The following is a drawing made by John Malchair showing the causeway of what is now Abingdon Road. The rather unusual building is Friar Bacon’s Study which was demolished in 1779. Beneath the drawing is a photograph showing the same causeway, with two arches, a little bit like the arch which can be seen in the drawing.
I first encountered the work of John Malchair in 1998, at an exhibition in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford. Being as I am from Oxford, I was immediately struck by the beauty of his drawings which revealed through their own delicate rendering, the fragility of vanished places in and around the city.
According to Colin Harrison in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, John Malchair was ‘the most important and influential drawing master in eighteenth century Oxford’. He was a German violinist who for over thirty years supplemented his earnings as leader of the band at the Holywell Music Room.
The following abridged text is taken from the catalogue; Malchair the Artist by Colin Harrison.
“He was baptised on 15th January 1730, in St. Peter’s Church, Cologne, the eldest son of a watchmaker, Joannes Malchair and Elizabetha Rogeri. They lived together in Sternen Grasse in a house next door to that where the Rubens family spent a difficult period between 1578 and 1587. After leaving his native city, he moved to Nancy and in 1754 arrived in England. Apart from short tours of Wales in his retirement, he never left his country of adoption.
After making his first appearance at the Three Choirs Festival in September 1759, where he was to play annually until 1776, Malchair came to Oxford to compete for the position of leader of the band at the Music Room after the death of Thomas Jackson. He won the competition and made his first appearance at the Widow Jackson’s benefit on 29th November or the choral concert on 12th December.
When Malchair arrived at Oxford, the city was essentially contained within the mediaeval city walls. As the first guidebook to the city – ‘A Gentleman of Oxford, The New Oxford Guide’ published in 1759 describes:
‘The town rises on a broad eminence which arises so gradually as to be hardly perceptible, in the midst of a beautiful extent of meadows, to the south, east and west and cornfields to the north. The vales on the east are watered by the river Cherwell and those on the west and south by the main stream and several branches of the Isis. Both rivers meet towards the north-east. The landscape is bounded on every side, the north excepted by a range of hills covered with woods….’
Walking was a popular pastime in such pleasant surroundings, in the streets, college gardens and father afield to nearby villages, such as Headington in the east, with its magnificent views from Shotover Hill.
Malchair quickly settled into the rhythm of rehearsals and concerts required at the Music Room and took his first pupils for drawing soon after he arrived. In 1760 he married Elizabeth Jenner who died ‘after a lingering illness’ on 14th August 1773. Malchair was deeply affected, and in later years frequently thought of their happy years together.
He died in 1812 and was buried in St. Michael’s church on 19th December 1812.”
In ‘Malchair the Musician’ also in the catalogue, Susan Wollenberg describes how Malchair “developed the idea of collecting tunes ‘on location'”.
“Interspersed with the many items from Playford and other published sources were his own discoveries. Numerous annotations to melodies in the collections… show Malchair’s eagerness in this regard. Beyond the academic and the musical aspects of his work are the pure ‘collector’s instinct’ and delight in acquisition. As Malchair remarked in his vivid English, ‘the leasure howers of many years were employed in forming this collection, ney, necessary busness was at time incrotched uppon when the fitt of collecting Grew Violent.”
Crotch (William Crotch, who, as a ‘Child in a Frock on his Mother’s Knee, performed the organ in the Music Room, to the great astonishment of a large audience’, on 3rd July 1779 – aged three) describes how No.156 of his Specimens was ‘written down by Mr. Malchair, who heard it sung in Harlech Castle’. Malchair himself notes that his version of ‘The Grand Duke of Tuscany’s March’ is ‘as played by a Savoyard on a barrill Organ in the Streets at Oxford. November 30 1784’.
