Viewing the sleepy, gentle images of years gone by at the National Gallery’s latest exhibition, Images of Yesteryear, it is hard to imagine that the bustling financial hub we now call home was but for a handful of remarkable decades an isolated community, quiet with few inhabitants and a very basic way of life.
Images of Yesteryear, a collection of photographs once displayed in the halls of law firm Walkers, provides a significant study of the territory, placing today’s rapid growth and development into its proper historical context.
WS Walker & Company, founded by William “Bill” Walker in 1964, initially operated out of a two-room office in the Rembro Building on Cardinal Avenue in George Town. Today it is known as Walkers Global, employs 500 and serves clients around the globe, its progress neatly symbolizing Cayman’s growth as a jurisdiction over a similar period of time.
The firm’s recent move to its new headquarters on Elgin Avenue signified the end of an era, and at that point Walkers decided that the photographic images of Cayman, originally purchased in 2000 from the Cayman Islands National Archive, should be offered at auction, with the proceeds donated to charity. However, they first connected with the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands to formally showcase this unique collection, altogether and in all its glory.
Curator and National Gallery Director Natalie Urquhart says the exhibition, which is divided into topical segments, came together “beautifully.”
“The images have never been exhibited together before, and it will be the last time that they are seen in their entirety,” she says. “We believe we have created an exhibition that will appeal to everyone in Cayman: it’s education for the young and nostalgia for the old.”
Original photos came from many sources, including athe National Archive and individuals such as George Nowak (aka Barefoot Man). The oldest image dates to 1906.
The exhibition is split into four interrelated sections: people, transport, George Town and maritime heritage.
Illustrating the rapid growth of Cayman in just one generation, Urquhart notes from her research, Caymanians were still employing horses and carts until the 1950s. In 1930, there were just 41 cars registered in the Cayman Islands. However, in the decade after World War II, a new era of transportation was ushered in with more than 100 motor vehicles on the Islands in 1950, increasing to 500 by 1960. In the past three years, more than 35,000 cars were licenced in the islands.
One of the images on display, Boy on a Donkey by Aarona Kohlman, dates to the mid-1920s and is an image that was still relevant decades later. Another image, Automobile Arriving on a Raft, c. 1940, from the Cayman Islands National Archive’s Marcia Bodden-Bush collection, is one of Urquhart’s favorite images.
“It’s so evocative,” she says. “I love the fact that the image depicts what was for them at the time modern transport, while a traditional schooner stands in the distance. I love the dichotomy of the image.”
The arrival of the first plane on dry land in the Cayman Islands caused much excitement within the community. Up until that point, planes had always arrived by sea. This is highlighted by the image First Plane, a CIA Catalina Amphibian – the Santa Maria – Lands on Grand Cayman Airfield, taken by Ivor O. Smith in 1952, and from an original photo owned by the CINA. The atmosphere surrounding this momentous event is evidenced by the lines of people in the distance, dressed in their Sunday best, who came to welcome the first plane’s arrival on the airstrip that was not completely finished at the time.
Places and people
For many, the development of Cayman’s capital, George Town, has been the most obvious indicator of Cayman’s tremendous growth. The image Landing Place at George Town, Grand Cayman George Town, circa 1906, depicts George Town Harbor taken by resident doctor Richard Keatinge and published in his book Life and Adventures in the West Indies (Vanquez, London, 1914). Keatinge’s book provides an early account of the medical and social conditions of the islands, and particularly of the staunch class divides.
While these photos hold a great deal of fascination, the images of people are perhaps the most poignant and endearing.
Two Women Talking (thought to be Adelaide Hydes and Anistine Bodden) taken by George Nowak circa 1980 and from the CINA collection, says so much about the era. While the clothing and the setting place the decade, it’s the conversation the two women are having that intrigues the viewer, which makes the image in some ways timeless. Nowak manages to capture the essence of the Caymanian community with this nostalgic shot.
Images of Yesteryear maintains the gallery’s mission to keep art alive, interesting and educational. Schools across Cayman have shown a particular interest in visiting this latest exhibition, and Urquhart says the gallery is preparing to hold tours not only for schoolchildren, but also for elder residents, who are looking forward to a tea morning and tour.
It is perhaps even possible that some of these visitors will be able to cast more light on the events of the past.
“We often find with such exhibitions that our visitors are able to pad out information for us,” Urquhart says. “Sometimes they will recognize people in the images and help us fill in missing information.”
Urquhart believes the exhibition is one everyone can relate to, adding that while the mission of the National Gallery is to preserve and protect, it is also to develop. In this case, she says, it is helping visitors develop their knowledge of the islands by opening up a window into their past.
“This collection of art celebrates our past, which is important because it tells us who we are and all that we have achieved,” she says.
The exhibit runs until Oct. 31.