I have for a long time been interested in John Gwynn’s survey of 1772, carried out in reponse to the Paving Commission’s desire for improvements to the city. In ‘A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4’ (Victoria County History), it states in the opening paragraph on ‘Modern Oxford’ that ‘…With the Paving Commission of 1771 Oxford’s modern history began…’ and that ‘…The enthusiasm for public improvements alarmed some householders, particularly when the Paving Commission’s surveyor, John Gwynn, was observed all over town, measuring and making notes on streets and houses.’
For a long time I have wanted to work with the survey, being particularly interested in the list of names and associated measurements of the spaces they occupied in the eighteenth century city; people who of course have long since disappeared.
I had looked at it in relation to some work I did as part of my residency at OVADA in April/May last year. Firstly, regards a painting called Gloucester Green to Broken Hayes:
The title ‘Broken Hayes’ is the old name for Gloucester Green and describes a place which, in a sense, no longer exists, although, like the ghostly dwellings on John Gwynn’s survey (1772) it’s ‘footprint’ is still visible in the boundaries of the Green. Many of the items rubbed out on the canvas no longer exist in the places where I ‘found’ them; they are, in name only memories, just like Broken Hayes, yet like the physical aspect of that place, they still exist.
Then the walk I made from which the painting derived:
This isn’t an area I know that well – I’m not sure if I’ve ever walked the entire length of Paradise Street – and yet afterwards, when I looked at David Loggan’s map of 1675, it all seemed very familiar. I was surprised at how much was left after the upheaval of redevelopment, particularly when standing near St. George’s tower, near the junction of St. Thomas’ and Paradise Streets. Now, looking at John Gwynn’s surveys, I could make much more sense of the Oxford of 1772.
In another entry I wrote:
“But the layout of the streets (if not the buildings and their inhabitants) still remain, and so, by walking these streets, armed with a residual list of measurements, one can walk back in time and make a connection with this vanished population.This correlation between time and distance had initially come through my thinking of how difficult it often is, to identify with people who live abroad in war-zones (Iraq and Afghanistan for example), for, even though these countries are only a comparatively short distance away, they might as well be years in the past, for it’s almost as difficult to relate to those who live (and die) there, as it is to those who lived and died, for example, during the first and second world wars, or the time of John Gwynn.”
However, in light of the recent work I have made as part of the Brookes show at MAO, my ideas have changed a little. Thinking back to some thoughts I had on the Three Fates, I’ve decided to try merging the two ideas. One aspect of the story of Gwynn I liked particularly was the idea of residents being worried by his measuring, as if he was measuring up the fate of their homes and the city as a whole. So, I’ve decided to take these measurements, and using string and a ruler, measure out the string and cut them according to the survey. Mr Pepal would therefore be 12 yards, 1 foot and 9 inches.