as a gifted young businessman, but within a couple of years would need to gather the family and accompany them back to the Cape in the course of the Great War.
At Cape Town Carl Fehr helped guide young William into his own business career that functioned in South Africa’s Mother City for over 45 years. During that time the Second World War had a profound effect on William Fehr’s outlook. He was deeply moved by massive destruction in Europe and the brutality of the Reich. In turn Fehr had to consider the safety of his prized collection of pictorial and other Africana, which had been growing as a private passion since the 1920’s. His inclinations toward art had earlier taken second place to the family business, though the Á¦sthetic urge found in specialised collecting a ready outlet. In time, and with a sense of responsibility, Fehr wrote of the need to pass on, for safety’s sake, his already substantial collection as an unrivalled educational asset.
In 1952 Fehr and other collectors were invited to display some of their most valued historic pieces at the Castle, in Cape Town, with lasting effect. A decade later Fehr allowed the state to purchase and hold in trust that portion of his Africana collection, while he gave the remainder as a gift to all people of South Africa a few years before his death in April, 1968. His foresight and generous spirit provided a personal portrait of life in this region as captured by eyewitnesses using brush and pen. Photographs had not been part of Fehr’s collecting.
While himself a respected businessman at Cape Town, several of Fehr’s ancestors had also been directly involved with commerce, as well as local and global social endeavour of a legalistic, literary, educational or cultural nature. From a similarly holistic perspective, all those South African ancestors and contemporaries can be placed upon a more extensive family tree, and also be readily linked with items and images in Fehr’s Collection. In fact, Fehr stressed that the myriad aspects of association are important psychological keys to understanding his Collection.
Family matters, and the family’s fundamental position in society, are also represented to an extent that can be seen to reflect nation building as much as relations among individual children and parents.
Fehr’s own lifetime had spanned the Cape Colony, the Union and survived into the current Republic of South Africa. His collection is bound by the late-15th century at the further end, and the beginning of the 20th at the nearer. This terminus can be marked loosely by an era that saw the death of Queen Victoria, the Anglo-Boer War, the perfection of photography and the rise of cinema, the replacement of the horse by machines, and the rapid ascent from what Fehr had called South Africa’s “cradle days”.
William Fehr’s own maternal roots are traced back to the time of Lord Somerset at the Cape. Two brothers of the Maskew family came out here just after the Napoleonic wars, on matters concerning the English East India Company. At the time Cape Town continued the rÁ´le of being a vitally important commercial half-way station which it had already become during the 143-year tenure there of the VOC. The Maskew brothers, newly arrived at the Cape, married descendents of a 17th-century Huguenot employee of the VOC. It is this Jacques Therond who was William Fehr’s earliest antecedent in South Africa.
The potent wave of British immigrants to the Cape in 1820 brought several more people whom Fehr could acknowledge as his ancestors. This cultural infusion was regarded by Fehr to be of great significance to South Africa in the form of skills, determination and values brought by those trying to start their lives afresh. In time many of these 1820’s families were affected by growing troubles in the eastern part of the Colony. Rebels had murdered two of Fehr’s maternal ancestors on their farm near Craddock in 1851.
The founding members of the Maskew family at Cape Town became closely involved with commerce there. Some of their offspring, in turn, became part of the Cape’s cultural, educational and legal professions. William Fehr’s mother, Maria Maskew, was born in Somerset East in 1862.
In Fehr’s paternal German ancestry is represented a line of merchants during an era when recovery in those lands following the Napoleonic wars was considerable. This had been marked both by deep political transformation and a rich cultural flowering. During the early 19th century, members of the Fehr family settled at the fashionable Rhineland resort town of Wiesbaden where William Fehr’s father, Carl Adolf Fehr, was born in 1859. After 1880 Carl Fehr pursued business connections in the Cape Colony and beyond, and eventually settled at Burgersdorp. There he married Maria Maskew in 1891 and their first child, William, was born the following year.
On the one hand William Fehr’s Collection represents an autobiography in pictures, his first love. Numerous small objects and pieces of antique furniture came ultimately to be included as three-dimensional compliments of the pictorial history. These co-habit in some of the inconvenient yet thoroughly historical rooms at both the Castle and nearby Rust en Vreugd where Fehr had offered to visitors what he believed to be a balanced view of the past through contemporary artwork.
On the other hand the Collection re-presents a vast epic in terms of memory, both individual and collective, prompted by pictorial works linked to Fehr’s own library. It is especially the latter which informs my current work on Fehr, his times and his Collection.
As already mentioned, a notion common to all the items in Fehr’s Collection had been commerce, the process of human communication, trade and improvement on small or large scale. Not necessarily direct or immediate, the theme was linked to psychological association, as well as a broad sketch of Fehr’s family. There was nothing in the Collection, as selected by Fehr, which could not be related to the comprehensive view provided by him. This remains valid alike for simple rustic furniture, almost naÁ¯ve paintings and drawings, sophisticated oriental porcelain, elegant cabinetry of mixed ancestry, silver, glass and even topographical painting of world repute by Royal Academicians.
None of it need necessarily be judged by the dogma of art for its own sake. The items are children of particular historic periods and identifiable circumstances. This art is thus appreciated for history’s sake. The Fehr Collection’s financial worth cannot be matched by its greater cultural and educational value. It depicts all those who helped shape the South African past, rather than being in museum terms merely a series of items prized on their own. Unlike any other group of Africana pictures and objects, Fehr’s Collection proved to be a large and cohesive unit, carefully built up as an artwork itself and bearing its maker’s name. The public displays were also entirely individual in that Fehr avoided the constricting atmosphere seen in museums of that time in South Africa and abroad. Fehr himself said that museums had a much larger rÁ´le in society than being merely warehouses. His own illustrated guidebooks were unrivalled in quality and content by those of any other similar group of items, adding further unitary strength to the Collection.
Numerous examples of historical associations in Fehr’s Collection have been identified in my dissertation. Limited now by circumstances, I have selected a single picture to cite. It was Fehr’s favourite at the Castle and is a portrait of Cape Town in November of 1772, by William Hodges.
“Several VOC warehouses had stood at the water’s edge, while spires and belfries proclaimed religious faith, and the great mountain identified that desirable African station. As one of several highly skilled specialists among Capt. Cook’s crew, Hodges recorded a moment of expanding knowledge, based on the outward growth of British science and industry. Hodges was typical of professional artists in transit and with the specific commission of recording their voyages to augment verbal records of a scientific, social and commercial nature.”
Only during the last few years of Fehr’s life had his Collection been displayed in its entirety, even though at two separate venues. To this day much of the artwork at the Castle remains in the form of display devised by Fehr. The works at Rust en Vreugd, however, are largely in storage, thus preventing a holistic appreciation of the entire Collection, which, to Fehr’s regret, had never been displayed under one roof.
My continuing research includes articles for publication as well as the preparation of other material related to the Collection. It should then become easier to provide a useful understanding of Fehr’s vision, suggest a variety of interpretations and offer a wealth of historical matter in more accessible ways.