Sunday, 20 May 2012

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

Evelyn Dunbar with the finished The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk. Press photograph, subsequently appearing, somewhat cropped, in The Morning Post, 22nd February 1936.

This is Evelyn in 1936, when she was 29, posing on an improvised scaffold some 8' above the floor, in front of her large Brockley School mural, The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk. It is a slightly misleading photograph, appearing on February 22nd 1936 to illustrate a report in The Morning Post (later incorporated into the Daily Telegraph) of the inauguration of the Brockley Murals the day before. At the time it was taken Evelyn's mural panel was coming up for three years old. There are at least two indicators that the photo was taken some time after the completion of the painting. To give the scaffolding stability the ladders would have to incline inwards, but to have arranged them so for the photograph would have obscured the painting. Similarly with the ropes: they have nothing to do with the scaffold, they are wrist-thick gym climbing ropes, for boys to scramble up in school PE lessons. We can be reasonably certain that Evelyn has persuaded the school caretaker, a Mr Pratt, to arrange the ladders and a plank without too much wobbling in order for her to pose for the camera. Moreover Evelyn usually wore shoulder-strapped dungarees or a smock while working. More genuine, perhaps, is her sophisticatedly feminist stance in wearing trousers.

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. Implementation of Dr Sinclair's scheme fell, via Sir William,  to Charles Mahoney.

In late 1932 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 in the first instance the five recessed panels in the assembly hall together with the gallery wall above the arcade at the back of the hall. 

Prendergast - Hilly Fields School (formerly Brockley County School for Boys): the assembly hall, showing the arched panels and the gallery frieze with the arcade below. Evelyn's panel is forward out of picture on the extreme right. Author's photograph.

He intended to assign a panel to each of four recent graduates from the Royal College of Art, reserving one panel for himself. At that time, during her postgraduate year, Evelyn was following a course in mural painting, tutored by Mahoney. It was clearly something she loved, and something she had wanted to do since she first started studying at the Royal College of Art. She had no hesitation in accepting Mahoney's invitation to take part in the Brockley project, as much as anything for the excitement and challenge of working on unusually large spaces. Apart from Evelyn, however, Mahoney had some difficulty recruiting other recent graduates, maybe understandably because the question of remuneration was suspiciously vague and any prestige accruing from the project would be limited, as the viewing public would be limited to generations of Brockley schoolboys and their teachers.

Evelyn appears to have been involved in the project from its earliest beginnings in late 1932, suggesting sensible and suitable family- and school-based topics for illustration on the assembly hall walls. She produced sketches of her ideas, but by February 1933 these ideas were superseded by Mahoney's preference for illustration of fables. She gave in gracefully: 'It was a good idea to make Fables the subject', she wrote to Mahoney on 20th February 1933, 'I find in them now more and more things which delight, and inspire to action.'   

Aesop was the initial source of the fables to be illustrated, but as the project later widened at Evelyn's instance to include other wall-spaces beneath the arcade, other fabulists were represented, among them William Caxton, Jean de La Fontaine, Robert Dodsley, Samuel Croxall (an 18th century Archdeacon of Hereford) and particularly Thomas Bewick, the Northumbrian engraver, who borrowed extensively from the texts of Dodsley and Croxall. The principal source is likely to have been Bewick's Select Fables of Aesop and Others of 1818. Bewick, better known as an artist than an author, illustrated his fables with simple but spirited woodcuts, some of which can be traced in Evelyn's designs.

