Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Brockley Murals (1933-36) Part 1: The hall panel and frieze

This is Evelyn in 1934 - she was then 27 - on a scaffold standing some 5' above the floor, in front of a large (12' x 7') and then recently completed mural painting called The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk. I expect the photo was taken by her Royal College of Art tutor and collaborator Charles Mahoney. As far as I know the original is in the possession of Mahoney's daughter, Elizabeth Bulkeley.

The mainspring for what became the Brockley mural project was Sir William Rothenstein, principal of the Royal College of Art and one of the great figures in British art in the 1920s, 30s and early 40s. In one of a series of BBC National Lectures in 1931, the year of his knighthood, he urged local authorities to consider the employment of young artists in the decoration of public buildings. A Dr Sinclair, then headmaster of Brockley County School for Boys, in south-east London, became interested in Sir William Rothenstein's ideas, although the initial impetus came from a group of Brockleians including the art teacher, a Mr Livens, himself a former RCA student. In 1932 Dr Sinclair persuaded the school governors to approve and even fund a scheme to decorate the school hall, employing postgraduate Royal College of Art students. Implementation of Dr Sinclair's scheme fell, via a delighted Sir William,  to Charles Mahoney.

Mahoney, who had a good reputation as a muralist through his work at Morley College, London (destroyed by bombing in World War II), took up the commission to decorate the assembly hall and other areas of Brockley County School for Boys, now Prendergast-Hilly Fields College. It was a huge commission, and must surely have been very exciting: there were to be five major wall panels, the ceiling, a frieze on the gallery overlooking the hall and all the lunettes and spandrels beneath the gallery. The subjects were to be taken mainly from the fables of Aesop.

Mahoney undertook a lot of the work himself, but recruited three of his senior Royal College of Art students to help him see the project through. One of these was Evelyn. She spent vast swathes of time working on the major wall panel she was assigned, on the frieze and almost all the smaller areas. In order to concentrate on the commission she took lodgings in London, although she returned home to Rochester for the figure sketches. As usual she asked her sisters Jessie and Marjorie to model for her. Ronald, the older of her two brothers, appears in the centre of The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk and slightly to the left.

Evelyn Dunbar: The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk  Oil on plaster: 12' x 7': Prendergast-Hilly Fields College, Lewisham, London

It's all pure Evelyn. The strong, uncluttered design: the other student panels were fussy by comparison. The balance, the subtle (a word she was very fond of) sense of colour. The fine draughtmanship, especially of the plants, which would lead to further collaboration with Mahoney a year or two later in a book about gardening. The easy mastery of a complicated perspective, maybe helped by the open gate leading our eye up the path. And the sense of involvement in the story, one of improvidence. The booklet produced to accompany the formal unveiling in 1936 had this narrative:

A Country Girl was walking with a Pail of Milk upon her head, when she fell into the following train of reflections:- "The money for which I shall sell this milk will enable me to increase my stock of eggs to three hundred. These eggs will produce at least two hundred and fifty chickens. The chickens will be fit to carry to market about Christmas, when poultry always bears a good price; so that by May-day, I cannot fail of having enough money to purchase a gown. In this dress I will go to the fair, where all men will strive to have me for a partner; but I shall refuse every one of them, and, with an air of disdain, toss from them." Transported with this triumphant thought, she could not forbear acting with her head what had passed in her imagination, when down came the Pail of Milk, and with it all her imaginary happiness.

Once again the background is typical Evelyn. The landscape is Kent, the Garden of England, and the gate leading to it is open for us. There are oast houses on the horizon, and a variety of country activities: a woman feeding her hens, a picnic round a fire, and one of Evelyn's trade marks, a ploughed field, in fact a field actually being ploughed with a horse-plough. The ploughed field is Evelyn's symbol for Promise: promise kept, in that the harvest the field bore is in, and promise made, in that the land will bear next year's crop too. It's a further expression of her creed, her belief in the Covenant, or contract, between Man and Nature.

 Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals (1933-36), left hand end of the gallery frieze. The model was her sister Jessie.

The painting of these murals was arduous. Of necessity much of the work was done while the school was closed to pupils, at weekends and during school holidays. If the photo above is anything to go by, the security standard of the ladders and trestles would have fallen well short of today's Health and Safety requirements. At some stage Evelyn, an unusually agile woman, fell. Injury was not severe, but all the same it left a permanent scar on her neck and shoulder.

