Sunday, 12 May 2013

Jacob's Dream (1960)

Evelyn Dunbar Jacob's Dream 1960 Private collection

This extraordinary painting is Evelyn's farewell.

Towards the end of April, 1960, I went to see Roger and Evelyn at their home in Staple Farm, Hastingleigh, in Kent, as I did during most school holidays for a few days. It was the last time I saw Evelyn. It turned out later that she had spent the previous weeks touring round her handful of relations - apart from her brother Alec, the Dunbar siblings were singularly unfruitful - and many friends in south-east England. What pain or discomfort she was in we shall never know, nor to what extent she repressed it, but as one who has experienced the very frightening pains and the limitations to everyday activities caused by coronary atheroma, I realise now that some very powerful need must have driven her to visit her wide circle. She had been to see my mother a few weeks earlier. My mother felt that in some inexpressible way Evelyn had come to say goodbye.

Jacob's Dream stood on one easel in her studio, the recently-signed Autumn and the Poet on another. I was struck and moved by Jacob's Dream in a way that no other painting of Evelyn's ever had. I spoke to her at some length about it, and I wish I'd noted down some of the things she said about it, because what she said is mostly forgotten.

She had wanted for a long time, she said, to round off her series of Genesis paintings. We know how fascinated she was by the great Abraham-Isaac-Jacob-Joseph family saga in the closing chapters of Genesis. I knew she had painted Joseph's Dream in at least two versions: she often painted the same subject more than once. I had seen Joseph in the Pit and Joseph Released from Prison (whereabouts of both now unknown) when she had exhibited them in her only solo exhibition, in Wye in 1953. I have vague memories as a small child of seeing The Butcher's and the Baker's Dreams, and an even vaguer impression of The Ram Caught by his Horns in the Thicket, all these now so distantly ghostly that they may not have existed at all.

Evelyn mentioned the story (which I knew already, having been to a very Bible-oriented, although not particularly religious, school) in Genesis, Chapter 28:

Jacob set out from Beersheba and went on his way to Harran. He came to a certain place and stopped there for the night because the sun had set; and, taking one of the stones there, he made it a pillow for his head and lay down to sleep. He dreamt that he saw a ladder, which rested on the ground with its top reaching to heaven, and angels of God were going up and down upon it. The Lord was standing beside him and said, I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. The land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants. [...] Jacob woke from his sleep and said, 'Truly the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.' Then he was afraid and said, 'How fearful is this place! This is no other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven.' Jacob rose early in the morning, took the stone on which he had laid his head, set it up as a sacred pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He named that place Beth-El [...]
    Thereupon Jacob made this vow: 'If God will be with me, if he will protect me on my journey and give me food to eat [...] then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone which I have set up as a sacred pillar shall be a house of God.
( New English Bible)

Then we talked about the stone, the one on which Jacob's head is resting in the painting, which legend, ever unpredictable, said was somehow conveyed to Scotland to become the Stone of Scone, on which kings of Scotland were crowned. In 1296 it was taken as war booty by King Edward I of England. (It remained in London for 700 years, fitted inside the ancient wooden coronation throne in Westminster Abbey. In 1996 it was returned to Edinburgh.)

Evelyn had painted Jacob's Dream recently, within the last two months, a remarkably short time for a painting as finished as this canvas is. We spoke about the angels, the extraordinary white abstractions on the ladder. For some reason they sent shivers down my back: never before had Evelyn done anything so simple, yet so elemental. How these shapes shone against the perfect blue of a spring sky, how they seemed to shimmer up and down the ladder, propelled by...what? Heavenward prayers and oblations? Earthward epiphanies and forgivenesses? The souls of the departed? And of those - wild thought! - about to be born? How drearily unconvincing traditional winged creatures would have been.

Jacob is lying, foreshortened very skilfully, in a field receding into the darkness of the night, with large stones scattered among the grass. He has thrown his travelling cloak - he's on a journey - over him, and maybe his left hand, out of sight below the frame, is holding some form of scrip or travelling bag. He looks relaxed, with his legs crossed at the ankles.

His dream takes place, like his son (some years into the future: Jacob is not yet married) Joseph's will do, within the oval that is our normal frame of vision. Evelyn doesn't give us the top right-hand extremities of the oval. We don't see the top of the ladder. She doesn't trespass into heaven, but leaves it to our imagination. Curiously, she has done this before, once in The Cock and the Jewel, her lunette in the Brockley Murals, as a tiny background detail, and once, more deliberately, in Omega of Alpha and Omega, the twin Bletchley panels of 1957.

The foot of the ladder is resting just outside the oval frame of vision, as though to harness the reality of the physical, sleeping Jacob to the other, metaphysical reality (but can there be such a thing, outside a dream?) of the angels. But there's a third reality, the dream background.

There are orchards, and hillside pastures, fields of an overwintered green crop, maybe turnips, and yellow charlock, or possibly oilseed rape. It's a typical Evelyn scene, a managed landscape, the Covenant at work, the Creator's gift, a landscape worked and loved in equal measure, Evelyn's Kentish interpretation of the land God promised to the sleeping figure of Jacob.

It's cradled in a sunlit combe, between two hills. It brought, and still brings, to mind some lump-in-the-throat lines from Tennyson's The Passing of Arthur:

[...] I am going a long way
With these thou seëst - if indeed I go
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt) -
To the island valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadowed, happy, fair with orchard-lawns
And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound.
I remember trying to quote these lines, a passage my grandfather was fond of, but they escaped me. Probably just as well. Evelyn's taste in poetry was much more modern than mine.

The left hand hillside is thickly wooded and unremarkable, but the hill on the right, with its hanging beech woods, is entirely typical of the North Downs about Wye. Staple Farm, Hastingleigh, lies on the Downs, on just such a wooded hill as Evelyn has painted. It was while out gathering pea-sticks in the beech woods with Roger in the early evening of May 12th, 1960, that Evelyn suddenly collapsed and died.

 Evelyn Dunbar Self-portrait under Rhubarb Leaf ?1953 Private collection © The artist's estate

 * * *

Some weeks after Evelyn's death Roger set about disposing of her remaining work. Perhaps realising that Jacob's Dream, with its uncomfortable resonances, could not easily be given away to friends or family, he decided to sell it. The painting is unsigned, but the label on the back, in Roger's handwriting, reads:

Jacob's Dream
30 gns
Evelyn Dunbar
Staple Farm,
Ashford, Kent

 Evelyn Dunbar Jacob's Dream verso, with sale label written by Roger Folley.

