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T D Ravenscroft and the Hermanus Photographic Museum

Hermanus has one of the best collection of historical photographs in the country. The collection has been digitised and catalogued, and is stored in the Photographic Museum which is part of The Old Harbour Museum. The Photographic Museum is located on the site broadly known as Lemm’s Corner and is of much more recent origin than either the Old Harbour Museum itself or Lemm’s Corner, having opened officially with a first exhibition as recently as 1987.

However, photography arrived much earlier in Hermanus, mainly thanks to the work of T D Ravenscroft (1852–1948) who caught the first clear images of many towns, villages and farms in South Africa and who visited Hermanus and eventually retired there. His photographic studio was located next to his house on the present site of the Post Office and the service station in Main Road.

Ravenscroft was born in 1852 in Malmesbury and seemed to have known from an early age that he wished to be a professional photographer. At the age of 17 he apprenticed himself to the best photographer in Cape Town, William Moore, and rapidly became proficient. He married Elizabeth Viljoen, and she accompanied him as he travelled by cart all over what would become South Africa, in search of subjects. Eleven of their fourteen children were born under the cart. He was well-known for his views of landscapes and towns, but he also brought his skills to bear on portraiture and, indeed, earned most of his income in his early years from commissioned portraits.

In the 1890s he returned to live in Cape Town and photographed many of the political and social elite. One of these was the camera-shy Cecil John Rhodes, who was so impressed by Ravenscroft that he helped to get him appointed permanently as the official photographer of the Cape Colony. After 1910, Ravenscroft secured access to virtually every site in the country as the official photographer to South African Railways. In 1919 he retired to Hermanus, which he was to photograph many times over the next 30 years.

Ravenscroft continued working all his life, but religious belief came to play an equally significant part in his activities. He preached every Sunday to a congregation in Hawston, and there was a sign on the door of his studio that made it clear that he would photograph ladies, but only if they were conservatively dressed. The relevant notice read:

“The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: For all that do so are an abomination unto the LORD thy God.”

Ravenscroft died in 1948 at the age of 97, leaving a large number of glass negatives which are now owned by the Photographic Museum.

Oskar Prozesky was a South African of German-English parentage. Born in Pietermaritzburg, he spent his childhood in Oudtshoorn and Graaff-Reinet in the Cape Province. He studied at Stellenbosch University and lectured there in German for several years. He was a high school English and Afrikaans teacher at various Cape schools; his main interests from childhood were literature, history and the search for religious truth. He excelled as a poet, prose-writer, swordsman, artist and philosopher and was awarded a PhD by the University of Natal.

From about 1880 professional and private photographs of Hermanus and its inhabitants began to accumulate in various places. However, it was not until October 1983 that Prozesky initiated discussions between the Trustees of the Old Harbour Museum (formed in 1970) and the Dutch Reformed Church in Hermanus. The focus of the talks was a small cottage owned by the DRC and located on a site now adjacent to the Grobbelaar Hall. I cannot find an image of the specific cottage, but it would have been very like these photographed by Ravenscroft in other locations in Hermanus. Prozesky had decided that the structure could be utilised better as a photographic museum than for the Sunday school held there once a week.

This cottage that was to be the Museum also has a history. It was built in the 1860s by J P de Wet, a member of the early families in Hermanus and who later farmed at Boontjieskraal. The cottage was bought and sold a couple of times before it came into the possession of Dirk Cornelius Eksteen Wolhuter who used it as a temporary dwelling while building his permanent house alongside. When he no longer required it, he sold it to the Dutch Reformed Church which used it for Sunday school classes. The Old Harbour Museum had come into existence in 1970 and had acquired the site broadly known as Lemm’s Corner from a property company owned by Mr Christo Wiese. Prozesky intended to use the cottage as a photographic museum that would form part of the heritage site known as the Fisherman’s Village.

Oscar Prozesky supervised the deconstruction of the Sunday School building down to the smallest detail, numbering and recording every component and storing them in a way in which they would be most easily accessible for reconstruction at a later date. S J du Toit quotes the supervising architects of the project as follows:

“It is not often in this country that a whole building has been dismantled and moved to another site with the original materials replaced almost exactly. We should like to pay tribute to the dedication and skill with which Oscar Prozesky measured and marked out the stones and timber which enabled us to prepare plans; and also to the great enthusiasm and courage shown by curator Guy Clark and builder August Davids during construction. Working directly from Oscar’s records, they resurrected the stored material and meticulously sought out the stones from the great pile lying next to the library to ensure their correct repositioning.”

The public of Hermanus became enthusiastic about the project to revive the 1860s cottage. A lengthy article in The Times of Hermanus of 19 October 1983 explained the work in detail and supported the request that all interested persons donate to the Hermanuspietersfontein Trust. The response was positive. A large number of individuals, businesses, trusts and visitors did donate. More than 440 names appear on the list of donors. The sum raised (R93 746) equates roughly to R1,25 million in today’s money.

Prozesky called the fundraising campaign Operation Jericho. This was a reference to the biblical story in which ‘God simply told Joshua to have the people march silently around Jericho for six days, and then, after seven circuits on the seventh day, to shout. The walls would then collapse.

‘Though it seemed foolish, Joshua followed God’s instructions to the letter. When the people did finally shout, the massive walls collapsed instantly, and Israel won an easy victory.’ Prozesky commented to the writer of the newspaper article: ‘We will have to walk more than seven times around the cottage to make the walls fall down, but we heartily invite anyone interested to join us in the walk.’”

Prozesky left Hermanus quite soon after this and Guy Clarke, an earlier curator of the Old Harbour, returned to that position.

Clarke (1943–2015) was responsible for recreating the cottage and preparing it for the exhibition of photographs. By 1987 the Museum was ready to stage a gala opening.

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