It's always a red-letter day when previously unseen work by Evelyn makes an appearance, especially when it dates from her most mature years. Recently two late portraits appeared, studies of two sisters, Jill and Ann Mursell, both painted when they were in their teens. Few of Evelyn's portraits approach these late images in their concept, execution and finish, to say nothing of that subtle ability to suggest character. Both these studies rank highly in Evelyn's portraiture canon.
Evelyn came late to portraiture as a mainstream activity, although her portfolios as a student at the Royal College of Art (1929-33) abound with pencil sketches and studies of her fellow students and - deliciously - the occasional caricature of RCA lecturers. In her late teens and early twenties she produced serious accounts of family members in her studio at The Cedars, the Dunbar family home in Rochester. From leaving the RCA in 1933, when she was 26, until the end of her employment as a war artist in 1945 the only formal portraits are of WAAF personnel. The period 1945-1950, when she lived near and taught in Oxford, is rich in allegorical paintings but not in portraits. In 1950 she and her husband Roger Folley moved to Wye, in east Kent: after 4 years working with Oxford University Agricultural Research Institute, Roger was appointed to the teaching staff of King's College, London at their agricultural campus at Wye College. His time in Oxford was marked by the 1951 publication of his Economics of a Fruit Farm, which became - and still is to some extent - a standard work.
In rural Kent the focus of Evelyn's work changed, moving gradually from allegory to landscape and then to portraiture. One of the catalysts for her renewed interest in portraiture was the arrival in Wye of the portraitist and former RCA student - although several years after Evelyn - John Stanton Ward. Ward and his wife Alison became friendly with Roger and Evelyn, to the extent that the two artists used to enjoy the rather Victorian pastime of going out sketching together in Wye and the surrounding area. It's my unsubstantiated belief that Ward, known nowadays for his endless establishment and royal portraits, taught Evelyn the rudiments of professional portraiture, something that was quite foreign to the deeply un-commercial Evelyn: not the execution, not the actual brush-on-canvas work (I don't think she had much to learn), but the nuts and bolts of commissions, contracts, conditions of work, scaling of charges, delivery dates and so on.
Meanwhile, a certain Peter Mursell, after a first in agriculture at Cambridge, showed a strong interest in flying but was disqualified from taking the controls because of his poor eyesight. World War 2 found him associated with, and eventually running the Air Transport Auxiliary, a body employing civilian pilots to deliver new and repaired aircraft to RAF units, thus freeing active service pilots. At the end of the war he devoted himself to the expansion of Dounhurst, the family fruit farm in West Sussex. He was faced with a considerable learning curve. While careful to respect local knowledge, he also tapped other sources of professional advice, among them the East Malling Research Institute (coincidentally the setting for Evelyn's A 1944 Pastoral: Land Girls Pruning at East Malling) and Wye College. The students he occasionally received on work experience and placement were supervised by Roger, whose Economics of a Fruit Farm, which emphasised apple growing, had recently been published.
Roger and Peter Mursell got on very well - but perhaps that should read 'Folley and Mursell got on very well', because in the fashion of the time they addressed each other by their surnames. Almost exact contemporaries, they shared a love of fast machines - in Roger's case, his Norton motor bicycle - and some common experiences in World War 2: Roger served in the RAF, firstly (somewhat to his disappointment: he wanted to fly) in Balloon Command and, after training, as a night-fighter navigator with Fighter Command. By the mid-1950s Mursell, a man with a great gift for friendship, and Roger had become close enough for Evelyn to be introduced to Dounhurst and the rest of the family.
Evelyn also had the gift of friendship, perhaps in greater measure than the more retiring and self-effacing Roger, but there was something else that drew her to Dounhurst. A devout Christian Scientist, she gave a sharp prominence to the concept that the earth and all that is in it is a permanently guaranteed gift from the creator (with or without a capital C) to mankind, on condition that mankind, from the humblest gardener to the loftiest agronomist, look after it with love, industry and intelligence in return. Among her biblical exemplars, both taken from Judaic foundation legends in Genesis, were Adam, to whom the garden of Eden was given 'to dress it and keep it', and Joseph, whose political control of agriculture in ancient Egypt marked him as a great provider for and saviour of his people. This theme, this promotion of the synergy between nature and mankind, permeates Evelyn's work and makes her one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, whose message is never more needed than today. There's hardly a post in this blog without some mention of it. To some extent in her mind Roger, through his work, inherited the mantle of Joseph. And now here was Peter Mursell, fulfilling the creator's conditions not just in his orchards, but through his growing regional and (later) national involvement in the apple industry. (For his many contributions to regional life, including a spell as Chairman of West Sussex County Council, Peter Mursell was knighted in 1969.)
