Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Cedars (1938-1940)

Evelyn Dunbar:  Rochester from Strood c.1938: 8" x 12" (20.3 x 30.5cm) Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

Rochester from Strood and The Garden, below, are almost contemporary. Evelyn loved sheds, toolsheds and potting sheds with all their rich and heady - a combination of adjectives she sometimes used - earthy fragrances, creosote, compost, twine and sacking, strings of onions and bunches of dried herbs and other garden sheddery scents. If the Covenant - the contract between Man and Nature - was at the cheerful heart of her beliefs, the garden shed represented a basic, domestic holy of holies, a literally down-to-earth temple consecrated to the day-to-day husbandry needed to keep Man's side of the bargain. 
You may have noticed that sheds feature in almost everything from Evelyn's hand that we've had a look at so far - Winter Garden, The Brockley Murals (where there is almost an encylopedia of garden sheds, especially in Evelyn's sub-gallery lunette and spandrels), the Gardeners' Choice illustrations: everything except perhaps in Joseph's Dream, and even there a shed tucked away somewhere in the background wouldn't be too out of place.

Again everything is neat and trim in the Dunbar garden, cold frames, herb beds, pruned fruit trees. Even in the very modest and unshowy garden area just outside the kitchen door the Covenant is kept, harmony maintained. And then, in the distance, relegated to the background on the far side of the river Medway, are Rochester Castle and Cathedral. Rochester Castle, a ruined witness to an age of strife and disharmony, and the nearby Cathedral, a monument to values that I think Evelyn only perceived dimly as touching the day-to-day life and interaction of her friends and family and the world in general.

In 1939 Evelyn was at a crossroads. She had had one or two triumphs, notably in association with Charles Mahoney, but she and Mahoney had now separated, apparently amicably. Evelyn, 33 in 1939, and the youngest of the five Dunbar children, still lived at home. There may have been some tensions, possibly aggravated by her successes of the preceding years, between her and her three firmly celibate siblings Ronald, Jessie and Marjorie, and the very different worlds they inhabited. (Alec, the fourth of the five Dunbar children, married a year or two before World War 2)

Evelyn's father, William, died in 1932, leaving a mini-empire of High Street shops for his older offspring to manage. Ronald, the oldest, ran shops selling bicycles and electrical goods. Next in age, Jessie and Marjorie, ran haberdashery and children's clothes shops. Alec ran a road haulage business before volunteering for the Royal Navy. (He commanded a minesweeper and saw action at Dunkirk. After the war he ran a hotel near Maidstone.) There was some attempt to include Evelyn in the family businesses. Having in a sense nowhere else to go, Evelyn took over the first floor of a rented premises at 168, High Street, Rochester, above Jessie's and Marjorie's 'The Fancy Shop'.

Here Evelyn created The Blue Gallery. It consisted of a single room running the length of the shop below, a panelled Georgian room painted in duck-egg blue with a curious bas-relief tondo over the fireplace, in the style of, if not by, John Flaxman, showing Aeneas fleeing the flames of Troy carrying his old father Anchises on his shoulder. (This has very little to do with Evelyn, but I lived over the shop at 168 High Street, Rochester, from 1951-59, and would like this tiny grain of memory to be recorded somewhere, if only here.)

Evelyn hoped to sell her own and her friends' work in The Blue Gallery. She invited several friends to exhibit, a constellation including Charles Mahoney, Edward Bawden, Allan Gwynne-Jones, Barnett Freedman and Kenneth Rowntree. Florence Dunbar's floral still-lifes were included, and her Cyclamens from the first post (Winter Garden) in this series of essays dates from The Blue Gallery experience. The Blue Gallery opened in the winter of 1938/39. It didn't succeed, and its closure more or less coincided with the outbreak of war in 1939.

In April 1940 Evelyn was appointed an Official War Artist, employed by the Ministry of Information to paint scenes illustrating the civilian war support activities undertaken by women and women's organisations. New worlds opened up for Evelyn. There will be much more to say about this later, and many more paintings to look at. For now A Knitting Party shows Evelyn at the unlikely start of her war painting.

Evelyn Dunbar: A Knitting Party 1940: (1' 6" x 1' 8": 46 x 51cm) Imperial War Museum, London

The room is the family sitting room at The Cedars. Florence Dunbar is sitting in the bay window, hatless because she alone is in her own home. She's blatantly looking at her watch, perhaps wondering when all these women will go away. They're all knitting away, maybe with recovered wool, to make blankets or comforters or whatever for British troops. A Knitting Party was submitted in November 1940, so winter was coming on. There's a pile of completed knitting on the central table, in service colours, navy blue, khaki, Royal Air Force blue. No one seems to be speaking much. If you stare at it long enough you can almost hear the click and clack of knitting needles. Apart from Florence Dunbar, I don't know who the women were. Perhaps they belonged to some organisation like the Women's Voluntary Service.

