Nanny Africa

01 Nanny Africa

On this day in 1927 Antonie Ursula Dees was born. Photographer, traveller and explorer, Antonie was an enigma to all who knew her. To me, she was grandmother. Antonie was a restless spirit, but she found her heart in Cape Town, South Africa, where she spent many years. In later life, she returned to Germany and lived in Dannenberg until she died on 9 May 2013.

My grandfather called her ‘The African Connection’, which I think she liked. When Nelson Mandela died last week, I reflected how strange it was that another life passing can make the grief well for a loss not yet felt. Mandela inspired a nation and his story caught the world. My grandmother was my African connection and my inspiration. This is her story.

Antonie was born in Pritzwalk, a village in what was then East Germany. Her parents, Franziska and Rudolf, had five children – Antonie, her two sisters Inge and Ilse, and two brothers Heinz and Rudolf. ‘When we were little my father would wake us early,’ I remember my grandmother telling me how they would ‘rub down in snow and go for a run before breakfast’.

02 Nanny Africa

My great grandmother Franziska with Antonie as a baby and her two brothers Heinz and Rudolf.

03 Nanny Africa_Antonie aged 17 photography student

My grandmother was a beauty. Here she is aged 17.

Before the start of World War II, the family moved to Hamburg and when the war began Antonie recalled how everything changed. ‘We had to watch in the playground at school as the old Deutschland flag was lowered and the new Nazi flag raised up the mast.’ Antonie and her sisters also quickly learned to choose their friends with care. ‘A Nazi youth caught Inge talking to a Mexican boy and warned her not to speak to him again. We were afraid because families disappeared overnight.’

When Antonie’s father, my great grandfather, refused to let his children join the Hitler Youth, he was sent to the front line in France where he was killed by a British bomb. In later years, my grandmother and her siblings traced their father to an unmarked mass grave in France.

05 Nanny Africa_Antonie c1934

Antonie Dees, photographic student in war-torn Hamburg c1934.

09 Nanny Africa_sculpture of Antonie

My grandmother knew a sculptor who made this bust of her. It was destroyed by British soldiers after the war.

Antonie was a photographic student growing up in war-torn Hamburg. She remembered night-time raids and women with babies running to the River Elbe to dowse the flames. Hamburg was demolished by the time the war was over and the British troops arrived. ‘My older brother Heinz made friends with a British RAF soldier who gave him food to feed the family. Then one day Heinz brought the soldier home.’ The British soldier was Kenneth Spooner, my grandfather. Antonie and Kenneth fell in love and he asked her to return to England as his bride. My grandmother was one of many young German women who sailed to England on a war brides’ ship. ‘They had boats in front to break the ice as we travelled across the North Sea.’

07 Nanny Africa_My handsome grandad somewhere in Africa

My handsome grandad somewhere in Africa during World War II.

08 Nanny Africa_Rifle toting grandfather in post-war Hamburg

British soldier Kenneth Spooner stationed in post-war Hamburg.

I can remember my grandmother tell of her amazement when she arrived in England. ‘There were apples, oranges and bananas that we had not seen for years.’ Antonie said that the British people were very welcoming and she soon felt at home in England.
Kenneth and Antonie had two children, Kenneth and Veronica – my mother.

10 Nanny Africa Kenneth and Antonie with Kenneth and Veronica in January 1951 - London W13

Kenneth and Antonie Spooner with Kenneth and Veronica in January 1951, London W13.

11 Nanny Africa_Kenneth and Veronica (aged 10 & 6) Ealing c1957

Kenneth and Veronica, my uncle and mother (aged 10 and 6) in Ealing c1957.

Sadly their marriage was not to last and after it ended Antonie opened a studio in West Drayton called CameraCraft.

By my mother’s accounts, nanny was a trailblazer in her day. Antonie was the first woman to take the photography course, and pass her exams, at Ealing Polytechnic and Harrow College. Highlights of her career included aerial photography in a Hughes 300 helicopter, travelling to Austria and Switzerland to make films, shooting actress Una Stubbs for Women’s Magazine, and training an apprentice for renowned British photographer David Bailey.

12 Nanny Africa_Mrs Dees Great experience

Reaching the height of her profession, Antonie was featured in a newspaper article ‘Mrs. Dees Great Experience’. The article reported ‘she accomplished something few women have’ on her experience of going up in a helicopter to take photographs for a local authority. The reporter wrote: ‘Mrs. Dees feels she can photograph practically anything. She has photographed wounds in hospitals; vehicles jammed under bridges, the Lord and Lady Mayor of London, and many other events.’

She loved to travel and explore faraway places. Cape Town, South Africa, was far from London being on the other side of the world. Antonie was enraptured with the country and its people so she decided to live there. And that was that. Without much in the way of permission, my free-spirited grandmother in her early fifties left her home and flew to South Africa to start a new life. She quickly made many friends and had many adventures. Here are some photos from her albums.

19 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA 20 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA 21 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA

23 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA

Antonie got a job as the first woman working for the Boiler Maker Union where she changed the oil in large tanks to pay her way. She eventually settled in a small flat in Cape Town at the foot of Table Mountain and overshadowed by the Lion’s Head. Her experience in photography allowed her to get a job at the South African Government library archives where she completed a huge project to microfilm all of the newspapers of the last century by the time she retired.

17 Nanny Africa_working for SA library

My grandmother at her work for the South African Government library archives. Her maxim ‘We don’t just talk about it. We do it’.

