A TANTALISING Paarl urban legend has it that a series of suitcases were once found dumped on the curb, ready for refuse collection. Inside were old glass plate negatives from one of the town’s photographic studios whose value had clearly come to reflect their destination: a landfill. Perhaps one person, or more, recognised their importance and saved the collection from its demise. It was then housed within the curlicued façade of De Oude Woning along the Main Street, one of the oldest surviving Cape Dutch homes in Paarl. This became the home of “Drakenstein Heemkring".
Paarl historian Len Raymond, who restores such buildings, has never heard this suitcase tale but he has become the unofficial custodian and champion of the collection by virtue of his involvement in the Heemkring, which started in 1977 as a historical resource centre for the residents of Paarl and surrounding towns. Its main archive took the form of the Gribble photographic collection, which offers a rare insight into a fascinating era in the history of the Western Cape that includes the end of slavery, the establishment of the Cape Colony, the Anglo-Boer War and the Union of South Africa — and all their ramifications.
Glass plate negatives were an innovative leap in the history of photography. The method was invented in 1848 by British sculptor Frederick Scott Archer, who wanted to capture the three-dimensional forms of his works and was dissatisfied with the poor definition and contrast produced by existing processes. Hence he did it his way. And what a way it was. As assistant archivist Mishka Chisholm of the Eton College Photographic Archive in Britain said of its glass plate collection: “Glass plate negatives, though fragile and requiring careful storage conditions […] the crisp images they produced sometimes rival even the digital prints of the modern day. In fact, quite often a glass plate negative which appears cracked or badly damaged on the emulsion side can still produce a clear and detailed print over 100 years later."
Eton has a collection of 3,000 glass plate negatives. The Drakenstein Heemkring has nearly 10 times that many, now stored in the Paarl municipal offices. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this collection recorded Paarl and its people after the British photographer James Gribble settled there in 1882. He opened his first studio on the corner of Reservoir and Main roads and a second one in Market Square, while a third was established at 271 Main Street (corner of Pastorie Avenue). In 1919 he was joined by his son Harold, who remained an active photographer into his 80s. The photographic business closed in 1987 after capturing almost a century of Paarl’s history.
In fact, the collection goes beyond the reach and relevance of Paarl. It captures individuals, families and sports teams from Franschhoek, Pniel, Simondium, Malmesbury, Hopefield, Tulbagh, Worcester, Wellington, Calvinia, Somerset West, Piketberg and more. The collection has the potential to change how we see the early history and residents of many of the towns across the Western Cape.
James Gribble took up photography in his father’s footsteps. As Harold Gribble’s daughter Yvonne Fischer wrote in an unpublished article, James Gribble Sr apprenticed in photography in 1859 in Penzance, Cornwall. Shortly afterwards, he and his wife Jane (nee Quick) emigrated to South Africa and in January 1860 opened a studio at 54 Hanover Street in Cape Town. To be a photographer back then was to be equal parts chemist, alchemist and daredevil. As Fischer explained of her great-grandfather: “He used to prepare his own chemicals, dissolving a gold coin to make chloride of gold and making his own nitrate of silver, then coating the sheets of glass he had cut to the size required, with collodion. That potent poison, cyanide of potassium, was in daily use in the dark rooms."
Carol Hardijzer, aficionado of South African photography and owner of one of the biggest private collections in the country, took a deep dive into Gribble family history. Photography was in its infancy when Gribble arrived, he notes. “The first commercial photographer active in Cape Town, the German Carel Sparmann, is recorded to have captured his first photograph (in the daguerrotype format) in town during 1847, just 13 years prior to Gribble’s arrival. The Gribble trio not only saw the art of photography growing and establishing itself in South Africa, but also significantly contributed to the development thereof over a period of some 115 years."
James Gribble Jr went to take wedding photographs in Paarl in 1885 and decided to move to what must have looked like a picturesque little town lined with kilometres of gabled buildings — at one stage it had the longest main street in the country. You might imagine the establishment of a photographic studio in a sleepy country town as a laid-back endeavour, but you would be wrong as this was the apogee of studio photography.
Fischer said: “During his time there were 30-odd competitors. Two leading Cape Town firms opened branches. At one time there were as many as five studios here. [Gustav Adolph George] Decker built a studio [and] got out two Germans to do the work, but they all left him. Eventually he did not know what to do with it, so offered it to James Gribble Jr, and so he bought him out as well." Gribble's son Harold subsequently bought out George Bell’s insolvent estate, which is why the collection contains the work of various photographic studios in the town.
