It took several days to empty the two-bedroom apartment of rusty nails, stacks of used plastic cartons, three sets of rusty garden shears and various other items whose value had long since expired. Half-popped blister packs appeared from behind underwear, explaining all those urgent directives to ‘drop everything’ and go up to the chemist ‘because I have no pills left’. Standing to attention on the floor of the walk-in robe was a row of shoes that had been taken to – possibly with the garden shears – in order to make them fit more comfortably. As the deadline for clearing out my mother’s possessions loomed, I cursed her for the mess she had left behind.
A few pearls stood out. Like Dad’s stinkwood card box with its inlay of playing suits. The carved wooden Chinese scholar my parents had brought back from a trip to Asia; its companion piece – a trout fisherman – which had been the gift of a lonely British sailor whom Dad, feeling sorry for the young lad, had brought home from the Cape Town docks for a square meal and as company for his awkward teenage daughter. Of themselves, the items were worthless; for the stories they could tell, they were priceless.
When I saw the boxes of old photographs, I forgave Mom everything. I took them home and on the floor of the middle bedroom – our own ‘junk room’ – pored over black and white images of my parents as children, young adults, and on their wedding day. There were my cousins on Muizenberg beach with the wind in their hair, and me as a toddler screwing up my eyes against the sun. My maternal grandparents in the prime of their life, Gertie with a heart-shaped locket around her neck and Gershon in his smart suit next to her. Their parents, my great-grandparents: grim-faced Lithuanians whose men wore long beards and bowler hats, and whose women bore the sucked-in look that comes from lost teeth. And then I came across this one.
Apart from a five-digit number on the back, there was nothing to confirm the man’s identity. Nor could I expect any help from Mom; by now she no longer remembered who Dad was.
I compared a photo of Gershon at a similar age. He too had a moustache, but the shape of his eyebrows and the folds in the auriculae of his left ear were different to those of the unknown man. Gershon also had brown eyes. He was not the graduate.
I’ve learned enough about photography to know that this one is not a daguerreotype, those early photos whose defining characteristic was an appearance of floating in space and which – by the 1860’s – had been replaced with more modern methods of portraiture. Using Roger Vaughan’s toolkit[i] on classifying late Victorian and early Edwardian-era photos, I decided that mine fell into the category of ‘non-standard studio portrait’, a catch-all for the misfits of portrait photography between the mid-1800’s and early 1900’s. Armed with a strong hunch about my subject, I asked Roger if he could narrow down the time frame.
‘There are no real clues here, but his shirt collar is c.1900, (and) the way it’s mounted[ii] looks more 1900ish, the pose is deliberately old-fashioned. My gut feeling is that this is your 1898 photo.’
The academic regalia was, of course, another clue. Ammi Ryke, an archivist at the University of South Africa – which succeeded the University of the Cape of Good Hope – sent me this extract on dress protocol from the University’s 1898 calendar:
The gown for all graduates of the University shall be of the same pattern as that of a Bachelor of Arts of the University of London. The cap for all graduates shall be a black cloth academic cap with black silk tassel. The hood of the BA degree – black silk, edged with orange-brown silk.
So far, so good.
Facial hair was a common feature of the Victorian era and waxing moustaches into elaborate shapes became a popular art form and a symbol of masculinity, as accepted in the colonies as it was in Britain. If my thinking was correct, I wonder how long it would have taken Harry to coax the ends of his moustache into the upturned handlebars in the photograph. And keep them in place.
This photograph was kept for a reason; I only wish I’d known about it much earlier. And I really need to do something about my middle bedroom.
[ii] Detachable collars were a common feature on men’s shirts from the mid-nineteenth century, with single collars reserved for more formal purposes. They were intended as a labour-saving device, the idea being to present a clean appearance without having to launder the whole shirt.