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.