The streets of Oxford were evidently a fertile source. Among the items gathered in the Cecil Sharpe House volume they yielded, besides the March already mentioned, such gems as La Rochelle, ‘played by a Piedmontese Girl on a Cymbal in Oxford Streets December 22 1784’ (and recorded together with Malchair’s instructions for reproducing the effect on the violin); an untitled tune resembling ‘Early One Morning’ transcribed ‘from the Singing of a Poor Woman and two femal [sic] Children Oxford May 18 1784’; a topical item, ‘The Budget for 1785. Sung in the Streete July 21 – 1785 – Oxon A Political Balad on Mr Pit’s Taxes,’ a tune for flute a bec [recorder] and Tambour’ which Malchair heard ‘play’d in the Streets at Oxford Ash Wednesday Feb: 25 1789’; and, most evocatively, the lively ‘Magpie Lane’ tune: ‘I heard a Man whistle this tune in Magpey Lane Oxon Dbr 22 1789. came home and noted it down directly.”
The image below is a drawing of Magdalen Bridge made around 1772 by the German artist John Malchair. Following the passing of the Mileways Act in 1771, Malchair made a number of studies of the old bridge so as to record it for posterity.
With various parts of the mediaeval city threatened because of the Act, Malchair drew a number of views of buildings and structures including the North Gate and Bocardo Prison and Friar Bacon’s study which eventually fell in 1779.
This then is the bridge over which The Gentleman’s Servant crossed with two horses on December 12th 1770.
Remarkable evidence of those who lived in Oxford around the time the notice appeared in Jackson’s Oxford Journal can be found in a survey carried out by John Gwynn in 1772 (John Gwynn also designed the new Magdalen Bridge). Made as part of continuing improvements originating with the Mileways Act of 1771, the actions of Gwynn (who could be seen around town measuring the fronts of houses and other buildings) aroused suspicion and even alarm among the city’s residents. The survey itself was required to calculate the costs of repaving the city’s streets for which each property was liable to pay a share depending on the size of their facades. What we have as a result is a wonderful record; a long list of names of all the city’s residents (or rather property owners), the streets on which they lived (or owned property) and the size of their dwellings – given in yards, feet and inches. It’s interesting for me that among the many Stevenses listed in the survey might well be my great-great-great-great-great-grandparents.
The page reproduced below, is taken from the survey and represents the bottom end of the High Street where it meets Magdalen Bridge – the Bridge can be seen listed below the name of a Dr. Sibthorpe. The Physick Garden above, is the old name for what is now the Botanic Gardens.
See also John Gwynn’s Survey 1772 – Part 2.
The bridge over which our Gentleman’s Servant rode in December 1770 is not the same bridge which crosses the River Cherwell today. Being as it is an important part of the story, I’ve copied an entry on the bridge from The Encyclopaedia of Oxford1 which I’ve reproduced below.
A bridge, formerly known as Pettypont and East Bridge, has stood here since at least 1004. In the Middle Ages the cost of its upkeep was shared between the county and the town, the town meeting its three-quarters share largely by alms and charitable bequests, the maintenance of bridges being then considered a pious duty. Bridge-hermits were also appointed to help travellers with any difficulties they might experience in crossing. The original bridge was of wood, but by the 16th century a stone bridge, some 500 feet long, with about twenty pointed and rounded arches, had been constructed.
At this time the city was still paying for repairs, both by taxation and by the allocation of alms; but William of Waynflete, the founder of Magdalen College, may have paid for restoration of the bridge in the 15th century, and the University certainly did so in 1723. Although a major restoration was then undertaken, less than fifty years later some of the piers had been swept away by floods and the western end had collapsed completely. Condemned as dangerous, it was rebuilt between 1772 and 1778 under the provisions of the Oxford Improvement Act of 1771, to the design of John Gwynn. At the same time a toll-house was built at The Plain, with gates across the roads from Headington to Cowley to collect dues for the maintenance of the bridge. Twenty-seven feet wide, with recesses in the middle, the bridge’s large semi-circular arches were supplemented by smaller ones over the towpaths. The plain balustrade was designed by John Townesend after plans for a more elaborate one had been dropped. The bridge was widened in 1835 and again in 1882. Notabilities have frequently been welcomed or taken their official departure at the bridge, as Queen Elizabeth I did on leaving Oxford in 1566.