30 guineas (£31.50) in 1960 works out at a little under £500 in 2013. Jacob's Dream sold into private ownership, and was lost to view for many years. I had the good fortune to see it again in November 2011, a wonderful moment.

Thanks to Jane England for help in the preparation of this commentary.

(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2013. All rights reserved.)

Would you like to read more?

EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is now available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Autumn and the Poet (1960)

Evelyn Dunbar Autumn and the Poet (1960) Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery, Maidstone, Kent

Evelyn worked sporadically on Autumn and the Poet for the best part of 12 years. She began it when she and her husband Roger were living in Enstone, a village in Oxfordshire. It was on one of the easels in her studio at Staple Farm, Hastingleigh, in Kent, when she died in May, 1960, shortly after signing it 'ED' in the lower left hand corner. 

She made several preliminary attempts for this painting, one of the greatest to come out of the 20th century. Here is one, dating from Evelyn's Enstone days:

Evelyn Dunbar The Poet Surprised by Autumn (?1949) Private collection

Evelyn gave this version to her friend Mary Landale, whom she taught at the Ruskin School, Oxford, in the years immediately after World War 2. The evolution speaks for itself.

Autumn and the Poet is a statement of everything Evelyn believed in, a sort of testament. She had strong beliefs, partly inherited from her mother Florence, partly worked out for herself through the perspective of her Christian Science. They were confirmed largely by her husband Roger, in his time a leading horticultural economist. She held her beliefs to be self-evident and easy to adhere to. The only doubts she had concerned the readiness of humankind to play its part in the Covenant.

The Covenant - my term, not Evelyn's: she had no particular name for it - was, as she conceived it, the promise given by the Creator to the human race of a fertile and eternally abundant land, in return for mankind's promise to cherish it, to appreciate it and to care for it through intelligent and devoted husbandry. For Evelyn the 'Creator' was the Old Testament God, probably because she found the clearest expression of her beliefs in Genesis, in the great family saga of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, a history studded with reminders that 'the Lord will provide.' The symbol of what the Lord had originally provided was the Garden of Eden.

She acknowledged freely that her ideas were by no means the monopoly of Christianity. Mother Earth, Gaia, Mother Nature and their like were all expressions of the same ideas. So were more particularised deities, Isis, Juno, Ceres, Persephone. The Old Testament God, and the scriptural apparatus around him, was her preferred hook to hang her beliefs on. She was in no way a Creationist: her horizons were far wider. But she rarely spoke about these things, except through her painting.

She loved the land with a quiet energy and a private passion that separated her from her colleagues, and which makes it difficult to label her, for those - chiefly Americans - who draw strength and reassurance from classification. Evelyn resisted any attribution to this school or connection with that movement. Maybe we begin to see why if we look closely at the more distant landscape in Autumn and the Poet.

Fields bordered with hedges stretch away into the distance until they become indistinguishable from low hills on the horizon. The fields are in harrowed stubble from the late summer's harvest, or pasture, or maybe fallow, or already ploughed, this last Evelyn's unfailing metaphor for promise. There's nothing specially beautiful or picturesque about this landscape. It's an everyday countryside view, common throughout most of England, especially in the south. It's unassuming, unsentimental - and fashioned by the hand of man.
The hand of man has levelled this land, drained it, ploughed it, manured it, sown it, harvested it, set his herds and flocks to graze on it. In maintaining it, it has maintained him. It's the Covenant in action. All Evelyn's landscapes are the same, not just her many landscapes per se, but the backdrop against which many of her wartime Women's Land Army paintings are set.

(For this reason she was never particularly interested in landscapes in which the hand of man wasn't evident. Only once, to my knowledge, did Evelyn paint a landscape for its perceived aesthetic beauty: Wye from Olantigh of 1953. Mountains, moorland, cloudscapes - with one notable exception, in A Land Girl and the Bail Bull - snow scenes, urban landscapes, forests, deserts, lakes, didn't interest her. No sketches are known from her reasonably extensive overseas travel. Even in Dorset, the one important painting in which the sea could be expected to feature, the viewer is directed inland, away from the sea.)

Having established the stage set, as it were, of the Covenant, Evelyn now starts on the main drama. As in so much of her work, Autumn and the Poet has a left-to-right travel, from the figure of Autumn towards the Poet. Autumn is an apparition: we don't know where she has come from nor where she's going. Nor do we know if Autumn is speaking because her head is turned away, facing downwards to the Poet, who is clearly Roger, and who indeed did model the figure. Autumn has an authoritative message to deliver, one that maybe needs no speech: the Poet, with a blank sheet of paper, is ready to take in what Autumn has to convey to him

Significantly, we've seen the same positioning of figures, with the same left-to-right travel, for six hundred years and more, since the dawn of the Renaissance:

Simone Martini The Annunciation with SS Margaret and Ansanus 1333 Uffizi, Florence

Fra Angelico Annunciation c.1450 Museo di San Marco, Florence

Edward Burne-Jones Annunciation 1879 Lady Lever Gallery, Port Sunlight, Merseyside

Henry Ossawa Tanner Annunciation 1896 Philadelphia Museum of Art

This isn't, of course, to equate Roger with the Virgin Mary nor Evelyn with the archangel Gabriel. But Evelyn has used a recognised pictorial formula to carry the idea of an important message being passed from a figure of authority to another, who at the very least is perplexed - indeed Simone Martini's 1333 Virgin reacts with revulsion - at being chosen to receive it. In the earlier version, Roger, almost grovelling on all fours, is 'surprised' by the apparition of Autumn: in the finished version, his expression displays a certain puzzled gravity.

This is an Annunciation, of a kind. Evelyn has reversed the genders of Annunciator and Annunciatee, and in all humility I think it would be a misreading of her character to make any assumptions of feminism. We're breaking into a dream, one of those dreams that sometimes frame Evelyn's more important allegorical paintings, as in Joseph's Dream, completed in 1943, and as in Jacob's Dream, her farewell painting, and there may be others. Roger, the poet, the interpreter of ideas, is dreaming a dream made for him by the figure of Autumn. Autumn's head has some resemblances to Evelyn with her hair pinned back. Autumn is a figure of some majesty, full-breasted, the latest and most mature in a series of long-bodied, small-headed female types that Evelyn made her own. Her predecessors, from the post-war years 1946-49, when I think Evelyn was experimenting to find the female shape that she found most expressive, are Oxford and Dorset.