16 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA

Antonie never lost her passion for photography. She liked to take photos of everything she saw.

14 Nanny Africa_Cape Town, SA

View of Lion’s Head mountain, Cape Town, South Africa.

I remember infrequent visits by my grandmother from Cape Town to London. She was a mysterious and glamorous figure in my life growing up, and on one of her visits she brought back an owl ivory necklace for me, ‘her little wise owl’. We loved her stories of travels and safaris and would miss her so much when she returned to South Africa. My mother took my sister and I to visit Antonie for a month in Cape Town, and we all understood why she fell in love with Africa.

18 Nanny Africa_Windy memories in South Africa

Windy memories in South Africa with my mother and younger sister. My grandmother is behind the lens.

Some years after Apartheid ended, and now retired, my grandmother returned to her roots in Germany. She lived the remainder of her life in Dannenberg.

Antonie Ursula Dees, our African Connection or Nanny Africa as my sister and I called her, passed away on 9 May 2013. Her life burned very brightly and she will always be my inspiration. Farewell nanny.

04 Nanny Africa_young Antonie

Thank you to my mother, Veronica Ilse Howard, for the photographs from my grandmother’s albums for this post.

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A study of autumn colours and lights in Regent’s Park

The sun is playful in October. It races across the sky low and bright catching fire to vibrant colours, then hides behind mists and raindrops teasing the day with soft light and vivid tones.

Autumn is a fleeting time of year and so I have enjoyed lunch time walks in Regent’s Park, which has been the perfect canvas for the tantalising display of colour and light.

The days started with golden sunshine, leaves on fire and sparkling fountains…

Gloomy clouds arrived bringing overcast light and saturated autumn colours…

Then the mists fell upon wet leaves capturing spectacular hues, waterfalls and reflections…

Light played with raindrops in the dying rose garden and mists wreathed fading flowers…

I hope you are enjoying autumn as much as I have been!

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Related links

If you would like to visit or find out more about Regent’s Park, visit the website of the royal parks.

Autumn colour: The science of nature’s spectacle is a great video from the BBC that explains how the ‘elements have conspired to give us a particularly spectacular display of autumn colour’.

Check out this post of beautiful fall photos by Donna: Autumn Kalaidescope.

There be dragons or maybe damselflies

‘Surely you have enough photos of bees,’ said Andy on a Saturday afternoon at beekeeping. Emily and me disagreed, ‘You can never have enough photos of bees.’ However, there are insects other than honeybees who love having their picture taken. So when Emily’s boyfriend, Drew, kindly let me borrow his camera lens and extension tube to practise extreme close ups, I went for a walk at a local nature reserve on Sunday evening to see what bugs were staying up late.

My first shot was beginner’s luck…

The clouds had tell-tale hues of orange and rose as the sun started to fall through the sky. There were few insects to be found so late in the day and I stopped to practise macro photography of wildflowers. While looking through the camera at a purple thistle, a beautiful hoverfly landed on the flower – perfectly in focus. I snapped two photos before the shy creature flew away.

Encouraged, I explored further into the overgrowth of thistles and thorns ignoring little scratches on my ankles and arms. Then, two beautiful turquoise jewels flew past and landed at eye level in front of me. I lost all sense of time standing very still and focusing on their eyes, brightly-coloured bodies and shimmering wings.

At first I thought they were dragonflies but the British Dragonfly Society (BDS) website suggests that they may be damselflies. BDS has a helpful Dragonfly and Damselfly Identification Help page, which says that dragonflies land with wings apart while damselflies land with wings resting together, like this…

Dragonfly eyes are closed together while damselfly eyes are spaced apart…

Thanks BDS! And thank you obliging damselflies!

How I took the photos
I have a Canon EOS 600D camera and the kit that Drew lent me is a Canon lens EF 50mm 1:1.4 with a Canon extension tube EF25 II. I took the camera off automatic mode and on P mode (this allows you to change ISO while shutter speed and aperture are adjusted automatically) and then on TV mode (to change ISO and shutter speed). I have started using these modes thanks to a useful tip from Natalia at Jessops who suggested going from automatic to P and TV modes, rather than jumping straight to full manual mode (M). This allows me to try changing some settings, while seeing how the camera adjusts the remaining settings. For example, I started on ISO 100 and as the daylight got less gradually raised ISO to 800, 3200 and 6400 to see what would happen.

This is my second step into the macro world and I am still learning lots, but I found that the camera needed to move in slowly until the blur of colours became focused and the subject appeared. This meant that I had to get the camera very, very close to the insects – inches from their faces – then hold it very, very still because even the slightest motion caused everything to blur. The lens, or perhaps settings, I used had a narrow range of focus limited to specific parts of the insect: the head, the thorax or the wings; more likely this is my lack of experience.

It was so much fun that before I knew it the sun had set and the damselflies and hoverflies had flown home, so I thought it was time that I did too!

Related links
Donna of Garden Walks, Garden Talks continues to blow me away with her breathtaking insect photography. In this week’s post she captures bee wars! Bee Bombing – Happy Monday Funny.

If you would like to read more about dragonflies and damselflies, visit the British Dragonfly Society (BDS) or another blog I follow: The Dragonfly Woman who has a lovely gallery.

Thank you to Drew for lending his macro lenses, and check out Emily’s beautiful pictures on her blog this week: Bees, flowers and sculpture at Chelsea Physic Garden.

EDIT: Fellow blogger Standingoutinmyfield posted about damselflies on the same day! Read her lovely post Rhapsody in Bluet.