Sometimes she worked alone, reporting to Mahoney by letter what she had accomplished. Her letters to Mahoney about her mural work refer to the heat - she nicknames Brockley School 'Broiley' school - and to the difficulties of access. Her personal letters almost always included drawings, and there are fanciful drawings in some of her letters to Mahoney of herself perched uncomfortably on the top of a scaffold energetically painting a ceiling area, drops of sweat falling falling from her head. In another she drew herself and Mahoney with wings, hovering below the gallery ceiling they are painting.

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals (1933-36): the gallery frieze.

The frieze, which is all Evelyn's work, spans the 12-metre width of the hall. At either end are allegorical female figures, modelled by her sisters Jessie and Marjorie, the left hand figure holding a scroll with an architectural plan of the school and its surrounds, the right hand figure a large book open at a page with a map of the area covered by the landscape.

On completion of the Brockley Murals in 1936 Sir William Rothenstein, a tireless promoter of his students' work, bought three of Evelyn's oil sketches for the City Art Gallery, Carlisle, now Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust. (A fourth oil-on-paper painting, Girl and a Birdcage, unconnected with her Brockley Mural sketches, was included in Sir William Rothenstein's purchase, for which Evelyn received a total of £25.)

The three oil sketches consisted of the frieze and the two allegorical 'book-end' figures, modelled by Jessie (left) and Marjorie (right):

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals (1933-36): Oil on paper sketches for the allegorical figures framing the frieze. By courtesy of Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle

Between these two figures is a rolling landscape of the area, known as Hilly Fields, with Brockley school on the central horizon. Boys, uniformed in cap, blazer and shorts, are seen at various out-of-school pursuits, possibly blackberrying, tracking each other, flying kites. To sketch the whole landscape as it appeared in the summer of 1934, Evelyn needed to climb to the top of a nearby 100' water tower, where, according to a report in the Kent Messenger, she claimed the sun was so hot that the water in her paint box nearly boiled. The frieze is now in some senses a historical document because so much of the area has been built over since.

During the painting of these murals Evelyn and Charles Mahoney, who was three years her senior, fell in love. They shared a studio for a time in Hampstead. It wasn't the easiest of relationships, because Mahoney, an atheist, found it difficult to come to terms with Evelyn's Christian Science. And the Dunbars found it hard to accept him, particularly Florence, Evelyn's mother, despite Mahoney's passion for gardens and gardening.

One of the curious things - for me - about the Brockley murals is that Evelyn never spoke about them. No one in the family - Dunbars, Folleys, Campbell-Howes - ever mentioned them until after her death. Only once did she refer to Brockley when speaking to me, and that was obliquely: she told me once about the contortions Michaelangelo put himself through to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, implying that she too had had similar experiences.

Nor did anyone, certainly not Evelyn, speak about Charles Mahoney. We were vaguely conscious of a certain Cyril Mahoney, because his name appeared on the spine of a book called Gardener's Choice, written and illustrated by Evelyn Dunbar and Cyril Mahoney. (Cyril was his given name. He became first known as Charley, and later Charles, when he started work at the Royal College of Art.) Maybe, after Evelyn's marriage to Roger Folley, he became a taboo subject.

 I didn't know of the existence of the Brockley Murals until Dr Gill Clarke, Evelyn's biographer, told me about them. It seems to me that they really are quite a milestone in English mural art. It's a great pity that no complete photographic record of them exists, as far as I know. There are some beautiful things there.

There's more about the smaller areas of the Brockley Murals, i.e. the sub-gallery ceilings, lunettes and spandrels, here.

(Text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2012. All rights reserved.)

Further reading...
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25

Monday, 7 May 2012

Winter Garden (1928-1937)

Evelyn Dunbar, Winter Garden
Evelyn Dunbar Winter Garden ?1928-1937 (1' x 3': 30 x 91cm) Tate Britain 

Evelyn was in her early twenties and a student at the Royal College of Art when she began this painting, in about 1928, although preliminary sketches may date from a little before. It isn't very large: it measures 1' by 3', about 30 x 90cm. She called it Winter Garden, and it's now in Tate Britain, although not permanently on display. It was her first major canvas, as far as I know.