Long after Evelyn died in May 1960, Roger wrote a pamphlet from which I've quoted before, entitled Evelyn Dunbar: The Husband's Narrative. He wrote this pamphlet in two slightly different versions in May and October 2007. He died the following August. He wrote this pamphlet, which is an account of his and Evelyn's marriage, because he felt, rightly or wrongly, that the biography of Evelyn, Gill Clarke's Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country, which had been published in 2006, gave a generous weight to Evelyn's pre-war career, and particularly to her very close relationship with Charles Mahoney, but at the expense of her achievements during her marriage to Roger. (They married in 1942.) This is true in the sense that her post-war life is not well documented and that an unknown amount of her post-war work was given away or lost.

The relevant statement in the October 2007 version of Roger's pamphlet is:

The manner of her death caused much heart-searching. Just once she mentioned "I've never felt quite right since we went to the dance" meaning the All Night Ball at the senate House, in 1958. She was not suffering in any way I could see and I left her to deal with it in her own way: it was not life-threatening. The fatal blood/heart condition is a different matter, but I am told, however, that if I had insisted on a check-up her condition may not have been revealed. Hypertension was not to the fore in 50's as it is today.

Leaving aside any suggestion of Roger feeling a need to exonerate himself, Autumn and the Poet takes on a new piquancy and urgency if, when it was nearing completion, Evelyn knew she was going to die. Her Christian Science would have dismissed the symptoms and consequences of high blood pressure as error, a wrong turning on the path to the Perfect Day, a mutant gene in Eden. Who knows the strength, or weakness, of what people really want to believe, who knows what doubts gnaw at their proclaimed beliefs in the face of great pain and adversity? Even Jesus on the cross was heard to exclaim 'My God, why have you forsaken me?'

I think this is important, because Autumn is going to die. Evelyn has dressed her in the most outlandish garments of any figure in any of her paintings. In fact it's a winding-sheet. At one stage my mother modelled the hang of the drapes. She must have meant individual parts of it, the folds over Autumn's left arm, say, or the plaid-like fall from her left shoulder, because it's hard to see how the garment works as a whole, without falling apart. (To be flippant, it must have been the very devil to iron.) The bare breast is interesting: Evelyn evokes a tradition of bare-breasted maternal figures in Western art, expressing a generalised capacity to feed, and for some reason it's usually the right breast that's displayed, the left concealed behind draperies. And surely Evelyn is alive to a particular subtlety of the death-regeneration theme of the whole painting here too: lactation only occurs immediately before and for a period after birth.

The exquisitely coloured sky echoes the course of Autumn's life: between the trees, in the top right-hand corner, the pale sky is reminiscent of the dawn light on the horizon of A Land Girl and the Bail Bull. As the day runs its course, it darkens to the rich pale orange of evening. Presently, as the light starts to fail, Autumn is going to vanish, to thin out and disappear, leaving her fruit behind.

A short way down the left-hand track there's a looping strand of wild clematis, or old man's beard, one that appears consistently in The Poet Surprised by Autumn and other preliminary sketches. Some have likened this to the letter Ω, Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet, a metaphor for a waymark stage in the endlessly turning life cycle of birth, death and regeneration. Evelyn exploited it fully in Alpha and Omega, the Bletchley panels of 1957.

There's no finality about Omega. Its shape resembles a rudimentary womb, suggesting regeneration, birth within death: 'In my end is my beginning', T.S.Eliot wrote in East Coker (1940), the second of his Four Quartets, which Evelyn had on her and Roger's bookshelves in the original Faber edition. There are surprisingly strong links between Autumn and the Poet and East Coker. In exploring these links I found it quiveringly exciting to read, a too-good-to-be-true coincidence, about a dozen lines into the first stanza -

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank...

- where it seemed that these lines might have taken a trembling hold of Evelyn's charcoal in her very first sketches for Autumn and the Poet. And maybe they did, but this is mere superficiality, because the poem veers off immediately afterwards in a different direction, and the true links are much more profound. One interpretation of the elegiac and autumnal East Coker is Eliot's sorrow at the lack of spirituality in mankind's approach to the cycle of life, of birth, death and regeneration, although it's unlikely that any two people will agree over its precise meaning, which might also be said of Autumn and the Poet. Eliot ends the poem with the inversion of its opening line: 'In my end is my beginning.'

Some critics - not many, because very few people, let alone critics, have ever seen Autumn and the Poet - suggest that the whole painting is about death. Not so. Its meaning is much deeper: it's about rebirth and the continuity of life. Autumn may be wrapped in a winding-sheet, but it's also a cocoon, from which new life will appear. But who is to guarantee it?

Evelyn's original idea may have had different titles as it passed through its various metamorphoses before arriving at the finished version, but one thing she did not call it was 'Autumn and the Horticultural Economist'. She wouldn't have been wrong: Roger, seen leaning against a bank (actually an Oxfordshire or Warwickshire dry-stone wall) in the painting, was one of Britain's leading horticultural economists, who in due course became a world authority on certain aspects of his domain, notably tomatoes and fruit-farming. In this sense he has invested heavily in the exploitative approach to the changing seasons, the cycle of life, death and regeneration and the Creator's abundance, and in Evelyn's terms he has fulfilled mankind's part of the Covenant, and the Lord will continue to provide.

But it's not enough, and I think this is the basis of Eliot's complaint in East Coker. The land, the landscape of Evelyn's background, the source of the Creator's plenty, is to be loved, and the Creator too. Expressing the spiritual side of the Covenant, if only to say thank you, is a poet's work, and whatever we think of Roger's poetry, via the examples we've met in their Christmas cards, it can't be denied that he had an impressive command of language.

So the figure of Autumn, maybe assuming Evelyn's voice and persona, is saying to Roger, husband, horticultural expert and poet, 'I am called away: I shall return, maybe not in the form in which you now see me. Tell all the world, through your work and your word, about the Covenant, about the duty mankind owes to the Creator, to care for the land with love and industry in equal measure.'

She leaves in front of him, on a white sheet, as a gift for the present and a guarantee of the future, the fruits of the earth, in such profusion that they've spilled out of the sheet she has carried them in on to the ground. Whatever they are, potatoes, apples, pears, quinces, onions, they are stylised and generalised, and it's not to be suggested that water-melons necessarily grow in Kent.

