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 November 1937 Routledge & Sons published Gardeners' Choice, written and illustrated by Evelyn Dunbar and Cyril (usually known as Charles) Mahoney, her former Royal College of Art tutor, fellow muralist, companion and lover. It was well received by the press, it ran to three impressions, each with a differently coloured dust jacket, and it was selected by the First Edition Club as one of the 50 best books of 1937. The title page above is that of a signed copy Evelyn gave to my mother in 1942, and which I still have.

In 1935, while she was working with Mahoney on the Brockley Murals, Evelyn was commissioned by Routledge to provide the dust jacket, the frontispiece and 25 vignettes for a dip-into miscellany called The Scots Weekend and Vade Mecum for Host, Guest and Wayfarer. Contact with Routledge led to Evelyn asking a commissioning editor called Ragg about the possibility of publishing, or at least illustrating, books about gardening or farming. Ragg concluded his reply by asking Evelyn if she knew of anyone who might be interested in writing a 'really new' book about gardening. She passed the news on to Mahoney, quoting Ragg:

 Extract from letter to Mahoney, June 1936. Tate Archive ©The estate of Evelyn Dunbar

While working at Brockley Evelyn and Mahoney had developed a close association, both professional and emotional. Evelyn saw her future as a continuing partnership with Mahoney. She was disappointed with Mahoney's departure (although long foreseen) from Brockley in May 1935, leaving her to complete the project alone, but she did not lose heart. After Brockley various collaborative propositions came their way, but Mahoney was not keen to tie himself down. The extensive collection of letters from Evelyn to Mahoney, covering the years 1933-37 and now housed in the Tate Archive, show Evelyn proposing a closer and ever closer association, with Mahoney (none of whose replies survive) apparently trying to assert a lost freedom and independence as it became clear that they were not really very well matched. Evelyn's Christian Science clashed with Mahoney's atheism, her bourgeois and merchant background sat uneasily with Mahoney's strong left-wing leanings, her natural playfulness and doctrine of perpetual cheerfulness compared ill with his volcanic temper provoked by opposition, together with a dictatorial tendency which Evelyn called his 'Caroline autocracy'.

What continued to unite them was a shared love of plants and gardening, and from this came Gardeners' Choice, their only post-Brockley collaborative venture that came to fruition. Evelyn hoped this apparently seamless collaboration would stand as a metaphor for the strength and permanence of their relationship, but by the time Gardeners' Choice appeared in late 1937 she and Mahoney had separated. A question mark hangs over who wrote or drew what. In a biographical note dated 11th February 1990 intended to update and correct an earlier Tate Gallery catalogue (Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture), Evelyn's husband Roger Folley wrote '[...] E.D. also wrote most of Gardener's Choice'. The vignettes are all Evelyn's, as are the dust jacket and the end papers, while the 40 full-page pen-and-ink drawings were shared between them, Evelyn contributing at least 10.

The text shows an intimate knowledge of the chosen plants, some of which are quite uncommon and in some cases not far removed from what many conservative gardeners of the period might have regarded as weeds. Conventions of another age would find it hard to include many of them as suitable candidates for herbaceous borders. It is this unconventionality that gives Gardeners' Choice the 'really new' character that Ragg was looking for. Rarity, individuality and lowliness are seen as virtues. Of lupins, hollyhocks and delphiniums (except, typically, the dwarf Delphinium belladonna) there is no mention, their traditional place being taken by flowering onions, angelica, mulleins and periwinkles, to mention only four. No doubt the influence of that doughty and indefatigable gardener Florence Dunbar was strong. In preparing Gardeners' Choice Evelyn and Mahoney could draw on several years'-worth of intense plant-sharing experiences.

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. On the occasion of one of Mahoney's visits to The Cedars, the Dunbar family home in Rochester, Evelyn sketched him drawing Bergenia crassifolia, which eventually appeared in Gardeners' Choice:
Charles Mahoney drawing Bergenia crassifolia in the garden at The Cedars, spring 1936. Photograph ©The author
Evelyn's vignettes are warm and lively, human and witty, and show something of the spirit of the Dunbar family garden. Here is her fashion-conscious older sister Marjorie, whose 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 (it's not certain which was which), or by the outdoor staff employed by Evelyn's aunt (Florence Dunbar's sister) and uncle, Clara and Stead Cowling, who lived in some style at Steellands, Ticehurst, Sussex, and whose house and garden sometimes appear in Gardeners' Choice. Particularly Evelynish is the short and stocky figure below 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 and maybe her sister Clara Cowling appear several times in these drawings, clearly as hands-on gardeners and driving forces:

It is a measure of the influence Edward Bawden and his Great Bardfield garden had had on the evolution of Gardeners' Choice that Mahoney and Evelyn asked him to write the Foreword. He did so, sending a handwritten draft to Mahoney in September 1937, accompanied by a letter asking for amendments and corrections. It could hardly have arrived at a worse moment: Evelyn's and Mahoney's relationship had reached breaking point. Bawden seems to have been told, however, that he was too late, that Routledge's deadline had passed, and so it was never published. Bawden's draft Foreword eventually appeared some 80 years later in a Persephone Books 2016 reprint of Gardeners' Choice.

* * *

One of the less common 40 herbaceous perennials featured in Gardeners' Choice 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.

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

There is a relic of Gardeners' Choice in our garden, living on in a way which I hope would have pleased both Evelyn and Mahoney. The original stand of Bocconia cordata - it grows a strong central root, propagating itself energetically from outspreading runner roots - came from the garden at The Cedars, which the remaining Dunbars sold in 1946. Evelyn and her husband Roger Folley 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 garden of our family since. Here is our descendant, probably 75 years after its ancestor left The Cedars:

Bocconia cordata (otherwise Macleayia cordata) in the author's garden, with (L) Felis catus (otherwise Pinot).

(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, 300 illustrations. £25