John Goto / Two Days at Oxford
Oxford is a complex city that exhibits, in exaggerated form, many of the social and economic tensions that have emerged more widely in the UK over recent decades. Rather like a Potemkin village, the city centre is a collection of magnificent facades, passage through which, however, is highly restricted.
I have worked with historical themes and places for my entire career, but until recently I did not feel able to deal with Oxford, a city where I have spent half my life. Believing that the artist’s role is to tell as fully as they can about their time, I felt obliged eventually to tackle it. But where to start?
Back in the ’eighties I was greatly influenced by European art and photography of the inter-war period, and it came as a surprise to discover that the Hungarian artist and Bauhaus lecturer László Moholy-Nagy, had made photographs in Oxford. I bought a facsimile edition of the book he collaborated on with John Betjeman, An Oxford University Chest – and it gathered dust for thirty years. Occasionally I would leaf through it, and in my imagination I would see this oddly mismatched pair wandering the streets of the city. To be honest, I had never bothered to read Betjeman’s text as I’m not a fan of his writing. A couple of years ago I returned to the book, and applied myself to finding out as much as possible about their project.
I began to get a clearer idea of the circumstances that brought about their collaboration from biographies and critical commentaries. A number of sources claimed that they were in the city for only two days, during which time Moholy had to make all the photographic illustrations for the book. Looking carefully at his images, I figured this was just possible. I grouped the photographs according to the light and weather conditions, and even extrapolated the route they might have taken and where they stayed overnight.
Nailing down the precise date of their visit was tricky, as authors differed over even the year. One clue was that the photographs feature the annual Encaenia procession, which is always held on Wednesday of the ninth week of the summer term. Never one to miss an opportunity to name-drop, Betjeman in an article written in 1977 mentions that his new father-in-law, Field Marshal Chetwode, was being honored at Encaenia on the day he visited Oxford with Moholy-Nagy. My breakthrough moment came when I found a brief entry in the Catholic Herald listing the great and good to be honored in 1936, which included Chetwode. The date must therefore have been the 24th June, 1936.
I have to say that on finally reading Betjeman’s text, it turned out to be even more whimsical and snobbish than I had anticipated. Both town and gown are predictably stereotyped in his rambling text. I found it so irritating that I determined to research what was actually happening in the city during this period.
The ’thirties was in fact a time of great social change in the municipality. Workers from rural and industrially depressed regions migrated to Oxford to find employment in the rapidly expanding car industry. Political activism grew amongst the workforce over the issues of union recognition, housing and social inequality, resulting in the Pressed Steel strike (1934), Florence Park rent strike (1935) and Cutteslowe Walls dispute (1934-59).
The growth of Fascism was challenged both here and abroad. In what became known as ‘The Battle of Carfax’, left-wing students and workers disrupted a British Union of Fascists meeting called by Oswald Mosley at the Oxford Assembly Rooms (1936). Later that year, the first of twenty-four volunteers left the city to become medics or combatants with the Republican forces in Spain.
Whilst many at the University wished to preserve its traditional practices and interests, especially regarding women’s education and access, others advocated change. The Labour Club in the late ’thirties had more members than any other university society, and it can be argued that gown was politically closer to town at that time, than before or since.
A picture of the city began to emerge with which I could identify, where people of good will, whatever their social status, could work together for social justice against the powerful and privileged interests of the few.
For further information visit www.johngoto.org.uk/Two_Days/index2.htm
John Goto’s first one-person exhibition, Goto, Photographs 1971-81, was held at the Photographers’ Gallery, London. Other solo shows include Terezin, Raab Gallery, Berlin, 1988; The Scar, Manchester City Museum and Art Gallery, 1993; The Commissar of Space, MOMA, Oxford, 1998; Loss of Face, Tate Britain, London, 2002; High Summer, The British Academy, London, 2005; New World Circus, Gallery On, Seoul, 2006; Dreams of Jelly Roll, Freud Museum, London, 2012; Sweet Augmentations, Dominique Fiat Gallery, Paris, 2013.
Goto is Emeritus Professor of Fine Art, University of Derby.
Two Days at Oxford will be exhibited at OFS Gallery, 40 George St, Oxford, 15 January – 27 February 2016