Evelyn's message doesn't stop there. Evelyn was a very positive person: if she could find a positive way of urging someone not to do something, she would. 'Don't' rarely existed in her vocabulary. 'Do' (whatever it might be) would show some positive example or lead to some way of looking at things that meant the hearer did not feel denied or guilty, but instead felt encouraged and glad to please her. Throughout the years when I was close to Evelyn, there was never any argument or difference. It's in the light of this that I want to look at the central thicket in Autumn and the Poet.

It's a massive thicket, taking up the triangle between the two lanes and the field beyond. It appear to be made up of brambles and more old man's beard. It's impenetrable, flourishing, and a waste of agricultural land, a disordered wilderness in total contrast to the neat and managed plantation of mature trees on the right of the painting. (Is there some suggestion of virility and dissemination associated with the Poet?) What is this thicket doing there? Firstly, I think it's a warning, in a typically Evelynish cautionary style: this is what happens if you disregard the message of Autumn and neglect the Covenant.

Secondly, there may be a reference to a famous Old Testament story, to be found in Genesis, Chapter 22, towards the beginning of the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob-Joseph story by which Evelyn set such store. To test his faith, God told Abraham to take his son Isaac up into the mountains and sacrifice him, that is presumably to cut his throat, put his body on an altar of wood and burn it. The New English Bible continues:

[...] So Abraham took the wood for the sacrifice and laid it on his son Isaac's shoulder; he himself carried the fire and the knife, and the two of them went on together. Isaac said to Abraham 'Father', and he answered, 'What is it, my son?' Isaac said, 'Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the young beast for the sacrifice?' Abraham answered, God will provide himself with a young beast for the sacrifice, my son.'  And the two of them went on together until they came to the place of which God had spoken. There Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. Then he stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son; but the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, 'Abraham, Abraham.' He answered, 'Here I am.' The angel of the Lord said, 'Do not raise your hand against the boy; do not touch him. Now I know that you are a God-fearing man. You have not withheld from me your son, your only son.' Abraham looked up, and there he saw a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. So he went and took the ram and offered it as a sacrifice instead of his son.

I can't be certain about this. I have a vague childhood memory of Evelyn having painted something to do with this story, but nothing more.

After Evelyn's death in May, 1960, Roger gradually dismantled her studio and the adjacent store, which I remember contained some 30-40 canvases (some may have been blank) and many portfolios of drawings, water colours, pastels and sketches, most of which have since disappeared. Roger re-married in 1961, by which time studio and store had been virtually cleared of any physical memory of Evelyn. Autumn and the Poet was given by Roger to his sister Joan (my mother) as a memento of a very rich and affectionate sister-in-law relationship, maybe particularly because my mother had been closely involved with the inception and progress of the painting since about 1947: much of the information about it here came from her. She kept it until 2004, when it was slightly damaged by smoke in a house fire. Members of the family paid for its restoration in time for its inclusion in the centenary exhibition of Evelyn's work at the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, in Lymington, Hampshire, in 2006. This exhibition was curated by Dr Gill Clarke, whose biography Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country was published simultaneously.

Autumn and the Poet exhibited at St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire, September 2006. Standing next to the painting, with various members of the family, is Roger Folley, then aged 94, who made the inauguration speech. (Author's photograph.)

After the exhibition it was returned to the family for some years until it was sold recently. In a sense I have lived with Autumn and the Poet for most of my life. For me it represents the culmination of Evelyn's work. All that she believed, all that made her an early protagonist of Green values before the term was applied so widely and loosely, all her many husbandry paintings are summarised and crowned here. I believe this is very great painting which, like many outstanding works of art, is to be interpreted on several levels, as an allegory, as an exaltation of Creation, as a declaration of Evelyn's love and admiration for her husband. Some may see a political statement in it, as in many of Evelyn's paintings, where neatly organised and disciplined fields and plantations are a metaphor for certain types of social control.

Some may see Autumn and the Poet as the greatest work of an artist whose draughtmanship was exemplary, whose sense of design and colour was consummate, whose vision reached beyond the horizon, whose artistic comportment was unfailingly cheerful, down to earth and unsentimental, whose stance was persuasive rather than coercive and whose work, while never disregarding sometimes painful truths, nevertheless speaks to our better natures, warms us to this world and leaves us feeling glad to part of it. Autumn and the Poet is all these things and more, including a discreet but terrible warning about the abuse, violation and destruction of our planet.

(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2013. All rights reserved.)


Would you like to read more?

EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is now available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Christmas Cards 1956-59

Evelyn Dunbar Christmas Card 1956
  © Estate of Evelyn Dunbar: private collection

These images should enlarge if you click on them

Maybe the title of Evelyn's and her husband Roger's Christmas card for 1956, not one of their best, speaks - rather obscurely - to all who have ever been pushed to finish their Christmas mail on time:

Eleventh Hour

Time presses: that's the modern slant
On doing only what you want.
Comes Christmas: here's the need to grant
A waiver for the expectant.
Conspirators that subjugate
Submit to man's apostolate.

The card, showing a man, probably Roger, deep in thought, and Evelyn has added 'What greeting from R and E?

Evelyn Dunbar Christmas Card 1957
  © Estate of Evelyn Dunbar: private collection

All that remains of their 1957 card is the sketch Evelyn made to accompany Roger's verse, which refers to one of his professional visits to the Caribbean as a member of HM Government's Commission to the Citrus Industry:

White is the skin and white the sand
that burns beneath the sun
Brown is the earth and brown the hand
that nurtures everyone
white-and-brown are the eyes that scan
the destiny of man

I've remarked before before how useful these Christmas cards are to the biographer, even at the level of this catalogue raisonné. In the summer of 1957, while Roger was in the Caribbean, Evelyn was working sporadically at Bletchley Park Training College on an abortive mural project, which was later downsized to the Alpha and Omega panels. Among the pressures that led to Evelyn downsizing this project was that their lease on The Elms, where they had lived since 1950, was due to expire before the end of the year.

Under pressure, and with Roger still on the other side of the Atlantic, Evelyn opted for a modern house in the village of Wye, formerly a vicarage. I remember discussing with Evelyn what they should call it. We made a list of more or less fanciful words reflecting the red-brown brick colour of their new house: 'sinoper', 'bole', 'russet', 'madder' (fairly quickly crossed out), 'reddle', and more. Eventually - maybe Roger called time on this - they settled for 'tan', and Tan House it became. They weren't happy there: 'It was our one mistake,' Roger recalled in Evelyn Dunbar: The Husband's Narrative, the unpublished account of their marriage which he produced in 2007, the year before he died. 'Strangely, we did not flourish there.'

