In 1948 Faber and Faber brought out Robert Graves' The White Goddess, a collection of writings drawn from many sources in which Graves attempted to rationalise the concept of a super-deity in the thought and imagination of peoples of Europe and the Near East. He recognised the need of people from the earliest times to invent or imagine a force, a presence, a deity responsible for the creation of the world and everything in it, and its subsequent rule. The notion was far, far older and more deeply rooted in the Western psyche than anything in the Bible, the Koran, the Norse gods and their Greek and Roman counterparts, and this presence, this immanence, this super-deity was, and had to be, female. It isn't known whether Evelyn had read The White Goddess, but she was certainly aware of the concept.
In 1948 Evelyn was living with her husband Roger Folley at the Manor House, in Enstone, a village a few miles north of Oxford. The post-war 1940s were among the happiest and most productive years of her life. Roger was working at the Oxford University Agricultural Research Institute, engaged in research that would lead to the publication of his classic Economics of a Fruit Farm two years later; Evelyn was teaching at the Oxford School of Art and at the Ruskin, part-time in both cases, giving her a generous platform for professional and aesthetic cross-fertilisation with her colleagues, some of them distinguished artists whom she had known and kept up with since her Royal College of Art days fifteen years and more before. She also had time to develop her own work.
I expect that it was from this period that the family notion, half teasing, half perhaps with a slight sense of exasperation, that Evelyn's female figures were always grotesquely tall and had tiny heads. It wasn't universally true, of course, but maybe there was a grain or two of justification. It was during this period, for example, that the figure of Autumn first appeared in Evelyn's sketch books, later to achieve maturity in Autumn and the Poet. Here she is:
Detail from Autumn and the Poet 1958
In 1948 or thereby she had two other female figures on her easel, firstly the very fine Dorset:
- and then the elusive map-drawing Mercatora, for which I have only a photocopy of a monochrome photo:
Mercatora 1946 Originally oil on canvas. Now lost (?).
(As far as is known Mercatora hasn't been seen for 70 years. The last known reference to it is in a catalogue of an exhibition of paintings by Ruskin staff, dated 1950. It was priced at 25 guineas. It must be somewhere! If anyone can shed any light...)
One of the chief and noblest characteristics of Evelyn's war painting was her largely hidden and unnoticed promotion of women's interests, a proto-feminism whose individual impact is imposssible to assess, but when taken in conjunction with all the other feminist initiatives of the post-war period is surely not without some weight. The three larger-than-life figures so far - I'll come to Oxford in a moment - variously control birth, life, death and regeneration in the context of the rolling seasons (Autumn), guarantee the inviolability of England (Dorset) and map the earth, thereby exercising a measure of control over it (Mercatora). Evelyn does not assign any of these functions to men.
In 1950 Roger Folley left Oxford, having been appointed lecturer in Horticultural Economy at Imperial College, London, at their Wye College campus in east Kent. I think Evelyn deeply regretted leaving Oxford, where she felt she had flourished, and having to come to terms with rural, not to say bucolic, Kent. They moved into a house called The Elms, which stood almost isolated on a ridge near the tiny and ancient settlement of Hinxhill, a place at some distance in many respects from Oxford, burgeoning and quick with learning and the learned.
In 1950 another literary event involving Robert Graves took place: Penguin Classics published his translation of Marcus Apuleius' The Golden Ass, a long, picaresque and often raunchy novel written in Latin in about 170AD. It was the first translation for some 40 years: two translations from the 1900s had been categorised as with 'dirty bits left out' and 'dirty bits left in the original Latin'. It's unlikely that either - or indeed any - version found a place on the Dunbar family bookshelves, but Evelyn and Roger had a copy of Robert Graves' translation, in the famous Penguin Classic paperback livery (for Latin translations) of white with purple margins, and eventually that copy found its way on to my bookshelves. I have to say, though, that unlike some of the literary allusions in her work, she never spoke to me about it.
For all its frequent barrel-scraping The Golden Ass is a deeply religious book, with death, redemption and rebirth as its underlying theme. Through inept meddling in the black arts the hero, Lucius, inadvertently turns his body into that of a donkey, while retaining his own mind. After a string of uncomfortable adventures he realises that there is only one power capable of turning him back, the goddess Isis. He addresses a heartfelt prayer to her and she makes herself visible to him.
Here is Evelyn's Oxford again, for reference:
(We have frequently come across this notion before in Evelyn's work, or something very similar: the same promise of an endlessly abundant and bountiful Creation, in return for the same devotion to it and its Creator - or Creatress, in this case. It was a very powerful concept in Evelyn's mindset.)
Who is the figure in Evelyn's Oxford? I think she begins Oxford from the convenient premise of a visual pun: the river in the foreground is the Isis, as the Thames is sometimes known as it flows through Oxford, and the lanky figure sitting in its watermeadows can only be its eponymous deity. It has to be Queen Isis: Evelyn's figure and her clothing exactly matches Apuleius' description, and if this is deliberate the date of painting can be defined as sometime after the 1950 publication of Robert Graves' translation of The Golden Ass.
Evelyn has had to compromise with her figure to extend her lap and thighs to accommodate a maquette of Oxford University, placed adjacent to her womb as if to suggest its origin, and thereby assuming the role of mother and protectress. The dreaming spires of Oxford are only vaguely identifiable. In another visual pun the outer coat of Isis' mantle is of Oxford blue. Raised in protection of her creation, the angle of this mantle and that of her right forearm echo the shape and endorse the purpose of the spires below, themselves conceived by their mediaeval architects as fingers pointing to heaven. In the shadow of one of those spires Roger is working - or had been until very recently when Oxford was painted - in the Agricultural Research Institute. In the background there are the same neat orchards, trim hedges, carefully husbanded farmland we find so often in Evelyn's landscapes. Ploughed fields, Evelyn's symbol of promise, take up the middle distance. Low hills, possibly Hinksey and Cumnor, lie on the horizon.
* * *
Evelyn gave this painting to her friend Margaret Iliffe. As Margaret Goodwin, she and Evelyn had been fellow students and close friends at the Royal College of Art. Although - unusually - Evelyn has signed it 'ED', it seems to me that the Oxford above is a dummy run for a more highly finished, canvas version. Some years ago I enquired of various Oxford colleges and institutions if any had a finished version of Oxford, but none did. Perhaps by the time the oil-on-paper version that we have was finished, Evelyn had found her feet in Wye, her nostalgia for Oxford and Oxford life had waned a little, and the final canvas version was never painted.
Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2020. All rights reserved
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