Work started in the early summer of 1933. Mahoney recruited two other recent graduates to work on the scheme, Violet Martin and Mildred Eldridge (usually known as 'Elsi'). It's possible that these two had become friends at the Royal College of Art (they appear together in the 1932 graduation photograph below) and had volunteered together to join Mahoney's team, but neither was able to start until the following year.
(L) Violet Martin and Mildred 'Elsi' Eldridge (R). Royal College of Art Graduation, 1932
 By this time Mahoney had finished one panel, Fortune and the Boy at the Well, which is signed 'CHAS MAHONEY 1933', and Evelyn had completed The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk. What Martin had done in the interim between graduating and starting work at Brockley is not known, but in 1933 Eldridge won a Royal College of Art travelling scholarship to Italy, and could not start until her return from Italy the following year. Eldridge chose, or was assigned, The Birdcatcher and the Skylark (taken from the Venetian fabulist Giovanni Maria Verdizotti), with which she crammed in two other fables, The Farmer and the Cranes and The Traveller and the River, to make a very crowded panel, incomprehensible unless the viewer is familiar with these very obscure fables. Martin undertook The King and Two Shepherds, not an easy fable because it depends on a multi-stage narrative.
Thus in the first, 1933, stage of the project, Evelyn and Mahoney worked alone. Mahoney took to himself the left-hand panel of the three on the south wall of the hall, where he worked on Aesop's Fortune and the Boy at the Well, possibly the only one of the 30-odd fables, wise saws and moral instances illustrated at Brockley to speak to the assembled boys and staff with any kind of cogency. Fortune, blindfolded and carrying her trademark wheel, urges a boy she has found sleeping beside a well to get to his feet and do something useful: if he should fall in the well while asleep everyone will lay the blame on her. The central panel was left blank, probably pending the recruitment of a fourth graduate, while Evelyn was assigned the right-hand south panel for The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk. In due course the two panels on the north wall were allocated, Eldridge taking the left-hand panel for The Birdcatcher and the Skylark, etc., and Martin the right-hand panel for The King and the Two Shepherds. Martin and Eldridge completed their panels in 1934 and played no further part in the venture. A fourth graduate never materialised, leaving the central panel on the south wall untenanted. At one time Evelyn may have suggested designs for it, but by the time it had become apparent that no one else was going to join Mahoney's team she had begun work on the gallery frieze, an extensively figured landscape of Hilly Fields, the parkland surrounding Brockley School. This left no scaffolding for anything else. This may explain why, perhaps in some desperation, Mahoney himself undertook the so-far untenanted central panel, and why his second fable, Joy and Sorrow, is painted in marouflage. Marouflage is a mural technique in which the image is painted off-site on to canvas cut, or assembled, to size, and is positioned when complete by glueing it to the backing plaster. It was probably painted in the studio Evelyn rented from the editor and publisher Noël Carrington at 99, South End Road, Hampstead.

 The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk 1933-34 (12' x 7': 3.66 x 2.13m) Photograph: Richard Valencia © The author.

The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk is pure early Evelyn. Her years at the Royal College of Art have developed her natural eye for strong, reasoned composition and have enhanced her subtle sense of colour. The quality of her draughtmanship, especially noticeable in the plants in the foreground, has been subject to a refinement which would lead to a further collaboration with Mahoney a year or two later in their book Gardeners' Choice. She has mastered a complex perspective, initiated by the open gate leading the viewer's eye up the path and into the rest of the fable, giving the viewer a sense of involvement in and personal identification with the story, which is after all what fables are designed to do. The booklet produced to accompany the inauguration contained the following 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.

Evelyn has presented us with a composite tour de force, reminiscent of early Renaissance paintings in which several stages of a narrative are shown simultaneously in the same picture. The Country Girl appears four times in Evelyn's design, each time illustrating a stage in the fable, 'actual' or occurring in the girl's imagination: in the foreground, a blue-smocked girl aghast at spilling the milk; upper right, the same blue-smocked girl feeding the chickens that she will sell to buy herself a posh frock; in the centre, now wearing the posh frock and fashionable hat, disdaining the approaches of two young men, one trousered in the fashionable Oxford bags of the period; and finally, still in her posh frock and hat, running off in shame from the ectoplasm-like spectre of the spilt milk, past a sort of bonfire of the vanities in the ploughed field on her left. The year recedes into the painting, spring in the foreground gradually metamorphosing into winter in the background, just as the Country Girl's aspirations, however vain, flourish and eventually die.

However, in line with Evelyn's perpetual doctrine of cheerfulness, nothing is lost, except maybe a little pride. In the upper left is a ploughed field, actually being ploughed with a horse-plough, and this is the first time in her career that one of Evelyn's most insistent and powerful symbols appears, one that will be met with again and again in her work. Her ploughed fields stand for Promise: promise kept, in that the harvest the field bore is in; promise made, in that the land will bear next year's crop too. The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk is the first major expression of her creed, her belief in the contract between Man and Nature.
After the completion of The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk Evelyn in the late summer of 1933 she put her mind to designs for the gallery frieze, the Hilly Fields landscape. To help find a suitable viewpoint Evelyn dragooned her brother Alec into driving her and Mahoney about the Brockley area. Eventually an unexpectedly rewarding viewpoint was found at the top of the water-tower belonging to the Ladywell Institution, then a home for the elderly and infirm not too far removed in time from the earlier workhouse, which lay in the Ravensbourne valley at the foot of Hilly Fields. The 120' tower gave an excellent view northwards towards Hilly Fields, with Brockley School crowning the skyline.