Evelyn Dunbar Christmas Card 1958
  © Estate of Evelyn Dunbar: private collection

By 1958 Roger and Evelyn, having realised the limitations of Tan House (where there was no studio), moved to a farmhouse called Staple Farm, some 300' (90m) up on the North Downs a few miles from Wye. (Here there was a studio, perhaps the best she ever had.)

Evelyn's drawing shows a winged figure holding up a scroll featuring all the houses they had lived in. At the top is Vyner's Cottage, Long Compton, Warwickshire; next down is The Manor House, Enstone, Oxfordshire (these two appeared on their Christmas cards for 1945 and 1949 respectively); then, having moved to Kent, The Elms, Hinxhill, which now looks like this:

The Elms, Hinxhill. Evelyn's studio was between the front door and the conservatory, which she and Roger called the 'vigne'. This was where my portrait was painted in 1954. The conservatory appears to have been replaced and enlarged since then.

Then Tan House, a modern single storey house. Evelyn has very cleverly included in her vignette the Wye Crown on the hill behind the house. This is the outline of a crown cut in the chalk of the North Downs, which I believe was done to commemorate the accession of Edward VII in 1902. It's a well-known feature of the area.

And finally, at the foot of the scroll, Staple Farm, Hastingleigh.

Roger's double-rhymed verse, Chez Tous, mentions features of all the houses they'd lived in together:

Roofs of thatch, roofs of slate,
Lift the latch, come back late,
Walls of brick, walls of stone,
Cut bread thick, gnaw a bone;
Floors of wood, floors of tile,
Change the mood, drop the smile,
Ceilings high, ceilings low,
Needles ply, watch a show;
Helios, Mister Therm,
Play the boss, loose the perm;
Boulevards, country lane,
Show your cards, spare the cane;
Central heat, open fire,
Toast the feet, then retire;
Tile-hung or white stucco....
Homeward for rest we go.

Evelyn Dunbar Christmas Card 1959
  © Estate of Evelyn Dunbar: private collection

This was the last Christmas card Roger and Evelyn sent jointly. By the following May she was dead. Roger's double-sided verse is reflected in Evelyn's dark and quite obscure double-sided image. The left side shows two 11- or 12-year-old boys teetering on walls or rolling and piling logs, which presumably Roger has cut with the saw on the extreme right of the image. On the right, the same two boys are shown inelegantly asprawl on the hearthrug in front of the large open fire at Staple Farm.

We've met both these boys before: the dark-haired lad stooping over a log on the left is Roger's and Evelyn's nephew (and my half-brother) Richard, and the other is Barry Paterson, one of the two boys whom Evelyn enjoyed taking in from time to time during the last two years of her life from the Caldecott Community, a nearby children's home. Two years earlier Barry had been the model for Alpha in Evelyn's Alpha and Omega panels for Bletchley Park Training College.

Roger's verse reads:


See them outside, bole and boy,
Crumbling, tumbling,
Idle; vital.
See them inside, boy and bole.
Cumbent, lambent,
Lazing; blazing.
Change of place reverses role,
Restful, zestful boy or bole.

(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2013. All rights reserved.)

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Brockley Murals (1933-36) Part 2: Ceiling, lunettes and spandrels (4)

Evelyn Dunbar and Charles Mahoney: The Brockley Murals The central ceiling panel (Author's photograph)

By June 1935 only Evelyn remained of the original team of four artists responsible for the Brockley Mural project. Violet Martin and Mildred Eldridge had each completed their panel on the south side of the main hall (where they are gradually fading because of their exposure to the sun, and will have disappeared in 20 years' time unless protective measures are taken). Charles Mahoney, Royal College of Art tutor and project leader, had finished two panels on the north side of the hall. Beneath the gallery he had also completed the lunette (The Butterfly and the Rose) and its adjacent twin spandrels (The Clock and the Dial) and two ceiling panels, one featuring the flight of birds and butterflies and the other of kites. His final contribution, possibly shared with Evelyn, was the trompe l'oeil plaster work, in the style of the Scottish designer Robert Adam, on the central ceiling panel.

Evelyn had finished her hall panel, The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk, the great Hilly Fields frieze, the sub-gallery lunette The Cock and the Jewel and several of the spandrels surrounding it, mostly suggestive of Spring. I don't know the exact order in which Evelyn painted her spandrels, and maybe it doesn't matter much. I imagine that no muralists of Mahoney's or Evelyn's standards, particularly in a joint venture, would ever dream of abandoning the top-down principle of wall painting, shared by muralists and interior decorators alike: however attached to each other they may have been, Evelyn would have had something to say if Mahoney's ceiling work had left splashes on her completed, and meticulously careful, spandrels beneath.

So we can assume that Mahoney's ceilings came first, and Evelyn's spandrels followed. I can't see much point in trying to reconstruct in detail which ceilings were done when. My private opinion is that the birds-and-butterflies ceiling, at the far end of the gallery, was finished first, allowing Evelyn to get on with The Cock and the Jewel lunette and the 'Spring' spandrels', featured here: second was the kite-flying ceiling inside and above the hall door, giving the all-clear to Evelyn's more autumnal series, which I wrote about here, in which some of her spandrel strands actually trespass upwards into Mahoney's ceiling. And finally, most probably in May 1935, Evelyn and Mahoney jointly started on the false plasterwork and four roundels of the central ceiling, as cartooned by Evelyn in two of her illustrated letters to Mahoney, which we've seen before. And we arrive at the phenomenon, for which I'm sure there's a polysyllabic historiographical term, of dating the letter (Evelyn rarely dated her letters) from the painting rather than the painting from the letter.

Evelyn Dunbar: excerpts from letters to Charles Mahoney, September/October 1935

From the first of Evelyn's cartoons above and from Mahoney's study below, it seems that originally both of them were going to fill the roundels with designs to be called The Four Winds of Hilly Fields. At some stage, probably when Evelyn took over sole responsibility for the roundels, she chose subjects more in keeping with the overall Brockley concept of Aesop's fables, using human figures in contrast to the animals, insects and inanimate objects predominate in her spandrels. The three figures in the top right-hand roundel in Mahoney's study below may possibly prefigure the trio that became Genius, Virtue and Reputation under Evelyn's brush.

