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“We Were Here”: Remembering Nevil Hartley

POSTED: 01 May 2020

Autograph’s Senior Curator Renée Mussai remembers the late Nevil Hartley, who sadly passed away last month due to Covid-19, and revisits his generous contributions to our inaugural Photography Roadshows almost a decade ago

Nevil Hartley

Nevil Hartley

Lena and Nevil Hartley in Shepherds Bush, London, 1966
Lena and Nevil Hartley in Shepherds Bush, London, 1966

In the opening segment of The Culture Show, which aired on BBC 2 on March 13, 2011, we first meet Nevil (and Lena) Hartley – a striking figure of sartorial elegance with an unforgettable, larger-than-life signature moustache – standing tall, holding a brown paper envelope close to his chest containing “documentation, if you like, that I was here… we were here”, smiling warmly to the camera.

This special episode of the BBC’s The Culture Show, filmed locally at Hackney Museum, was dedicated to Autograph’s Heritage Lottery funded archive initiative The Missing Chapter (2007-2011) a collection building project which aimed to create a more complete picture of multicultural Britain by foregrounding the work of culturally diverse practitioners as well as digitally preserving family and vernacular photography – capturing ordinary moments in the lives of extraordinary people, whose stories are so often overlooked or lost in mainstream narratives and biased cultural histories.

In a moving on-screen interview with the show’s presenter Sarfraz Manzoor, Nevil Hartley speaks about their family photographs as evidence, as crucial memory-bearers: “recordings of each moment in time, proof that you existed”. Nevil and Lena Hartley, both post-war émigrés from the Caribbean, were amongst the first members of the public to share their personal photographs and participate in two of our inaugural Photography Roadshows, held at Hackney Museum in 2011 and Rivington Place in 2010.
At our galleries in the autumn 2010, where we first met, the Hartleys too arrived with a brown envelope.

Inside, ten vintage photographs taken during the 1960s, each image bearing witness to different moments in their lives and the “places we’ve been”: Nevil pictured outside the first black-run convenience store in West London, on the corner of Sutherland Avenue and the Harrow Road, opposite St. Mary's Hospital; photographs of his future wife Lena and friends, all of whom had left Trinidad to live and work in the UK, pictured at Clare Hall Hospital, Potters Bar, in Hertfordshire, where she trained to become a nurse before joining the staff at Highlands General Hospital in London; a candid colour photograph of the two of them taken on the day Nevil proposed to Lena, in a park in Shepherds Bush, West London – they met at a dance at Porchester Hall and were married the following year, in 1967. Among them, a striking black and white portrait of Nevil Hartley posing in his postman uniform in the backyard of their home in Maida Vale.

This photograph would later feature prominently in Autograph’s Archive Learning Resource, which has since been distributed as a free teaching tool to hundreds of schools, colleges and community centres nation-wide, helping students at all key stages of formal and informal education to acquire visual literacy skills and to learn about the lives of others through photography.

Nevil Hartley on Sutherland Avenue / Harrow Road, London, 1960s

Nevil Hartley, London, c. 1969
Nevil Hartley, London, c. 1969

Nevil Hartley interviewed for Autograph’s The Missing Chapter Photography Roadshow, at Hackney Museum, London, 2011
Nevil Hartley interviewed for Autograph’s The Missing Chapter Photography Roadshow, at Hackney Museum, London, 2011

Thinking back to our first encounter, I remember being struck by his warmth and sincerity, and incredibly charming, infectious smile … and I fondly recall the moment when, looking at a gorgeous close-up portrait of his younger self, chequered-suited and bespectacled, taken by a door-to-door photographer after he first arrived in the UK from Jamaica, he gently probed: “You can see something important is missing here, can’t you?” – the moustache, of course, my colleagues and I respond, in chorus. And we all laugh, before he adds, solemnly: “Those were the hard times, the pioneering times”.

We at Autograph were deeply saddened when we learned about the passing of Nevil Hartley due to complications of Covid-19 last month, from his son artist Othello De'Souza-Hartley – a long-term friend, ally and advocate – whose practice encompasses photography, film, performance, sound, drawing and painting as well as teaching.

I wasn’t at all surprised when Othello told me that the following proverb – often attributed to American author and illustrator Dr. Seuss – was read at his father’s cremation: “Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened”. Thus, to reflect the spirit of positivity he so embraced, this post is written in celebration of his life, and to remember the gift of his presence: alongside his day job as a postal executive, Nevil Hartley dedicated many years – decades – to supporting the wider Afro-Caribbean community in Haringey and surrounding boroughs.

As someone who cared deeply about the preservation of cultural heritage and helping others, he served as a trustee for a number of charitable bodies and advocacy organisations, such as the Pyramid Health and Social Care Association, The African Caribbean Leadership Company Ltd, The Association of Jamaicans Trust, and the Trinidad and Tobago Association, working tirelessly to improve the welfare and conditions of life for both young and elderly members of those communities too often still marginalised. Lately, he was actively involved in the rebuilding of the African Caribbean Community Centre in Hornsey.
Without the lives, voices, stories and photographs of dedicated community leaders such as Nevil Hartley, a crucial chapter would indeed be missing from the wider cultural record of contemporary Britain – as his wife of 53 years Lena Hartley, herself a frontline health care worker with the NHS, says so poignantly at the end of The Culture Show episode: “We planted a lot of seeds in this country… and they have grown.”

Thank you, Nevil Hartley – for your generosity, care, and commitment. And for answering our call a decade ago, and sharing these precious visual moments with us. You will be missed, but not forgotten.

With thanks and our sincere condolences to the Hartley family.

Autograph’s The Missing Chapter programme and associated Photography Roadshows project was generously supported by Heritage Lottery Fund between 2007 – 2011.
Nevil and Lena Hartley, London, 1990s
Nevil and Lena Hartley, London, 1990s


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Banner images: Nevil Hartley, London, 1960. Courtesy of Nevil Family Archive. Page images: 1 - 3 and 5) Courtesy of Nevil Family Archive. 6) Image - screengrab from the BBC Culture Show.