Thursday, 1 November 2012

Girl and a Birdcage (c.1934)

Evelyn Dunbar Girl and a Birdcage c.1934 Oil on paper (1'2" x 10": 35.2 x 26.2cm) Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust, Carlisle

In these essays I try to respect the chronological order of Evelyn's paintings. Her wartime output was so extensive, and so largely focussed on the activities of the Women's Land Army, that one can sometimes arrive at a surfeit of them. So it's a wonderful event when a previously unknown painting (at least, unknown to me), unconnected her wartime work, appears out of the blue and allows me to vary the diet a little.

The blue in this case was the excellent but so far incomplete BBC Your Paintings website, through which I was browsing when I came across Girl and a Birdcage. Everything by Evelyn featured on the Dunbar, Evelyn Mary page was more or less familiar to me, and commentaries about several of them have appeared here. But Girl and a Birdcage was new, a particularly exciting discovery and a very pleasant surprise.

Sir William Rothenstein, Principal of the Royal College of Art (where Evelyn studied from 1929-33) was a dominant figure in the English art world in the 1930s and 40s. It was largely through his initiative that the Brockley School Mural project was implemented. He fully understood the difficulties experienced by young artists in getting a foot on the professional ladder. He cultivated his students personally, arranging for them to meet, often at his home, established artists, patrons and organisations from whom commissions might be obtained or exhibitions arranged. One of his schemes, started in 1933, involved what was then the City Art Gallery in Carlisle.

The terms of the scheme, devised to encourage the work of young artists, included Sir William Rothenstein's appointment as Honorary Adviser, with sole responsibility for spending the Gallery's annual budget of £100, later £200.

In 1934 the City Art Gallery bought, via its Honorary Adviser, Evelyn's Girl and a Birdcage for 5 guineas (£5.25), at that time a sum a little under two weeks' average wages. Evelyn, in 1934 working with Charles Mahoney and two other colleagues on the Brockley Murals, would have been delighted. Two years later Sir William Rothenstein bought three of Evelyn's Brockley Mural preparatory sketches for the Carlisle City Art Gallery for the sum of £25.

(Sir William Rothenstein turned out to be a true friend and patron to Evelyn: in 1944, a year before his death, he presented her with a pencil and chalk portrait of her husband Roger Folley in RAF flying gear, inscribed 'To my dear Evelyn  William Rothenstein  3.2.44')

 Sir William Rothenstein Flt. Lt. Roger Folley, RAF,  in Flying Gear 1944 Pencil heightened with chalk. Private collection. Photo © Christopher Campbell-Howes

Girl and a Birdcage is set in the scullery in The Cedars, the Dunbar family home in Rochester. The south-facing window looks out on to the herb bed and sheds that also feature in Rochester from Strood. The subject is Evelyn's older sister Jessie, who was a frequent model at this period. We know how important the garden was in Dunbar family life, particularly to Evelyn and her mother Florence. Jessie has just brought in from the garden an armful of tulips, daffodils and what looks like mimosa but is more likely to be forsythia.

A pale spring sunshine is flooding the room, and Evelyn's handling of the light is masterly. Jessie is perched on the edge of the large glazed earthenware sink, filling a jug with water to put the flowers in and later to arrange them. We maybe feel Evelyn could have asked her sister to assume a more comfortable pose, particularly if she had to sustain it for any length of time, but Evelyn's easy rendering of a difficult form is entirely convincing, and we can only admire her gift for figure drawing. We can imagine that the circumambient sound, so often hinted at in Evelyn's work, is almost as important as what we see: the sunlight has encouraged the canary or yellowhammer in the cage to sing, the water will be gurgling into the jug and maybe overflowing, and Evelyn's brush has caught Jessie when she too is singing. What she's singing will forever remain a mystery. Tiptoe Through the Tulips, which came out a year or two earlier, needn't necessarily be taken as a serious suggestion. The Dunbar women loved singing.

I don't know whether Jessie, who died in May, 1962, was left-handed in fact. (Her left hand is resting on the tap: had it been her right hand, the whole composition would have had to be reversed.) I raise the question only to emphasise the directionality of Girl and a Birdcage. It's a curious thing, and by no means limited to Evelyn's work, that very many paintings with any kind of narrative, explicit or implied, work from left to right. We needn't be too surprised: with very few, if any, exceptions Western writing reads from left to right. It's a directionality that has become so natural to us that often we don't notice it.

In Evelyn's case it happens very frequently. In the early Winter Garden we're led into the garden by the path on the left. Joseph's wide-eyed stare in Joseph's Dreams invites us into his momentous dreams from the left. In Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing the narrative, like a strip cartoon, carries us from left to right, and so intuitively confident is Evelyn that, when we've reached the end of the top row we will automatically lower our eyes and move to the left-hand start of the bottom row, she hasn't felt it necessary to give us any other guide, like numbering the frames. It's the same with An English Calendar, and there are many others. It's as though Evelyn was taking our hand and leading us into the heart of this peaceful domestic interior, reminiscent in its simplicity of the 18th Century French artist Jean-Baptiste Chardin, one of Evelyn's favourite painters.

Sir William Rothenstein's eye and taste were unerring, and at 5 guineas the City Art Gallery, Carlisle (now Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust) had a bargain.

I am very grateful to Melanie Gardner, Curator of Art, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust, Carlisle, for her help in the preparation of this commentary.

(Text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2012. All rights reserved.)


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