Charles Mahoney The Brockley Murals: Study for the Adam-style trompe l'oeil plasterwork in the central ceiling panel, c.1934-35. Image by courtesy of, and with thanks to, Paul Liss of Liss Fine Art.

For whatever reason, in all probability the pressure of his work at the Royal College of Art, by the end of May 1935 Mahoney had withdrawn from any further active part in the Brockley project, leaving the completion of the roundels to Evelyn. I wouldn't like to think that they fell out over this ceiling, but I can imagine the patience of each being severely tried with the tediously repetitious task of filling in the hachuring on the borders of each roundel. It's inconceivable that they both worked simultaneously on this ceiling: Mahoney was over 6' (>180cm) tall, and would have had to crouch most uncomfortably on the scaffolding to allow Evelyn at 5' 6" (167cm) to reach the ceiling at all. The upper of Evelyn's two drawings above suggests an amusing way round this difficulty, maybe with a subtext about the nuisance to the school of constantly having trestles and ladders in place in a busy thoroughfare.

The result of Mahoney's withdrawal was some of the most stunning and technically brilliant painting ever to come from Evelyn's brush, and something with which I suspect Mahoney would have found it hard to compete.

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals Juno and the Peacock
 Photograph: Richard Valencia
Photo copyright © Christopher Campbell-Howes

A collector and translator of fables so far unrepresented in these essays is William Caxton, a man of Kent otherwise known as the Father of English Printing, who was born in the early 15th century and who died in about 1492. Here is his version of Juno and the Peacock:

Of Iuno the goddesse and of the pecok and of the nyghtyngale

Every one oughte to be content of kynde
And of suche good as god hath sente vnto hym;
Wherof he must vse Iustly
As reherceth this fable of a pecok, whiche came to Iuno the goddesse
And sayd to her 'I am heuy and sorowful
By cause I can not synge as wel as the nyghtyngale;
For euery one mocketh and scorneth me
By cause I can not synge.'
And Iuno wold comforte hym and sayd
'Thy fayre forme and beaute is fayrer and more worthy and of gretter preysynge than the songe of the nyghtyngale,
For thy fethers and thy colour ben resplendysshyng as the precious Emerawd,
And ther is no byrde lyke to thy fethers ne to thy beaulte.'
And the pecok sayd thenne to Iuno
'All this is nought syth I cannot synge.'
And thenne Iuno sayd ageyne thus to the pecok for to contente hym:
'This is in the diposycion of the goddes
Whiche haue gyuen to eyther of yow one propyrte, and one vertue,
Suche as it pleasyd them.
As to thee they haue gyuen fayr fygure,
To the egle haue they gyuen strengthe,
And to the nyghtyngale fayr & playsaunt songe;
And so to all other byrdes,
Wherfore euery one must be content of that that he hath.'

For the myserable auarycious the more goodes that they haue the more they desyre to haue.

[Everyone ought to be content with their kind
And of such quality as god has given him;
Which he must employ appropriately,
As witness this fable of a peacock, which came to the goddess Juno
And said to her 'I am heavy [with grief] and sorrowful
Because I can't sing as well as the nightingale;
For everyone mocks and scorns me
Because I can't sing.'
And Juno wanted to comfort him and said
'Your fair appearance and your beauty is more splendid and more worthy and more greatly to be praised than the song of the nightingale,
For your feathers and your colour are as resplendent as the precious emerald,
And there is no bird with plumage or beauty like yours.'
And the peacock then said to Juno
'All this is nothing if I can't sing.'
Then Juno said to him again, to make him more content,
'These things are at the disposition of the gods
Which gave to each of you one characteristic and one quality
As it seemed good to them.
Just as they gave you a beautiful appearance
So they gave the eagle strength
And the nightingale a fine and pleasant song;
And so on to all the other birds,
So everyone must be content with what he has.

For the miserly avaricious, the more goods they have, the more they desire to have.]

Evelyn has given us a Juno, who was after all the consort of Jupiter and thus queen of the Roman gods, with a splendidly homely appearance while assigning her an Olympian sky to fill in the grand High Renaissance or Baroque manner of Titian or Tiepolo. Evelyn's skill with Juno's foreshortening and the hang of her skirts, preventing any possible up-skirt lèse-majesté, is nothing less than Olympian too, especially considering that the goddess is wearing simple slippers, a voluminous red dress, a pale café-au-lait woolly cardigan with white edges and an extraordinary red and white scarf which almost hides a garland of what look like bay leaves. There's nothing especially regal about her face, either: the Queen of the Gods might be a favourite aunt.

(Curiously, Evelyn does much the same with a much later painting, Oxford of about 1948, where she dresses the goddess Isis - whom some equate with Juno - in similarly homely clothing.)

Her peacock is magnificent. He is sitting peaceably on Juno's right wrist, turning his crested head towards Juno to screech his complaint and to hear her discouraging reply. Evelyn has captured the wonderful peacock blue/green, and for the better balance of the composition has chosen wisely not to show the peacock with his tail fanned out in display (when, incidentally, you see how ragged peacock's tail feathers become after being dragged about in the dirt most of the time). The roundel is completed with a few trees and the suggestion of a cottage.

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals Industry and Sloth
Photograph: Richard Valencia
Photo copyright © Christopher Campbell-Howes

Moving clockwise from Juno and the Peacock, noting that the heads in all four roundels point more or less towards the central and very utilitarian light fitting, we come to Industry and Sloth. Here is Thomas Bewick's account of this fable:

Our term of life does not allow for long protracted deliberations

How many live in the world as useless as if they had never been born! They pass through life like a bird through the air, and leave no track behind them; waste the prime of their days in deliberating what they shall do, and bring them to a period without coming to any determination.
    An indolent young man, being asked why he lay in bed so long, jocosely and carelessly answered, Every morning of my life I am hearing causes. I have two fine girls, their names are Industry and Sloth, close at my bedside as soon as ever I awake, pressing their different suits. One instructs me to get up, the other persuades me to lie still; and then they alternately give me various reasons why I should rise, and why I should not. This detains me so long, as it is the duty of an impartial judge to hear all that can be said on either side, that before the pleadings are over, it is time to go to dinner.

