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Marcus Wood

Solo Exhibition Ruskin School of Art, Oxford, 1994

The show’s title was lifted from a line in a crazy satire by John Thelwall, ultra racial and supporter of Tom Paine.  In London in 1819 a missile was launched from an angry mob and broke the window of the Prince Regent’s coach.  The authorities claimed the offending object to be a stone or a bullet and screamed Treason.  Thelwall put forward a softer culprit, the common or garden potato. In a surreal twist of fancy he imagined the potatoes, a thinly disguised metaphor for the passive British public, arraigned in the High Court on a charge of High Treason.  When the potatoes remained silent under brutal cross examination the Attorney in Chief turned to the Judge and announced ‘My Lord, the Potatoes Speak for Themselves, their silence is their confession’.  I have always responded to the silent eloquence of root vegetables, and tried to do justice to their nobility.  I have myself created a number of speaking potatoes.

"All Change is for the worse, especially change for the better"

Why did I make my 'High Table Worcester College' series, and why are the works so ugly? The answer is in the adage:

"All Change is for the worse, especially change for the better."

Every night, after six hours imbibing tomato soup made from flood damaged stock from the second World War, jugged hair, spotted dick, Fortnam's truffles, sherry, claret, sauterne, port, armagnac, and of snorting their snuff and puffing on their cigars, every night before they oozed out onto the streets of Oxford, the die hard core of ancient male fellows at Worecester College, would chant the magic mantra on change and no change, and then chortle.  It was an aphorism they attributed to many sources Wilde, Thomas Cromwell, Hilary Mantell, Helen Gardner, Helen Mirren, and of course their idol, griot and major fetish Beachcomber (J. B. Morton).

The High Table rituals of Oxford, devoted to the debauchery of the college Senior Common Rooms are inexcusable and crass. Secret societies of ex Public school boys still rule the roost.  While I was a Fellow at Worcester College I went through many of these dinners. They were free for us, but not for the untold thousands who have been abused exploited and killed in the production of the filthy lucre of the Oxbridge Colleges.  They were non-educational in any intellectual sense, they disgusted me. The worst were the so called 'Desert Nights' when High Table Dinner consisted of an interminable progress of Hogarthian grotesqueries.  Attire was black tie, combined with gown and optional silly flat hat.  The fellows delighted in displaying the most mysteriously and revoltingly soiled dinner jackets and most furiously ripped and threadbare gowns.  You gathered in a mahogany paneled holding tank, you drank sherry.  You went forward in a crocodile, like primary school children on the way to the museum, out and on to the great hall  You progressed through the ranks of undergraduates to the 'High Table', literally, absurdly raised four inches higher than the rest of the floor.  You ate and drank four courses, including the ghastly 'savory'.  After a couple of hours you reformed the crocodile and made way to the subterranean oak panelled desert room, chairs set in a quadrangle.  The 'Junior Fellow' then crawled on his knees bearing various solid silver platters laden with snuff, cigars and chocolate and offered them to the foaming debauchees.  Meanwhile the claret, port and sauterne circulated (passing the decanters and claret jug left if you please).  The port decanter actually embodies the Oxford Don, it has a broad belly and a long neck and a close fitting stopper.  Two hours later it was up to the Senior Common Room for spirits and pale ale.  The different stages of peptic and oroficial dissolution which I witnessed during the progress of these emasculated orgies formed the basis of the following series of works.

The animals were added to give the scenes some class.  William Blake said: 'For everything that lives is Holy', Really and truly? Even a strange little bald man called 'Copper' le May dancing on the table with a wooden leg.

High Table Rituals and Low Life Forms

The exhibition and book launch, The Potatoes Speak for Themselves 1994, marks the point at which my art practice and academic writing for the first time began a process of creative osmosis.  Both elements moved through the semi permeable membrane which had previously contained them, and they began to speak to each other.  The paintings and prints drew on brilliance of early English satire, as outlined in the book Radical Satire and Print Culture.  They used irony and parody to satirise political problems.

The show was arranged on two levels, on the lower galleries and staircase of the Ruskin School were large billboard sized blow ups  of George Cruikshanks' brutal wood-engraved satires attacking the Prince Regent, later George IV, and the hated Administration of Lord Liverpool in the Post Waterloo years. The images were spray painted with puffs of colour using the chosen medium of street graffiti, tins of car spray paint.  Cruikshank's originals were produced as wood-engravings for the ground breaking pamphlets of William Hone.  These little books were based on the form of contemporary children's nursery books and carried the titles of nursery rhymes and games - The Political House that  Jack Built, The Queen's Matrimonial Ladder and so forth.  The images I made into colour posters were all taken out of my book Radical Satire and Print Culture which is largely devoted to explaining the satiric genius of the Hone Cruikshank collaboration. 

On the upper floors were my prints and paintings which attacked the excesses of the social life of Oxford University, and its ludicrous and financially obscene High Table culture.  The class ridden and prejudice saturated rituals of the college High Tables and Senior Common Rooms continue to represent, in the purest forms of corruption the social, racial and financial inequalities which still infest the British fat cat.   It all goes on behind closed doors, and I felt I needed to out what I had seen and what I had felt during my bizarre years as 'Fellow' of Worcester College Oxford and Socialist Double Agent.

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