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Two Days at Oxford
by John Goto

Amongst the onlookers as the University of Oxford’s ancient Encaenia processions along Broad Street, is a balding young man who cranes forward in an attempt to spot his new father-in-law, Field Marshal Chetwode. Since he was sent down from the University eight years ago the bystander has made good use of his social contacts to gain a position at England’s leading journal of modernist architecture, The Architectural Review, where he has honed his journalistic skills.

Next to him stands an intense, athletic looking man wearing round spectacles and a distinctive beret. As he frames the procession in the viewfinder of his Leica camera, a white haired Doctor of Divinity carrying a mortarboard and fan notices him and gives a faint smile of recognition.

The annual ceremony is staged on Wednesday of the ninth week of Trinity term, as tradition demands. A summer heat wave has broken a few days earlier, but the weather is still bright enough for the photographer to freeze the strolling dons in motion. Behind them Chaundy’s antiquarian bookshop is visible. It is the 24th June 1936, and the two men are John Betjeman and László Moholy-Nagy.

Their purpose is to make photographs to illustrate Betjeman’s forthcoming book, An Oxford University Chest. The author later recalled that Moholy ‘rushed about frenziedly photographing everything he saw’, which is understandable given that they only had two days in which to achieve their aim.

Betjeman acts as guide to the refugee photographer who has a poor command of English and has only visited the city briefly before, to attend the opening in mid-February of a group exhibition entitled ‘Abstract and Concrete’. Organised by Nicolette Gray, it included Moholy’s work alongside pieces by Naum Gabo, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and other prominent modernist artists.

The author has the assured air of an insider as he steers the émigré around his alma mater. They climb to the top of the Radcliffe Camera from where Moholy photographs the remains of the Encaenia procession in All Souls’ Quadrangle below, some panoramic views of the city and a snapshot of a bespectacled female academic.

Their perambulation then takes them north, past the University Museum and Betjeman’s old prep school, to the river Cherwell where Moholy photographs punters basking in the afternoon sunlight. That evening the unlikely pair are guests at an elaborate formal dinner given by the Vice-Chancellor at Balliol College. Returning afterwards to the Randolph hotel, Moholy makes a final night-time photograph of the façade of the Ashmolean Museum across the street.

The grand Victorian hotel is very much to Betjeman’s liking. His youthful flirtation with modernism is coming to an end, and he has recently left the Architectural Review in order to take up more lucrative work editing the Shell Guides. The writer has made a ‘good marriage’ into a higher social class, and seems at last to be overcoming his failure to gain a degree at the University of Oxford.

In contrast to Betjeman’s comfortable appearance, his companion looks tired and agitated. The last few years have been difficult for Moholy-Nagy since he resigned from his professorship at the Bauhaus. A fresh start in Berlin was thwarted by the Nazis’ ever-tightening grip on all forms of creative work. Feeling compelled to leave Germany, he found refuge with his wife Sibyl firstly in Amsterdam, and then London.

To make ends meet Moholy has taken on all the work he can. As well as the Oxford assignment, he has made photographic illustrations for books on Eton College and London’s street markets. Design commissions for Simpsons of Piccadilly, London Underground and Imperial Airways, as well as book jackets, advertisements, documentary films and a special effects sequence, have required him to work exceptionally long hours. Adding further to his weariness is a concern that, as an influential teacher, his aesthetic theories and pedagogic programme
have come to nothing in the face of Nazi terror in Germany.

On the morning after Encaenia there is a torrential downpour through which Moholy continues to photograph, eventually taking shelter in Blackwell’s bookshop. As the rain abates the duo walk to the artisan district of Jericho, where Moholy photographs a black dog sitting at the corner of St. Barnabas Street, and on to Folly Bridge to record rowing activities. A taxi is then summoned to take them to the eastern perimeter of the city, where they have an appointment at Morris Motors.

Betjeman loathes cars, despite encouraging their use through the Shell Guides, and thinks the factory an ‘inferno’. Moholy, on the other hand, is in his element. As a proponent of the integration of art and machine technology, the image of endless assembly lines producing identical Morris Eights at the rate of five hundred a day, spurs him on to make the best spread of photographs in the book. Betjeman, who is clearly not enjoying the experience, decides to cut their visit short after little over an hour.