Thomas Bewick: Industry and Sloth

It would be a pity to quote Thomas Bewick at length without including one of the woodcuts for which he's better known: here is his illustration to Industry and Sloth. The young man of the fable, who reminds me strongly of Ilya Ilyich Oblomov in Goncharov's novel Oblomov (I have Evelyn's copy), has slung his unpressed suit on to what you might call a chairdrobe, has not bothered to conceal the chamber pot under the bed, and is attended by his 'two fine girls', one of whom seems set on keeping him in bed without much recourse to long protracted deliberations.

Evelyn's interpretation, in a marvellously balanced composition, is rather different from Bewick's. Industry is the busy figure in the front, dressed in bluey-green with a white pinafore and a curious brown sash that I can't quite explain. She's wearing sensible Mary-Jane shoes and has a sort of mob cap. She's looking out of the roundel frame, indeed her stance suggests plunging out of the confines of the ceiling altogether, as though what lies within it is not enough to contain her energies, while her clothes fan out behind her in the slipstream of her busy-ness.

Sloth, on the other hand, is more gorgeously dressed in red, with a long white cardigan, or bed-jacket, even, with scalloped edges. She isn't going far, if anywhere at all, because she's barefoot, and barely awake: she's yawning, her eyes are closed, an arm that might otherwise be active is pinned behind her head, the hand disappearing into a vast mop of hair that she hasn't bothered to cut or comb, reminiscent of Struwwelpeter.

Below the two figures Evelyn has done a remarkable and really quite startling and unexpected thing: she's put in a succession of electricity pylons. This is a very far cry from anything else in the Brockley murals. So far Evelyn and her Brockley colleagues have invoked a pastoral, generally timeless and very English world, very much of its mid-30s period: maybe we should explore what has led Evelyn to include these foreign bodies.

The novelist Evelyn Waugh, of the same generation as Evelyn, published his second novel Vile Bodies in 1930. (Evelyn (Dunbar) and her husband Roger had Vile Bodies on their bookshelves: it was Evelyn who introduced me to Waugh.) Towards the end of Vile Bodies Ginger Littlejohn and his bride Nina are flying to the Mediterranean for their honeymoon. As they take off into the English sky, moved by the view below, Ginger shouts above the roar of the aircraft engines excerpts from John of Gaunt's great access of patriotic nostalgia in Shakespeare's Richard II: This sceptre'd isle, this earth of majesty, this [he can't quite remember it] something-or-other Eden...this little world, this precious stone set in a silver sea...this blessed plot, and so on. And Waugh continues:

Nina looked down and saw inclined at an odd angle a horizon of straggling red suburb; arterial roads dotted with little cars; factories, some of them working, others empty and decaying; a disused canal; some distant hills sown with bungalows; wireless masts and overhead power cables; men and women were indiscernible except as tiny spots [...]

In June 1935, at the very moment, maybe, when Evelyn was painting Industry and Sloth and the other roundels, Stanley Baldwin became Prime Minister for the third time. Born and bred in Worcestershire, among the more rural of English counties, he was a politician of visions as irreconcilable as Ginger Littlejohn's and Nina's above. He promoted an ideal of countryside as representing the backbone moral resource of Britain, yet he was the man who in 1926 instigated the Central Electricity Board, which a few years later sent high-tension pylons marching across the very green and pleasant land he himself idealised.

The study of the concepts of country and countryside in Britain after the First World War is long winding garden path, and one that I don't want to be lured too far up here. Many of Evelyn's contemporaries - Edward Bawden, Kenneth Rowntree, Eric Ravilious, John Piper, Duncan Grant, Mahoney himself, the list is endless - wandered contentedly up and down it, wittingly or unwittingly fleshing out a paradisal otherwhere for an increasingly urbanised and economically depressed 1930s society, the one Nina Littlejohn sees from above. (And promptly feels sick.)

Did they hear the approaching march of what are sometimes called the Pylon Poets? Auden is there, and Stephen Spender, among a host of minor poets, some trying hard to reconcile the rape of the countryside with the advantages of an inexpensive and universal electricity supply. Attitudes to wind farms maybe aren't very different today. Here is Stephen Spender's 1933 poem The Pylons:

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made,
And crumbling roads
That turned on sudden hidden villages

Now over these small hills, they have built the concrete
That trails black wire
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret.

The valley with its gilt and evening look
And the green chestnut
Of customary root,
Are mocked dry like the parched bed of a brook.

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning's danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek
So tall with prophecy
Dreaming of cities
Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck.

Evelyn has exactly reproduced the pylons described by Spender, a design created by the architect Sir Reginald Blomfield, who also designed Lambeth Bridge and the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres. Blomfield modelled the shape and proportions of his tapering, latticed pylons on ancient Egyptian temple doorways, taking the classical Greek word πυλος, pylos, for such entrances as their name. In the early 1930s such pylons criss-crossed Britain, evoking anger, jokes in Punch, letters to The Times, health scares and demonstrations in much the same way as wind farms do today. Aesthetically, maybe they made the most of a bad job, but no one apart from the most hardened brutalist could say that they were objects of beauty.

So what is Evelyn doing? In asking the question we can stir into the mix the telegraph poles in the next roundel, Genius, Virtue and Reputation and the railway gantries in the last, and to my mind most Evelynish, roundel, Minerva and the Olive Tree, and all three are references to the contemporary modernisation of Britain. Evelyn's roundels evoke in their miniaturised way Classical deities and personifications and religious scenes, of the sort you see painted on the pseudo-celestial ceilings of 17th and 18th century palaces, Versailles or the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, to take two random examples, and Catholic churches of the period almost anywhere.

Johann Michael Rottmayr (1656-1730): detail of fresco in the dome of the Karlskirche, Vienna, 1714 (Photo: Josephine Campbell-Howes)

I've chosen the Karlskirche in Vienna out of hundreds of examples, not through any outstanding artistic merit but because on visiting the church on a cold morning in January 2013 my wife and I discovered that an extensive restoration programme was taking place. Wonder of wonders, among the technical installations was a lift, available to the public, which whirred and whisked us up to a viewing platform vertiginously high inside the dome, literally up into the gods, enabling us to take close-up and level photos of Rottmayr's vision of celestial shenanigans rather than craning our necks from far below. In the lower half of this fresco a bare-breasted angel with a flaming torch is setting fire to the books of some well-intentioned proto-Reformation character, probably the Czech Jan Huss, while the Whore of Babylon (what can they have had to say to each other?) clutches her takings behind her mask and Lucifer allows serpents to make free with his body. How very English Evelyn's figures appear by comparison.