(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

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Gardeners' Choice (1937)

In 1937 Evelyn Dunbar and Cyril (usually known as Charles) Mahoney, her former Royal College of Art tutor, fellow muralist, companion and lover, published Gardeners' Choice. The title page above is that of a signed copy Evelyn gave to my mother in 1942, and which I still have.

Both Evelyn and Mahoney loved plants and gardening. Gardeners' Choice is an illustrated guide to 40 mostly herbaceous perennial plants. The text, very ably written, and the vignettes shown here (and a few more besides) were Evelyn's responsibility. Mahoney and Evelyn between them produced the full-page pen-and-ink drawings to accompany the text.

Evelyn's text shows an intimate knowledge of the chosen plants, some of which are quite uncommon and indeed would not be considered as suitable for herbaceous borders today.  I expect the influence of her mother Florence, a doughty and indefatigable gardener, was strong. While most of the plants discussed may have been cultivated in the family garden in Rochester, there are records of Evelyn and Mahoney travelling together to the gardens at Kew and Wisley. For some contemporary artists, gardening and painting went hand in hand: Evelyn and Mahoney visited several artist friends' gardens in search of material, particularly the garden of Edward Bawden at Great Bardfield in Essex. Mahoney had no garden of his own at the time Gardeners' Choice was being written.

Evelyn's drawings are warm and lively, human and witty, and show something of the spirit of the family garden. We've seen it in one guise already, Winter Garden, which is the header of this blog and which I wrote about in the first commentary, and the following drawings show some of the detail. Here is her fashion-conscious sister Marjorie, and it has to be said that her attitude to garden tasks seems ambivalent, although anyone who has wrestled with a push-mower will have every sympathy and will not deny her a snooze in the deck-chair:

And we don't know how much of the daily toil was undertaken by the two gardeners employed by the Dunbar family, Alf and Bert. I'm afraid I don't know which is which. The slenderer and possibly more elderly of the two appears above in the title-page vignette, carrying two watering cans. The other, a stockier man, appears below, working in the Dunbar garden and, lower down, returning from his allotment with a bundle on his back, maybe greenstuff for rabbits, and a bunch of flowers for Mrs Alf/Bert:

Florence Dunbar appears several times in these drawings, clearly as a hands-on gardener and driving force:

The diagonally-laid brick edges to paths in the top right-hand drawing are clearly those visible in Winter Garden. It seems to me that the right-hand of the two figures in the lower right drawing is Evelyn herself.

The garden at The Cedars was a constant affirmation to Evelyn (and to her mother) of the Covenant, to which I come back time and time again in discussing Evelyn's work, the mutual contract between Mankind and the Creator. Evelyn certainly saw the Creator as the Old Testament and Christian God, but I don't think it matters, when we're considering Evelyn's work, what name or title we give to the power that drives Nature, and which drives it unfailingly in Mankind's favour if we devote ourselves to looking after it.

Gardeners' Choice is written with a great depth of knowledge, but also with a warmth and assurance which Evelyn's vignettes underline. It was received very well, and was chosen as one of the 50 Books Of 1937 by the First Edition Club. It was the last evocation of the close working and romantic relationship between Evelyn and Mahoney. They parted company in 1937, but remained on friendly terms.

One of the less common 40 herbaceous perennials was Bocconia cordata, or Plume Poppy. For some reason Paolo Boccone has been usurped by Alexander Macleay, so Macleayia cordata is now the correct botanical name. As usual Mahoney's drawing of it appears next to the first page of Evelyn's text:

Extract from Gardeners' Choice, Routledge, London 1937. Text: Evelyn Dunbar and Charles Mahoney. Drawing: Evelyn Dunbar

There is a curious relic of Gardeners' Choice, living on in a way which would have delighted both Evelyn and Mahoney. The original stand - it grows a strong central root, propagating itself energetically from outspreading runner roots - from the garden at The Cedars was divided in the 1950s. Evelyn and her husband Roger planted a stand at The Elms, the house near Ashford, Kent, to which they moved in 1951. The same original stock, divided and subdivided, has appeared in almost every family garden since. Here is our descendant, 60 years after its ancestor left The Cedars:

(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