1 The Encyclpaedia of Oxford, 1988, Ed. Christopher Hibbert, Assoc. Ed. Edward Hibbert; London, Macmillan London Limited
One of my favourite drawings is that made by a German-born, Oxford-based artist called John Malchair, who lived and worked in the city in the late 18th century. The drawing shows a view of the Abingdon Road as it appeared in 1770 with the strange and imposing edifice of Roger Bacon’s study in the foreground – a building that was demolished nine years later – and the familiar, extant structure of Christ Church College’s Tom Tower behind.
There’s something beguiling about the image, depicting as it does the city long before the car, before its expansion into the suburbs when still surrounded by fields and meadows. It’s a quiet almost pastoral scene in which I feel I can hear the birds and feel the sun on my face. I can almost hear the quietude, contrasting it with the sounds I would hear today if I stood in a similar position; indeed, it’s an image in which I am constantly contrasting, moving back, to and fro between the past and the present.
This contrast between the past and present is what I experience as I research my family tree and this image I’ve lately realised embodies some of my recent thinking and research. My great-great-great-great-grandfather, Samuel Stevens, born in 1776, lived and worked as a tailor on St. Aldates in Oxford, a street which is in effect a continuation of Abingdon Road as it moves towards and connects with Carfax in the city centre. I like the fact that he is contemporary with this image and would have been alive (if only a small boy) when Roger Bacon’s study was still standing.
On the other side of my family tree, on my father’s side, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, William Hedges lived and worked in Abingdon, a town in which his line lived until George Hedges moved to Oxford sometime around 1869 when he married Amelia Noon, daughter of Charlotte Noon, murdered by her husband Elijah in 1852 (see ‘A Murder in Jericho‘). It’s very likely of course that both these lines (the Stevens’ and the Hedges’) continued back in those same places (Oxford and Abingdon) for further generations, and I like the fact that in this image by Malchair, and in a sense in the building he drew, is a connection between the two. Not only that, there is a connection between my past and my present, as if that connection might be found in the road between Oxford and Abingdon.
Finally, in a project I started some time ago (6 Yards 0 Feet 6 Inches) I make mention of a survey by John Gwynn, carried out in 1771 in which all the residents of Oxford are listed along with the measurements of their properties. It’s a fascinating document in its own right, but if Samuel Stevens’ parents lived in Oxford just a few years before his birth, they would be listed in that survey. Flicking through there are a number of Stevens’ and I can’t help but think one of them is my ancestor.
Over the course of the past few months I have been looking in some detail at the works of two people who one might say are connected, John Malchair (1730-1812) and Henry Taunt (1842-1922). Malchair was an 18th century German-born musician and artist who lived most of his life in Oxford, and Henry Taunt, a photographer who worked in the city at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th centuries. Although separated by almost a century and using very different media, their work nonetheless leaves us with a tantalising record of things that have long been lost.
Malchair, through his drawings (and too, his collection of music heard on the streets of the city) recorded the city in the years prior to and after the 1771 Mileways Act which saw much of the old town demolished. It is because of his work that we have visual records of so much that was lost, in particular – for me at least – Friar Bacon’s study, the strange and beguiling edifice which one stood on Folly Bridge in the south of the city and which was demolished in 1779.
Henry Taunt also recorded through his photographs much of the city which has in the years since been demolished. But more significantly are the images of people caught within these photographs like flies in prehistoric amber. Faces look up at us from beyond the grave, heads are turned away from us in the distance (the other end of the street becomes a hundred years away). Through the work of Taunt we are afforded a glimpse of moments which have been swallowed up in the course of history just as moments are swallowed now in the course of an average day. It is these ordinary moments which we recognise and which make the past and present so readily interchangeable.
Like many others, my imagination has played a central role in my life ever since I was a young boy, and recently, in connection with my recent work, I’ve been thinking about that role and how it has changed as I’ve grown up. As a child, I lived much of my life within imagined worlds; fictional countries which I would map and for which I would create entire histories. I would inhabit these places, hidden from everyone else, and while I walked, I would be walking not in the real world, but in my mind. I can still to this day remember one particular map in all its detail; the mountain ranges, the plains, the forests which were always a particular favourite of mine. I can even list the names of the towns and cities (Aquidos, Anasrehlon, Varimeere), yet while this ‘place’ has remained unchanged, whilst my imagination as a place is only a little different (one might say that the country I created was a map of my mind) the uses made of my imagination have altered. As a child I imagined the imagined, as an adult I imagine reality, and often the unimaginable.
