William Fitz-Harry Curtis was a teacher, priest and a pioneering photographer. He is renowned in South Africa for his panoramic shots of the Cape area and for a book of his work which was presented to the then Duke of Edinburgh in 1867. He was also my great grandfather.
William was born in Romsey in Hampshire on September 23rd 1827. His father was Harry Porter Curtis who was town clerk of Romsey. William was educated in London under the tutorship of the Rev. Henry Cole and went on to have a long and varied career in education and the church ministry.
He was a teacher at Bridgnorth Grammar School in Shropshire before moving to Cape Town in 1857. He was appointed Vice Principal and Professor of Mathmatics at the Diocesan Collegiate School at Woodlands beneath Table Mountain. He stayed there six years before accepting the headmastership of the nearby St George`s Grammar School. William was made a deacon in St George`s Cathedral in 1859 and ordained as a priest in 1861.
After returning to England in 1868, William was a curate at Woodford Halse in Northamptonshire. Two years later he was appointed Vicar of Marston St Lawrence in the same county. The family moved to Yorkshire when he became Vicar of Denton near Ilkley before making the final move in 1877 when he was appointed as Vicar of Langrick near Boston in Lincolnshire. He stayed there until his death on 12 August 1908.
An obituary described him as a `well read and clever man…..a very capable amateur mechanic with a strongly inventive and adaptive genius`. He was also highly regarded as a photographer of landscapes.
There is little evidence of his photographic activities in Britain before he moved to the Cape. After his arrival in South Africa, his landscapes were frequently commented on by the newspapers. His work was exhibited in the Third Fine Arts Exhibition in Cape Town in 1858 and was awarded the prize for the best landscape.
At the next Fine Art Exhibition in 1866, William Curtis was a member of the sub-committee that decided which oil paintings and photographs would be displayed. He exhibited his own work which were described as `quite equal to the best European works` and `clean and admirable`. Some of his work was pulled together in a special album and presented to the then Duke of Edinburgh who visited Cape town in 1867.
The Cape Standard newspaper reported: `HRH the Duke of Edinburgh has been graciously pleased to honour the Rev. William Curtis by accepting, in very flattering terms, a portfolio of photographs of Cape scenery. We had the pleasure of inspecting this collection prior to its presentation, and can speak highly in terms of its great beauty. So far as we know, it is the most complete set of views of Cape scenery in photography by an adept gifted with an artist eye. Mr Curtis` success, we hope, will induce him to increase his portfolio and to make its contents accessible to the general public.`
This last plea appears to have been acted upon as the London publishers Marion and Co issued duplicate copies of the book presented to the Duke of Edinburgh. One still lies in the South African Library of Parliament and another, somewhat battered, in one of my drawers at home. There are 54 photographs of scenery within one hundred miles of Cape Town.
Back in the mid-1966s, a historian in Cape Town did some research on the Rev. William Fitz-Harry Curtis. Dr Joseph Denfield worked for two years on the history of Cape photography. On the off chance or a hunch, he consulted an Anglican Clerical Directory (Crockfords?) and found the Rev. Wilfrid Fitz-Harold Curtis in the UK in Lincolnshire. Another Fitz-Harry Curtis? Another priest? Worth a shot, he thought and wrote to my father. Wilfrid, who did not land me with the patronymic prefix Fitz-Wilfrid (Chapter 1), was indeed the grandson of William of the Cape. The Lincolnshire Standard newspaper picked up the story of the Cape historian tracking down a Lincolnshire vicar, as did the journal of The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain 50 years ago this month (December 1968).