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Watercolour of the pump house in Prince Street, Cape Town, painted in 1824 by John F Comfield (1799 - ?). Iziko William Fehr Collection C65.

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A watercolour showing a view of the Castle in Cape Town from the Parade, painted c.1850 - 1853 by Thomas William Bowler (1812 - 1869). Iziko William Fehr Collection

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The Schoolmaster reading De Zuid-Afrikaan, a watercolour painted in 1850 by Charles Davidson Bell (1813 - 1882). Iziko William Fehr Collection.

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Table Bay by Aernout Smit (1683) within the William Fehr Collection, Iziko Museums of South Africa Social History Collections. 

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Table Mountain – ‘snow-capped’.(c) Iziko William Fehr collection.  

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Sandile's kraal in the Amathole, by Thomas Baines, c. 1849. (c) Iziko William Fehr collection.  

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WHFL Langschmidt's painting of Lang Street, Cape Town, c 1849. (c) Iziko William Fehr collection.  

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Oil on canvas by John Thomas Baines (1820-1875), depicting his return to Cape Town on the gunboat Lynx in December 1859, amidst fellow passengers believed to be ‘prized slaves’. (c) Iziko William Fehr collection.  

William Fehr collection

The William Fehr Collection is exhibited at the Castle of Good Hope and in part at Rust en Vreugd. The Castle, Cape Town’s oldest existing building, houses the component of oil paintings, furniture and decorative arts. Rust en Vreugd, a fine example of colonial eighteenth century urban architecture, houses some of the art on paper – prints, drawings and watercolours. The artefacts including the art works date from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, the period of Dutch colonial settlement and, after 1795, the era of British occupation. The art works in particular constitute a uniquely rich and important resource for many aspects of the history of the period.

William Fehr was born in 1892 in Burghersdorp in the former Cape Colony. A businessman by profession, he cherished a particular love of historical pictorial art. It was during the late 1920s that he began to collect paintings, prints and drawings, an interest which was later extended to Cape furniture and other household and decorative art objects.

Fehr acquired his collection at a time when there were still few private collectors and little systematic collecting by South African public institutions. He first lent his collection for public exhibition at the Castle of Good Hope in 1952 during the Van Riebeeck Tercentenary Festival. In 1964 the South African government purchased his oil paintings, furniture, ceramics, metal and glassware - the collection which today can still be seen at the Castle. In the following year Fehr donated his unique collection of art works on paper to South Africa, to be placed at Rust en Vreugd. He was intimately involved in the display of the collection at both venues. In 1960 Fehr was awarded an honorary doctorate in recognition of his work in heritage conservation. He died in 1968.

The Fehr collection forms one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of art of the colonial period at the Cape, depicting an array of historical events, topographical views, streets and buildings, personalities and people. On another level, the collection reflects the aesthetics, outlook and social context of a single collector, differing in this way from museum collections which are generally the result of selection by museum curators over extended periods of time.

The paintings and works of art on paper are undoubtedly the strong point of the Fehr collection. Local and international artists and researchers continue to be interested in these works and many requests are made to study the works or to obtain photographs of specific works. History books, nationally and internationally, regularly feature photographs of works from the collection. The portal Africa Media Online also hosts images which can be purchased electronically. 

An extensive image bank exists within Iziko’s holdings of the works in the collection. We are working towards making the entire collection (not only the works on exhibition, but also those  in storage) available to as wide an audience as possible by way of a digital database.

Works by famous visiting artists such as Thomas Baines, Thomas Bowler, Frederick I’Ons, Samuel Daniell, Samuel Davis, Wilhelm Langschmidt, George French Angas and many others are central to the collection. These works depict historical scenes and events prior to the advent of photography. There are depictions of events during the 100 years of Frontier Wars or British-Xhosa wars in the Eastern Cape, portraits of important Xhosa chiefs, maritime scenes depicting Table Bay against the backdrop of Table Mountain, and many other fascinating views of Cape Town and beyond. Works by female artists such as Lady Emily Sophia Hamilton, Lady Georgiana Eyre, and Alys Fane Trotter are represented, especially amongst the art works on paper.

Recent developments

We recently rotating a portion of the art works on paper at Rust en Vreugd due to the sensitive nature of the material. To co-incide with the devastating impact of one hundred years of the 1913 Natives’ Land Act, landscape-related works were chosen from the Fehr collection to mark some of the seminal and historic events which impacted on the South African landscape and on land-holding. It touches on people and how their lives had changed as the landscape rapidly changed around them. Wars led to the arrival of new colonial authorities, the further expansion of settlements and farmlands and the further loss of access to ancestral lands, water and grazing rights. Issues of land ownership and mining rights remain relevant and topical in South Africa to this day. It is important to continue to show colonial works by way of linking them to contemporary issues.

Contact

Esther Esmyol
Email: eesmyol@iziko.org.za
Telephone: +27 (0) 21 467 7205