At the time she was living with her family in Strood, which is that part of Rochester, Kent, on the west bank of the river Medway. She and her parents William and Florence Dunbar and her four older siblings, Ronald, Jessie, Marjorie and Alec lived in a house called The Cedars, a large late Victorian house overlooking Strood and with views across the valley to Rochester with its prominent cathedral and castle. From an early age Evelyn had shown considerable artistic talent, and the promise she showed was recognised in the award by Kent County Council of a scholarship to the Royal College of Art.

Evelyn acknowledged the influence of her mother Florence in three key areas of her life and work. Firstly Florence was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable gardener. Secondly, she painted, almost invariably still-lifes of flowers. Here's an example of her work, below.

It's a pleasant, comfortable, unpretentious painting, nicely balanced in its composition and quite subtle in its colouring, and if the brushwork is fairly crude it doesn't matter, not to me anyway, if it expresses Florence Dunbar's pleasure at (maybe? Who knows?) receiving the gift of a pot-plant wrapped in lining paper and gardener's twine, unwrapping it and discovering it to be a cyclamen.

It doesn't have a title, so we can conveniently call it 'Cyclamen'. (On the reverse of the frame there's a price marked in pencil '20/-', £1 in pre-decimal money. I expect this was the price asked when Evelyn included it in an exhibition of her own and others' work in 1939, but I've no proof of this.)

Florence Dunbar, Cyclamens
Florence Dunbar 'Cyclamen' c.1930 (1' 2" x 1' 9": c.35 x 53cm) Private collection 
Thirdly, Florence was a Christian Scientist, and brought her children up accordingly. Evelyn remained a committed Christian Scientist to the end of her life.

The Cedars had an extensive garden, now built over. Evelyn drew on this garden for ideas for many years, and there are other glimpses of it in Gardeners' Choice, the book she co-wrote and illustrated with her former tutor, later colleague and eventual lover Charles Mahoney in 1937. The Dunbars employed two gardeners, Alf and Bert, one of whom - I don't know which - appears much later in one of Evelyn's wartime paintings, Threshing, Kent, which we'll maybe look at another time.

Winter Garden shows the family garden seen from the far end. The house in the right background is The Cedars.  Your eye is led to it, following the gravelled and neatly-edged garden paths.  There's a pyramid-shaped structure at the top of the house, and this is where Evelyn shared a studio with her mother.

Thanks to Alf and Bert, and no doubt members of the family, everything, even in midwinter, is tidy, controlled, expectant and ready for spring growth. Hedges are neatly clipped, the lawn has received its last cut of the old year. The apple and pear trees espaliered along the right-hand brick wall have been pruned. The end of the year is waiting for the beginning of the new one. It's an image of promise. Guarantee, even. The year will turn, new life, new growth will start as spring approaches and the days lengthen. 'In my end is my beginning.' It will become the major theme in Evelyn's work. It's surprising to find it in her very first significant painting.

There's a subtle light of great beauty over the whole scene, rich in its interplay of harmonies. Its muted colours perfectly evoke a calm, quiet and windless December or January day in the south of England. I wonder what clues tell me it's afternoon, that evening isn't far off? I can't identify them, but it's the feeling I get.

It took Evelyn the best part of 10 years to finish this painting. She finished it in 1937, ready for exhibition in London the next year. The gestation can perhaps be explained by the comparative rarity of days like this in Kent, by Evelyn's absence in London for much of the period, by work having to be suspended as long as there were leaves on the trees, but I think there's maybe another reason. It's a very finished canvas, and its composition is extraordinarily complex, yet it appears effortless.

There are maybe five other paintings from Evelyn's hand that show the same meticulous and devoted care in construction and finish, and all of them took her a very long time to complete. And I think she was reluctant to let this painting go, maybe because Winter Garden is a metaphor, an ikon for all that she was beginning to believe, partly through the open window of Christian Science, about Nature and Mankind: Man is utterly dependent on Nature, and Nature will completely fill Mankind's needs, provided - and what a big proviso! -  Mankind returns Nature's unending bounty with love, respect and intelligent husbandry.

The Dunbar family home, The Cedars, in 2013. Author's photograph

Today, in 2013, all this has gone. The Cedars is still there, converted into unappealing flats, but still recognisable by the pyramid-capped tower. A cracked glass lantern with 'The Cedars Hotel' just discernible on it suggests a reincarnation, after the last Dunbar of Evelyn's generation died in the 1980s. About 40 crowded houses now cover what was this magnificent garden.

(Text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2012. All rights reserved.)

Further reading...
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25