Fischer, the fourth generation, apprenticed under her father’s guidance and worked until she married in 1952. She continued with the business after her mother’s death in 1973 but specialised in making copies of her grandfather's old glass plates and copying photographs with no negatives. Yvonne died in 2005, probably 76 years old, stretching the family photographic practice from the 19th century into the 21st.
The Gribble collection photographs depict street scenes, farming landscapes and buildings, school and sporting clubs and, importantly, many portrait studies linked to family names and dates. The images on the glass plates were digitised in 2008 in high resolution, offering surprising clarity.
Victorian era politics, events and fashions of course run through many of the photographs. It seems strange now to look on the full marching band parading through the main street of Paarl in 1897 in honour of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations marking her 60th year of reign. A plethora of British flags have been strung between trees and are carried by the parading contingent — this is the pomp and reach of Empire at its height.
This public display of ‘God save the Queen’ would soon become strained in Paarl with the onset of the Anglo-Boer war within a few years as Britannia’s rule came under fire even this far away from the Transvaal. When Boer troops tactically decided to invade the Cape Colony at places like Cradock, Calvinia, Lambert’s Bay, Graaff-Reinet, Beaufort West and Oudsthoorn, they were met with such support from Cape Afrikaners that the British Cape Government declared martial law that would extend to the whole of the Cape Colony by 1901.
Those Cape Afrikaners provided shelter, food, clothing and horses for the Boer troops, and many thousands joined up with the Boer Commandos. Burghers who fought with the republican forces were regarded as rebels and were court-martialled and fined or imprisoned if captured. Other captured rebels faced firing squads or felt the noose around their neck. While an estimated 3,990 Boer troops died on the battlefield, a staggering 28,000 white women and children, 20,000 coloured and 14,000 black people died in concentration camps set up by the British army.
With the threat of such stringent repercussions, it is perhaps no wonder that only an estimated 50 burghers from the Paarl region joined the rebellion. The British Cape government, nervous about the possibility of rural farming regions being used by Boer forces as places of safe passage and refuge, rolled out a series of district mounted troops (DMT) and town guards all over the interior. Town guards were in effect for areas such as Stellenbosch, Somerset West, Paarl, Wellington and Worcester. In 1901, Paarl DMT was made up of 120 men, many of them local, and 53 horses. They were tasked with protecting the passes at “French Hoek, Oliphants Nek, Wemmershoek and Du Toit’s Kloof”.
These Boer/British politics had ramifications even for small-town photographers. As Hardijzer relays from Gribble’s own memoir kept by his family:
“After the ‘Jameson' raid I hurt the feelings of the Paarl Dutch at a crowded meeting held in the Paarl town hall. The meeting was called with the intent in time to unite the Dutch in revolt to the British. The other Britishers present left the meeting as they could not vote for, nor dare to vote against, the resolutions. I stood up, the only one to do so, to vote against them. I broke the force of their intentions. As a result I was boycotted in business, perhaps the first in this country.”
Another Victorian fashion the Gribble collection mirrors was the unsettling custom of death photography. Bethan Bell wrote a BBC article on this practice, in which he said: “Photographs of loved ones taken after they died may seem morbid to modern sensibilities. But in Victorian England, they became a way of commemorating the dead and blunting the sharpness of grief. In images that are both unsettling and strangely poignant, families pose with the dead, infants appear asleep and consumptive young ladies elegantly recline, the disease not only taking their life but increasing their beauty. Victorian life was suffused with death. Epidemics such as diphtheria, typhus and cholera scarred the country, and from 1861 the bereaved queen made mourning fashionable. Trinkets of memento mori — literally meaning “remember you must die” — took several forms, and existed long before Victorian times. But in the mid-1800s photography was becoming increasingly popular and affordable — leading to memento mori photographic portraiture."
The Gribble collection holds plenty of uncomfortable and sombre photographs of young children and adults who died before their time; babies resting gently on pillows surrounded by flowers as if they had just dropped off to sleep. James Gribble was no stranger to loss and might have understood more than most how a photograph of a deceased family member could bring some small modicum of comfort. At the age of nine his father died, followed by a sibling two years later. As a husband he outlived all three of his wives, and as a father he lost three children (one from typhoid fever, another from tuberculosis, and another in premature birth with his second wife). In other words, Gribble experienced an extraordinary amount of tragedy by today’s standards.
