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.)

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