The 120' (36m) Ladywell Institution water-tower, Lewisham. Looking northwards from the topmost dormer window, on the far side of the tower as shown, Evelyn sketched the Hilly Fields landscape. Photograph: Lost Hospitals of London

How Evelyn obtained permission to climb to the top of the tower in the summer of 1934 is not recorded, but once installed at the very top in an attic lit by four small dormer windows she found the heat extraordinarily trying. According to a 1935 report in the Kent Messenger, Evelyn claimed the sun was so hot that the water in her paint box nearly boiled. The Hilly Fields frieze is now in some senses a historical document because so much of the area has been built over since.

This frieze, which is entirely Evelyn's work, spans the 12-metre width of the hall. It is a magnificent work, the largest in scale that Evelyn ever undertook, a tribute alike to her eye and imagination, and to the scope and sweep of Mahoney's teaching. 

 The Hilly Fields frieze
The allegorical figures at either side of the frieze were modelled by Evelyn's sisters Jessie and Marjorie, more for the posture and hang of the drapes than for actual portraiture. The left-hand figure holds a scroll with an architectural plan of the school and its surrounds, while the right-hand figure holds a large book open at a page with a map of the area covered by the landscape.


Oil on paper sketches (1934) for the allegorical figures framing the Hilly Fields Frieze. By courtesy of Tullie House and Art Gallery, Carlisle. On completion of the Brockley Murals in 1936 Sir William Rothenstein bought these two oil sketches for the City Art Gallery, Carlisle, later Tullie House and Art Gallery, Carlisle, for 5 guineas (£5.25). 'I've had a letter from the Old Boy' [i.e. Rothenstein] Evelyn wrote to Mahoney on 10th March 1936, 'in which he wants to buy 2 drawings for £5-5- I'll sell 'em at that.' For these and two other oil sketches Evelyn received a total of £25, £1,600 at 2019 values.

These two allegorical figures frame the rolling landscape of Hilly Fields, with the red brick Brockley School crowning the central horizon. Boys on the way home from school, uniformed in cap, blazer and shorts, are seen in the foreground at various pursuits, tracking each other, flying kites more or less successfully, climbing the railings, retrieving a lost cricket ball. Less prominently, members of the public are sitting on benches, picnicking, reading the paper, pushing prams or walking dogs. The detail is fascinating, amply repaying hours of gazing: Evelyn has produced a visual encyclopaedia of English 1930s suburbia.

The painting of the frieze cannot have been easy. At some stage Evelyn fell, despite being an unusually agile woman. Injury was not severe, but nevertheless it left a permanent scar on her neck and shoulder, and maybe left misgivings about rickety scaffolding and ladders and security standards that would have fallen well short of later Health and Safety requirements. An un-Evelynish disaffection creeps into a letter to Mahoney of 1935 sent from her lodgings in Ermine Road: her cartoon sketch, in which the allegorical book-end figures come out in sympathy with her in the then current Cockney expressions of disapproval 'Garn' and 'Yah', refers to certain distractions and inconveniences given to few artists to put up with.

 Extract of letter to Mahoney, 1935. The quotation 'Rest after toyle, Port after stormie seas' etc. comes from Edmund Spenser's The Faërie Queen.Tate Archive, ©The estate of Evelyn Dunbar

Evelyn was responsible for two other figures, painted in the spaces between the interior windows of the gallery overlooking the hall. Somewhat eclipsed by the vastness of the frieze, they are not the most convincing work she ever did. Her figures are modelled, not very flatteringly, on two senior boys of the period. The left-hand boy is dressed in sports kit and is carrying a rugby ball, the youth on the right, in school blazer with the school badge featuring a raven (after the Ravensbourne stream) is carrying books under his arm. Perhaps they represent the Latin poet Juvenal's dictum mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body), or perhaps the concepts of Leisure and Labour/ Learning which Evelyn was perhaps going to assign originally to the allegorical book-ends.


'Leisure' and 'Learning' 1935
 * * *

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

The sub-gallery painting, on the lunettes at either end of the arcade, on the 24 spandrels between the tops of the pillars and the ceiling, and on the ceiling itself, is to an unexpected extent an extraordinary record of the spring, summer and autumn of a relationship from which Mahoney gradually withdrew during the Brockley Mural project, leaving Evelyn to complete it on her own. Analysis and illustration of these areas will follow in due course.

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2019. All rights reserved. 

Further reading...
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 302 illustrations. £30