The daughter of legendary Oxford photographer Roger Mayne discusses his work and previously unseen prints.
Katkin Tremayne with some of her father’s work
An exhibition held in London in May was a reminder that Oxford has nurtured artists just as it has nurtured prime ministers – even ‘political’ colleges like Balliol. Held at antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch, the exhibition displayed photographs never previously seen in public, taken during the 1950s and ’60s by Roger Mayne (self-portrait, right) and discovered in his archive by daughter Katkin Tremayne. We offer a gallery of some of these evocative images, below.
Katkin Tremayne, a ceramicist, recalls that during his four-year chemistry degree Roger Mayne (1929–2014; Balliol, 1947–51) extended his circle by joining the undergraduate Experimental Film Society. It led him towards a friendship with the future documentary film pioneer Derek Knight. By applying his chemistry knowledge to the dark room, and possessed by a love of photography, Mayne headed to London and a career as a professional photographer and artist.
Tremayne recalls that her father had to first perform the full two years of National Service, but did so as a conscientious objector and served as a hospital porter. By chance he met the parents of modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and boarded for a while in the artist community of St Ives, where he got to know the Newlyn-based abstract artist Terry Frost (later Sir Terry Frost, RA).
Mayne’s unsentimental photos of working-class life were choice non-fiction book covers
Devoted to his photography, ‘he lived off sandwiches,’ Tremayne laughs. ‘He was absolutely hopeless at cooking. Derek [Knight] was the knight in shining armour, because he cooked for my father and they shared a flat together for six years.’
During this period in the mid- to late Fifties, when London was slowly recovering from the shock of the war and some rationing continued, there was plenty of artistic fermentation going on all around Mayne. His base in Addison Avenue, on the Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill borders, became something of a Bohemian centre. He knew Keith Johnstone, the theatrical innovator, and he lived round the corner from abstract artist Patrick Heron and indeed musician and later Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.
Coming out of lectures, Oxford 1958, by Roger Mayne
A turning point came in June 1956 when Mayne exhibited portraits taken in Cornwall at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). From here, his confidence grew. He developed and acquired a reputation for spontaneous portraits of often working-class subjects, and in particular children playing in Southam Street. Between 1956 and 1961, his intensive study of this milieu resulted not only in a personal aesthetic that had previously eluded him, but an approach that was to some degree reminiscent of Henri Cartier-Bresson in France.
Such images document a world that has all but disappeared, where children made their own sport in the streets, with very little in the way of toys or money. Drawn towards the working-class world, his portraiture came to grace the covers of numerous Pelican paperback books with brash, emergent sociology titles such as Adolescent Boys of East London, Children Under Stress and Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen.
Tremayne remembers her father very fondly. ‘He was a very loving and joyous person. He would potter around the garden and come back and talk about primroses or some such.’ If inspired, he would put the family in the car and head out to the countryside for what he called a ‘visual treats day.’
The exhibition Roger Mayne — London & Paris was held at Bernard Quaritch in early May, 2017. The contact at the gallery is Alice Ford-Smith (020 7297 4850; email: firstname.lastname@example.org). As well as prints from Roger Mayne’s acclaimed Southam Street series, the exhibition highlighted those from the wider Notting Hill and North Kensington areas. The Paris series featured scenes which even those familiar with Mayne’s work would not have seen before.
Roger Mayne’s photographs reproduced by kind permission. Katkin Tremayne and books photographed by Richard Lofthouse for Oxford University Images.