Going back to my childhood, my imagination provided me with a means of escape (not that I needed to escape anywhere – I was fortunate enough to have the perfect upbringing). I’d always wanted to see the world unspoilt, an Arcadian vision without cars, planes, pollution, machines or any trace of the modern. And in a sense, this is I believe, what first fired my interest in the past. As a child and well into my teens – and perhaps early twenties – my interest in history ended at the late 17th century, certainly well before the Industrial Revolution, when the modern world began to develop and my vision of a rural Arcadia began to collapse. In some ways, my imagined world was a pick of the best bits of the (somewhat idealised) past; the ancient sprawling forests, beautiful timber-framed houses. When I looked at an old pair of 16th century shoes, a bottle from a 17th century tavern, I was picturing their place in a comparatively unspoiled landscape.
Of course, as a child, my impressions of the past were, as I said, somewhat idealised; they were little more than romantic impressions of an untamed idyll. In reality of course, the past, at least on a human level was, I came to understand, far from romantic; life was short, harsh and often brutal. So as I grew older, and while I still used my imagination to find my way back into the past, I didn’t imagine the imagined, but rather, as I said earlier, the unimaginable: the reality of the lives of others.
In recent years, this change in emphasis has seen the boundaries of my interest in history widen to include the twentieth century; in particular the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust and the slaughter of World War One. Yet although these very difficult subjects are far removed from the invented landscapes of my childhood, my memories of maps and the stories created within them, provide an interesting, and I believe vital counterpoint to my understanding of such subjects. One of the problems with studying the Holocaust (and indeed World War One) is not only the sheer scale of the suffering, but also the fact that often the victims of both are, in the eyes of history, just that: victims. To say otherwise, i.e. to say that they weren’t only victims, is not to take away from the terrible suffering they endured, but rather to emphasise it, to focus our minds; they weren’t only victims, they were people with lives both behind them and ahead of them; pasts that for many were happy. They all had childhoods, and perhaps imagined their own fantasy worlds. Many, caught up in the Holocaust, were still inhabiting them – they were still of course, children.
As I’ve said, as a child, I would walk and imagine myself in my invented landscape, but as I grew older, although I still walked and imagined myself elsewhere, it wasn’t within an invented world that I walked, but rather a real world; that of my home town, Oxford’s past. Of course one might argue that this past was a much a fabrication as the map I drew as a child, but nevertheless, it was constructed from fragments of the past – drawings, paintings, descriptions in books, photographs. I could never know for sure what things looked like, or how it must have been to walk through the city’s streets (for example during the 14th century) but my imagination did its best to conjure a picture. Of course, as well as those things listed above, there are parts of the city which are contemporary with the past and these buildings and streets are particularly important when looking for that which has long since gone; just as I have found in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ieper.
One man who did so much to capture Oxford before much of its past was demolished in the late 18th century was a German artist and musician called John Malchair. His drawings are amongst the most beautiful and indeed haunting images of a city I have seen, particularly his views of Friar Bacon’s study, an unusual edifice which was sadly demolished in 1779.
One particularly poignant drawing (below) shows the remaining arch, when all above it has been taken down.
In my mind, as I walk, I suppose one might say I am often trying to rebuild Friar Bacon’s Study. Walking as a means of remembering then is important to me although it does throw up interesting philosophical questions (which I’ve touched on before) namely, what is it we are remembering when we ‘remember’ events which we ourselves have not experienced. As Paul Ricoeur asks in his book, ‘Memory, History, Forgetting,’ ‘Of what are there memories? Whose memory is it?’.
The invented world I ‘walked in’ as a child was a fiction, an amalgam of all the fragments of an unspoiled landscape which I could see in parts around me. And, in a sense, when ‘remembering’ the past of Malchair’s Oxford, the Great War and the Holocaust, I am creating a fiction of sorts – a world created from fragments; photographs, drawings, letters and documentary evidence. The past becomes my imaginary world.
So what is it which separates the past and my past imaginary landscapes? It is this: it is the theme of this residency; Residue.