John Miles, London, first published An Oxford University Chest in the summer of 1938. The book cannot be said to be a success, amounting to an unsatisfactory hodgepodge of texts and images by disparate authors. It bears all the signs of a hurried work, although it was nearly two years overdue when the manuscript was finally delivered to an exasperated publisher.

Compared to his earlier work, Moholy’s photographs fail to achieve the same level of invention and formal rigor. They lack the social insights required of documentary photographs, and the technical precision involved in architectural photography. The publisher and author felt it necessary, moreover, to include a number of photographs by other photographers, ‘where certain noble buildings had been omitted’ by the hard-pressed commissionee.

More jarring is the addition of humorous cartoons by Osbert Lancaster depicting university types. Lancaster was a contemporary and friend of Betjeman’s at Oxford, whose conservative views on architecture and politics were more in tune with the author’s own than those of the politically radical avant-gardist Moholy-Nagy. Lancaster also shared Betjeman’s occasionally witty, though often rather leaden sense of humour. In contrast, Moholy was ‘sincere, dedicated and without irony’, according to his wife.

The haste of Betjeman’s contribution is evident in the many overlong quotations used and a general cut-and-paste feel to his script. He describes various districts of Oxford, but only from the perspective of the University looking out. Jericho is viewed through the nostalgic filter of a lost rural idyll, whilst East Oxford is considered solely in terms of its unplanned development by speculative builders. He saves his most critical account for the Morris factory at Cowley, which led the publisher to express concerns that its owner, Lord Nuffield, might sue for libel. No attempt is made by the writer to engage with the communities or individuals living in Oxford’s working-class areas.

The town section takes up a mere twelve pages and the rest of the book is devoted to Betjeman’s revered University. Under separate headings he writes about the undergraduates, dons and college servants, followed by a gazetteer covering college buildings and alumni. The inclusion of a thoughtful essay by a working-class undergraduate on his atypical experience of the University sits awkwardly alongside the author’s conservative trope. When not entirely ignored by Betjeman, women are patronised as ‘embryo school-mistresses’, who are overly studious and only capable of gaining a second-class degree. Socialist students are mocked whenever the opportunity presents itself.

His consideration of Oxford’s buildings is surprisingly brief and lacks the quality of scholarship that his contemporary, Nikolaus Pevsner, brought to the task. The 12th century church of St. Mary at Iffley, for example, he merely notes as so restored that ‘one doubts its authenticity’, whereas in the Oxfordshire volume of The Buildings of England, Pevsner devotes three pages to a detailed account of its historical development.

At the conclusion of their two days at Oxford, John Betjeman returns to his poetry, the Shell Guides and his feisty young wife. László Moholy-Nagy briefly visits Berlin and his native Hungary in a last attempt to reconcile himself to the Europe he had left behind, before his final embarkation from England for America.

In a brief account of the making of the book written in 1977, Betjeman praises Lancaster’s ‘brilliant caricatures’ but only commends Moholy for his ability to pick the right picture for enlargement from his contact sheets. He also informs us that his wife’s name for the artist was ‘Mowli-Wogie’. Of his own contribution he says it was ‘designed to be entertaining reading only, and useless in the examination industry’.

In response to John Betjeman’s book, my pictures present a divergent view of the city and university in the nineteen thirties.

The ’thirties was a time of great social change in the city. 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 left challenged Fascism as undergraduates and industrial workers disrupted a British Union of Fascists meeting called by Oswald Mosley at the Carfax Assembly Rooms (1936). Later that year the first of twenty-four volunteers left the city to fight on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

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 Denis Healey, who was then a student at Balliol College, claimed that politics in Oxford were ‘overwhelmingly of the left’.

As war drew closer, refugees from Europe arrived in the city, as Basque children had before them, though the numbers of each were greatly restricted by government policy. A widespread sense of foreboding was felt across Oxford as the decade drew to a close.

John Goto
Oxford 2015

see images >

links and further reading >

installation views, OFS Gallery, Oxford >

Cecil Rhodes statue, Oriel College, Oxford >

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