Mankind-nature synergy may not have dominated conversation round the Dounhurst dinner table in the late 1950s, where the talk maybe concentrated more on Evelyn's preparedness to paint the two Mursell daughters. By chance part of a letter survives from Evelyn to Cecily Mursell (their mother):
Extract of letter (p1/2) from Evelyn to Cecily Mursell, October 1958. Private ownership
What I am able to respect is your wish about size and your preferences, and Peter's, with regard to the treatment - ie the amount of finesse and incisiveness (am not sure of the spelling of this....) and its suitability for the setting of your house when it becomes a finished object.
As to price - I think I did quote before, but without referring to actual sizes. The scale would be as follows:
approx 12" x 16" - 30gns [guineas]
14" x 18" - 40 "
18 x 22 - 55 "
20 x 24 - 70 "
22 x 30 - 80 "
(Evelyn's emphasis - 'What I am able to respect' - probably refers to her initial reluctance to accept payment.)
It's not certain when Evelyn started the portraits. The main thrust of Ann Mursell's portrait was probably complete by the summer of 1959, although it may have been started several months before. Ann Mursell, who was then 14, is sitting reading, or reflecting on what she has read, beside a window in a light and airy room. On the window-sill is a ceramic cockerel, a present from her godfather. She recalls not being the most communicative sitter, and not really wanting to have her portrait painted at all. Evelyn worked hard to put her at her ease, and it may be that her apparently pensive expression as she ponders what she has read or has seen out of the window masks a feeling that she would rather be elsewhere doing something else. The skin tones are rendered to perfection, as are the lights in her hair - which, incidentally, she cut herself in between sittings; not easy for a portraitist to deal with.
Ann's portrait was delivered at the end of September 1959, framed in a James Bourlet frame, at that time Evelyn's preferred framer. The invoice was included. Evelyn's fee was £52.10.0, ie 50 guineas.
Jill Mursell, then 18, followed, completion of her portrait possibly delayed through absence abroad. It appears to have been ready in the first months of 1960. Was it a winter painting? Unlike her sister's portrait, there's no obvious source for the light, which suggests artificial lighting. The skin tones and the hair are very skilfully rendered, the texture and subtle shading of her jumper also. The half-smile may be just slightly reminiscent of a certain famous portrait that hangs in the Louvre.
Jill's portrait, similarly framed, was delivered to Dounhurst in the spring of 1960. The exact date is not known. There was a problem: Peter and Cecily Mursell thought it was incomplete. The lower half of the portrait resonated with unrelieved browns. They asked Evelyn if she could add something to enliven it. She agreed to add a brooch or a necklace, and took the canvas back home with her to Staple Farm. However on May 12th she died, suddenly and unexpectedly, before she could make any alterations. Jill Mursell is among the last, if not the last, of Evelyn's portraits.
The second page of the letter quoted above continues with details of costing:
Extract of letter (p2/2) from Evelyn to Cecily Mursell, October 1958. Private ownership
"Mary Garland" was 18" x [illegible]
If the finish was greater & took me a lot longer it might be a bit more, but not excessively.
Our house-purchase is going forward smoothly and the removal date is now fixed for 29th or 30th of this month! So I am beginning to pack already.
It will be wonderful to have a studio again. We shall so look forward to your visiting us when we're settled.
Again thanks for the day. How are the art-classes?? Why not do the portraits yourself?!
Longing to see results
Love to all of you from both, Evelyn
Letters like this are pure gold to the biographer. Apart from revealing insights into Evelyn's working practices, her mention of moving house gives the exact dates of removing from Tan House, a very ordinary modernish house in Wye without a dedicated studio, to Staple Farm, a capacious farmhouse on the Downs two or three miles to the south of Wye. Evelyn converted part of the first floor into a studio (with a north light, vital to artists because of the regularity of the daylight) and an adjoining store. Roger and Evelyn spent less than a year not very happily in Tan House. 'It was our one mistake', Roger wrote many years later.
But...who was Mary Garland? Was she a member of the Garland family who lived in Wye in the 1950s? Is her portrait still extant? If any reader knows anything about this, it would be wonderful to discover yet another image from Evelyn's heyday of portraiture.
Warmest thanks to the Mursell family for their help with this essay.
Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2020
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