Oxford: The Last Hurrah

“I had access to what felt like a secret world. It was a subject that had been written about and dramatized but I don’t think any photographers had ever tackled before. There was a change going on. Someone described it as a ‘last hurrah’ of the upper classes.” – Dafydd Jones

“It was Thatcher’s Britain, a period of celebration for those that had money” – Dafydd Jones

At this time, Oxford University was synonymous with the wealthy, the powerful and the privileged. Many of the young people in these pictures moved on to have careers in the establishment including Boris Johnson and David Cameron. In these photographs, however, their youth is undeniable: teenagers in full suits celebrate the rise of Thatcher in England and Reagan in America, in between punting on the river, chasing romance and partying through the night.

The Oxford Years shows a world that has been written about and dramatized, yet never photographed. Affectionate and critical, it pokes affectionate fun at its subjects while celebrating English eccentricity. From the architectural marvels of the colleges to misty mornings along the river at dawn, this is Oxford at its most beautiful – and the students of the 1980s at their most raw and honest.

One series of images, taken in the autumn of 1980 at a meeting of the Bloody Assizes Dining Society, an exclusive all-male drinking club, were submitted to a Sunday Times photography competition. Although he didn’t win, he came to the attention of Tina Brown, the future Vanity Fair editor, who was then at the helm of society magazine Tatler. Brown called Jones, congratulated him on his shots of the Oxford student scene and offered him a job as Tatler’s official party photographer. He would start immediately, on the proviso he moved to London straight away. At first, Jones didn’t take her seriously. “The shots I submitted (to The Times) were fairly obvious send-ups of the kind of shots Tatler would routinely publish,” he said. But Brown loved them. Jones was sent to every high-end party Tatler could get access to, and Brown would routinely use the images he returned with to animate Tatler’s pages.

In 1983, during a stint as a columnist for the Daily Mail, Brown used Jones work, including an image of a woman in a flowing gown dancing on a grand dining table, for a piece titled “Snob Wars.”

“There’s a civil war going in Britain… except it isn’t very civil,” Brown wrote. “Everywhere I look, social groups are lining up and shaking their fists at each other. We have kissed off the guilt of the ‘caring, sharing’ seventies and got dressed to kill for the Up Yours Eighties.” “Tina would talk about this new generation of what she called ‘sod you’ Tories,” Jones said.

He remembers a grand ball in Kent. Six hundred guests were invited. On arrival, they were greeted by boy scouts holding burning torches, lining each side of the long driveway to the stately home. “The ball took place on the same night as the Brixton riots,” Jones says. “I stood outside and took pictures of them leaving the event. But, just a few score miles away, Brixton was on fire. It felt very much like a different world.”

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