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


  1. Each post draws me in further. And, those illustrations are a delight.

  2. It's like an interactive family tree. Only not a tree.