All photographs embody various scales of death and living. Looking at these memento mori we can almost viscerally feel the human register of loss for families who tried to capture their loved ones in permanent visual form beyond what the confines of their memory could hold. The generational family albums our grandmothers and aunts keep in wooden kists and cupboards hold photographs just like this. When we look at them, we run through lives as we turn pages, condensing lives into snapshots.
The politics of capture in relation to race are surprising in that they both uphold and reject our expectations about who is depicted in these 30,000 photographs. Most often, since the 1980s, the collection has been used by descendants of white familes, often Afrikaans, keen to explore their genealogical history and the buildings their ancestors lived in. However, the studio portraits also provide a social and visual record of the people of Paarl who have often not been part of the town’s official story. The surnames Abrahams, Africa, Allies, Arendse, Adams, Baantjie, Bahodien, Davids, Fortuin, Cupido, Ismael, Latief, Jacobs, Mahomed, Mathee and Solomon represent just a few of the families who have been in Paarl for generations and are part of the fabric of the town. More than that, they built it. Many of the glass plates have the names of the sitters scribbled on the side. Their stories remain untold unless we can match them to living descendants.
After the ending of slavery, emancipated slaves were allocated ground, particularly in the vicinity of Berg and Bosman streets against Paarl mountain. There they built simple thatched-roof houses. When a few of the farms went through early subdivision in sections along Main Street, and in the School Street area, houses erected there eventually became part of the town. Many families rented but a vast majority owned their houses and plots of land. This was the beginning of the Ou Tuin community and other sections of Paarl that became inhabited by descendants of freed slaves who were later evicted from their homes through apartheid’s grand scheme of forced removals.
These family and individual photographs from Paarl and surrounding areas around the turn of the 20th century honour the historic roots of the diverse community of the town — they form a searing and beautiful portrait of the settlement’s beginnings, of its founding fathers and mothers, and its family trees not published in official books. The elaborate and detailed Victorian-era clothing of coloured and black portrait sitters offers a fascinating take on self-styling, respectability and identity at the end of the 19th century. Looking into their eyes with uncanny crystal clarity, how they sat with such pride with their growing families or sports teams, one can only conclude that they have many more stories to tell.
The mirage of the discarded suitcases filled with glass plate negatives is a tempting salvation story. But alas, it has to be dismissed. Harold Gribble died in Paarl, aged 83, on January 9, 1983. And apparently it was he who had the foresight to donate all the glass negatives still in his possession (including his father’s work) to the Drakenstein Heemkring.
But the metaphor of changing value accrued by this photographic collection is not dismissible: these photographs have oscillated beneath a seemingly stable but ultimately fragile silver nitrate veneer. The Gribble family and Heemkring have provided their protection. The glass plates themselves are fragile, hence the digitisation. But their social value is also precarious. The Heemkring's tenancy at De Oude Woning has been under threat for some time and there is scarce acknowledgement of the value of the collection by the municipality. To ensure its continuing survival, it requires recognition, activation, new uses, new ways of presentation and new forms of research by new generations of people who see something different when they look into the eyes of the sitters.
That something different might be their own selves reflected back at them. For ultimately these images form a provincial treasure and an archive of endless personal and public possibilities.
* Photo compilation at the top (clockwise from top left): An advertisement for the three generations of Gribble photographers, offering “portraits taken daily, in any weather by James Gribble" at his Market Square studio in Paarl; Gribble’s third studio (on the right) situated on the corner of Main Road and Pastorie Avenue. The building still stands at 2 Pastorie Avenue. © GA Decker; Group wedding photograph for F Abrahams of Wellington, circa 1940s. Many of the glass plates in the Gribble collection are posed family wedding portraits. The deterioration and marking on this glass plate seems to appropriately mirror a sprinkle of wedding confetti.
* Tracey Randle is a herstorian and curator in Cape Town with 20 years’ experience in historical research and museum exhibition design. Fred de Vries is a journalist and writer who grew up in Rotterdam and lives in Cape Town. The research for this story was made possible thanks to a grant from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The photos are courtesy of the Drakenstein Heemkring/ The Gribble Collection.
♦ VWB ♦
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