Obituary: Arthur Gandolfi

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The Independent Online
Arthur Ernest Gandolfi, camera-maker, born London 4 July 1906, died East Dulwich 22 January 1993.

ARTHUR GANDOLFI was the last of the famous camera-making brothers.

His father, Louis, the company- founder, started work as a cabinetmaker's apprentice at the age of 12 in 1876. Four years later he became a camera-maker; only to be sacked after five years following a works dispute when his fellow workers complained that he worked too fast and too accurately, thereby earning too much money from the piecework system. In 1885 Louis decided to start his own business. His wife Caroline became half of the 'workforce', learning the skills of French polishing and brasswork lacquering, an aptitude later inherited by her youngest son Arthur when he officially joined the firm in 1920.

Over the years, father, mother and five of their six children worked in the business, the youngest being taught to wield a broom as soon as they were able. The work ethic was a necessity in their lives, which ultimately ensured their survival as England's oldest camera manufacturer, and to later fame but no fortune for Arthur and his brother Fred.

By 1930 the Gandolfis were over the worst of the 1920s recessions. The eldest son, Tom (born 1890), having survived service in the Great War, devoted himself to cabinetmaking, whilst the middle son, Fred (born 1904), who could do most things, was showing business ability. 'Young' Arthur, having left the business during the 1920s to learn clerical work, returned to fill the job of assembly and finishing. Louis was happy that his three sons could continue the family concern in his tradition. He died in 1932.

The Gandolfi cameras are hard to assess in terms of their contemporaries. It must be admitted that the earliest were no better than their rivals. This being the time of the bicycle and photography crazes, lightweight construction became the norm. In consequence only a handful of the comparatively low production have survived.

Some time after the turn of the century, Louis began to get Colonial Office contracts primarily for India and the Federated Malay States. The tropical conditions and hard wear his cameras would encounter called for a redesign. This camera had the Gandolfi patents incorporated and became 'The Imperial'.

The 'Improved Imperial' of 1911 became 'The Precision' developed by his sons in 1938, which continues in production to date in only very slightly modified form.

Tom, by matching his father in craftsmanship, enabled Louis to concentrate more time upon sales with the result that custom-built Gandolfi cameras began to be commissioned. Among the first customers was the famous photographer Herbert Ponting, who accompanied Captain Scott on his fatal Antarctic expedition. Three years later, Gandolfi supplied the first aerial cameras to the Royal Naval Air Service.

Special cameras were supplied to the Earl of Carnarvon for the Tutankhamun expedition and to Country Life studios for interior photography of the Queen Mary's dolls' house; and, to sports photographers, some of the earliest 'Big Bertha' telephoto cameras, then used primarily for cricket matches and horse racing. One of these was taken to record the earliest British atomic explosion and returned to the works for repair 'in scorched condition' - as described on the MOD forms.

None of the Gandolfi brothers was called up in the Second World War. Tom was too old and Fred and Arthur were in a reserved occupation supplying portrait cameras and tripods to the Admiralty, Air Ministry and War Department. Ironically, the brothers were offered a government contract to supply 1,000 cameras, which they soon realised they could not fulfil. The contract went to a rival maker, Watson, who used outworkers. The Gandolfis spent much of the war repairing the results.

Post-war the market for prison 'mugshots' revived a 1935 product. No fewer than 38 prisons and police authorities in the UK alone were customers. There was also an export business to the colonies.

Always a supplier to educational and scientific bodies, the 5 x 4 in format 'Precision' camera was the cheapest of its kind, with the result that the burgeoning photographic colleges bought them by the dozen. This gave rise to a brand loyalty amongst the ex-students, who created a demand unknown before. Rather as with the Morgan sports car, waiting-lists grew from months to years in the early 1970s, which was a situation that the Gandolfis never exploited. Their cameras were fetching a premium on the open market, with the result that dealers' orders were no longer accepted and private customers were subject to some searching questions.

Tom Gandolfi died in 1965, adding a further burden to Arthur and Fred. It was not until 1976, when Tom's son Tom junior - after taking early retirement from engineering - was persuaded into the firm, that delivery times began to improve.

Those students of the Sixties and Seventies are amongst Britain's top photographers today. Most still have Gandolfi cameras which are frequently used in preference to more modern designs.

By 1980, it was obvious to Arthur and Fred that they could not go on much longer. They had achieved an ambition of 100 years as a family of camera-makers, wanted to reach 100 years of the Gandolfi company, but realised that outside help was necessary.

With a too-full order-book, there were many would-be purchasers for the company. Fred and Arthur were not prepared to let the family name go easily. A compromise was made with Brian Gould and his partner Sir Kenneth Corfield, who purchased the company in 1982, supplied the last apprentice, and every Gandolfi from then on carried a satisfaction certificate signed by Fred. Terry Herbert (now 58) still makes the traditional Gandolfi cameras the way Fred and Arthur taught him, albeit not in the old Peckham Rye workshops but in new premises in Andover.

The brothers saw their 100 years' ambition achieved, and were awarded honorary life memberships of the Royal Photographic Society and the British Institute of Professional Photographers, in recognition of their services to photography.

Sadly, the lifelong bachelors both became very ill at the same time. The photographer Ken Griffiths - who had known them for 20 years - found that both were in hospital and immediately set up an appeal. The result was that Griffiths and his then PA, Val Simmonds, organised Arthur and Fred back into their home of over 50 years, with resident professional nursing care. Fred died in his own home in 1990, and Arthur likewise, on 22 January.

(Photograph omitted)