So in her modest style and scale Evelyn has created her roundels within the Baroque tradition of ceilings decorated with figures that are supposed to have some power or influence over us mortals below. Or maybe figures that offer us some protection or reward in return for our obedience and subservience. Evelyn has nudged this notion into the 20th century by including in her roundels something controversial but very much of her time. She's giving the viewer a gentle reminder that the wisdom of the ages is just as relevant now as it was when Aesop invented his little moral stories.

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals Genius, Virtue and Reputation
Photograph: Richard Valencia
Photo copyright © Christopher Campbell-Howes

Diagonally opposite from Industry and Sloth is Genius, Virtue and Reputation. I take the original fable again from Thomas Bewick, noting on the way that of the 141 Bewick fables, Evelyn and Mahoney chose to depict no less than five out of the first eleven. Bewick has localised the fable, setting it in Britain, in much the same way as Evelyn, via her telegraph poles, has set her roundel in the 1930s.

Genius, Virtue and Reputation, three intimate friends, agreed to travel over the island of Great Britain, to see whatever might be worthy of observation. But as some misfortune, said they, may happen to separate us, let us consider before we set out by what means we may find each other again.
    Should it be my ill-fortune, said Genius, to be severed from you, my associates - which Heaven forbid! - you may find me kneeling in devotion before the tomb of Shakespear, or rapt in some grove where Milton talked with angels, or musing in the grotto where Pope caught inspiration.
    Virtue, with a sigh, acknowledged that her friends were not very numerous; but were I to lose you, she cried, with whom I am at present so happily united, I should choose to take sanctuary in the temples of religion, in the palaces of royalty, or in the stately domes of ministers of state; but as it may be my ill-fortune to be there denied admittance, inquire rather for some cottage where contentment has a bower, and there you will certainly find me.
    Ah! my dear companions, said Reputation, very earnestly, you, I perceive, when missing, may possibly be recovered; but take care I entreat you, always to keep sight of me, for if once I am lost, I am never to be retrieved.

I try to put myself into the position of a boy from Brockley County School looking up at this, maybe while queueing at the service hatch below for his school dinner, and wondering what on earth is going on. He would undoubtedly recognise the marching column of telegraph poles, he might be able to tell us that as a result his house was now 'on the telephone' with a now unimaginably simple number like Brockley 28 and that all calls went through a manual operator at the local telephone exchange whose principal utterance, after having asked which number you wanted, was "trying to connect you", but otherwise I suspect complete mystification. That the three female figures are holding hands would have further perplexed him.

We can guess that Genius, Virtue and Reputation - a magnificent composition again - have linked hands to reduce the risk of them losing each other. Which is which? I think Genius is the left-hand figure, dressed in a low cut but full-skirted creamy dress. Under her arm she is carrying a blank canvas, which no doubt Evelyn left blank deliberately. Who can invent a work supposedly by a genius without proclaiming him/herself to be similarly endowed? The majestic central figure, Virtue, wears a long green dress with an amazing red cloak, flaring out behind and encompassing the trio. Reputation, in a greeny-blue dress with a white trapeze jacket, is waving an admonitory finger, and this is curious because she is doing exactly the same in Bewick's rather workaday wood cut illustrating the fable.

 Thomas Bewick: Genius, Virtue and Reputation

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals Minerva and the Olive Tree
Photograph: Richard Valencia
Photo copyright © Christopher Campbell-Howes

So we come to the last roundel and the last of Evelyn's contributions to the Brockley Murals. The subject doesn't appear in the Perry Index, a list of all the fables of Aesop. It comes from an ancient Greek foundation legend, so I suppose the deity in question really ought to be Pallas Athene, and not her Roman counterpart Minerva. There are various versions of it, but the gist of it is that in Athens at the time King Cecrops, which is roughly the same lost-in-the-mists-of-time period as King Lear, King Lud or even Old King Cole, Zeus invited the gods to make a gift to the city of Athens, one by which the city would prosper. Only two gods took part, Poseidon, god of the sea, and Pallas Athene, goddess of wisdom.

The legends differ over what Poseidon's gift was: a horse, the wind, a spring, which turned out to be salt. Pallas Athene gave the city an olive tree, claiming that her gift would provide food, shelter and fuel. Zeus - or King Cecrops - judged this to be the more useful gift, and awarded Pallas Athene patronage of the city, henceforth to be called Athens after her. The legend is remembered, for what it's worth, on the Greek 1 Euro coin, which features Pallas Athene's emblem, the little owl (Athene noctua) and an olive on a small olive branch.
Greek 1 Euro coin

At last at the end of this long Brockley journey we arrive at Evelyn's true credo, one that shaped her painting from the start in Winter Garden to the very end, Jacob's Dream, and which was bound up with the Christian Science that eventually became a bone of contention between Evelyn and Mahoney. It was this guiding philosophy which tended to distance Evelyn from her contemporaries. This is the notion of a generous and beneficent higher power - the Creator, or god, goddess (as in this case), Mother Earth, Gaia, what you will - providing humanity with something endlessly useful and sustaining. In most of Evelyn's work I describe this as the Covenant, because it usually takes the form of a contract between the Creator and humankind, whereby in return for humankind's promise to love and cherish the gift, the Creator promises an endlessly productive and abundant earth. Evelyn's countryside isn't just to be looked at, it's to be worked and loved in equal measure.

Here then is Minerva or Pallas Athene apparently struggling with her gift, an olive tree, among the gantries associated with railways, the lattice steel frames for mounting signals on, and the ancient legend has been magically transported by Evelyn's brush from pre-Classical Greece to the industrial British here and now of 1935.

A final word on the ensemble of the Brockley Murals. The premises now housing the murals is now the flourishing Sixth Form Centre of Prendergast-Hilly Fields College. As such the murals are not on display to the public. Some guarantee of their preservation was given when the building and the murals within it were listed in 1992, putting some onus of protection on the building's owners. At that time some repair work was done to Evelyn's panel The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk. As mentioned above, two of the hall panels are gradually disappearing because of exposure to sunlight, and will disappear altogether in a few years' time unless they are protected. The same is true to some extent of Evelyn's great Hilly Fields frieze, which spans the width of the hall facing the light: the colours, I feel certain, which were once as vibrant as those under the more shaded gallery, are beginning to fade. It would be matter of the most shameful, if inadvertent, vandalism to allow some the greatest murals of the 20th century to decay and die.

(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2013. All rights reserved.)

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