Thursday, 10 January 2013

Oxford (?1948)

Evelyn Dunbar Oxford ?1948 Private ownership, image courtesy of Sim Fine Art

Oxford was perhaps the third of a succession of allegorical subjects painted by Evelyn in the immediate post-war years 1946-50. During this period she and her husband Roger lived firstly at Long Compton, in Warwickshire, and then at Enstone, in Oxfordshire. Their involvement with Oxford University grew steadily in these years, Roger working with the Oxford University Economic Research Institute and Evelyn teaching at the Oxford  School of Art and, from 1948, at the Ruskin School.

Probably the earliest of the three allegories was the now lost Mercatora, of which the subject, which owed something to Roger's wartime experiences in the RAF, was navigation. Dorset came next, followed by Oxford, although this ordering is based on a mere mention by Roger associating Dorset with Long Compton, which they left in 1947.

A full oil sketch for a fourth allegory was started at Enstone, towards the end of their stay there. Entitled The Poet Surprised by Autumn, it was the forerunner of her greatest painting, Autumn and the Poet of 1960. If I include in this catalogue two Biblical allegories from this period, Joseph in the Pit and Joseph Released from Prison, both of which are in unknown private ownership, it's clear that Evelyn found allegory a very powerful vehicle of expression.

Evelyn Dunbar The Poet Surprised by Autumn 1949 Private collection

So where is the allegory in Oxford, and who is the figure in Evelyn's painting? She looks reasonably contemporary, someone who might not have merited a second glance if you'd passed her in the streets of Oxford in 1948, although fashionistas might raise an eyebrow at her garb, even in Oxford. In fact, she's much, much older, older than the water-meadow on which she sits, older than time immemorial. Who is she, and why has Evelyn chosen to dress her in those really quite bizarre clothes, and in those particular colours?

It came to me as something of a spine-tingling discovery that there's an acceptably precise description of her in a passage from Apuleius' The Golden Ass, a long picaresque novel written in Latin in about AD170. Before developing this idea I'm bound to say that never in any conversation or correspondence with Evelyn or Roger do I remember either making any reference to this connection. Always wary of making unsupported assumptions, however hard I might will them to be true, I would - with regret - have dismissed any connection between Apuleius and Evelyn if it wasn't for two confirmatory factors.

The first is the name of that stretch of the river Thames that flows through Oxford, and the second is the nature and purpose of Evelyn's figure as Apuleius describes it.

For all its barrel-scraping The Golden Ass is deeply religious book, with death, redemption and rebirth as its underlying theme. Through inept meddling in the black arts the hero, Lucius, inadvertently turns his body into a donkey, while retaining his own mind. After a string of uncomfortable adventures he realises there is only one power capable of turning him back, the goddess Isis. He addresses a heartfelt prayer to her, and she makes herself visible to him. He describes her appearance fully, her stature, her long hair, her golden tunic with white collar, her red skirt, her slippers, her blue-black mantle. There are other accoutrements, jewels, weapons and symbols that you might expect an originally Egyptian deity to be adorned with.

Isis introduces herself as Mother Nature, Woman, mistress of the elements, the first, the only and original deity. Clearly, she's got the whole wide world in her hands. She's known by many names, Artemis, Aphrodite, Proserpine, Ceres, Juno and more, but her real name is Queen Isis. She makes a condition: if Lucius wishes to be re-created into his original human shape, he must dedicate himself to her service until his last hour. Lucius accepts.

Had Apuleius been writing two or three hundred years later, when the cult of the Virgin Mary was making its first stirrings, he might well have included her in the list of Isis' aliases. In the history of religions, Christianity is a comparative newcomer. Swathes of more or less sophisticated religions preceded Christianity, or were taken over by it. Nor, apparently, did Apuleius know anything about the Jewish tradition, or he could well have included Eve - which means 'life' - in the list. The theologian Geoffrey Ashe doesn't have much trouble in conflating Isis in her various guises, particularly as a timelessly ancient pagan goddess, with the Holy Mother of God, Eve, and the Virgin herself.¹

The more you go into this, the more you become aware, if you didn't realise it already, that from the earliest dawnings of humanity people have needed some concept of a supernatural being, or spirit, or invisible presence, responsible for the created world, something endlessly beneficent, whose favour can be earned by reciprocal promises of love and service. Motherhood, which we all know and mostly respect, is the nearest tangible, day-to-day experience of this, and it's not surprising that Isis introduces herself to Lucius as Mother Nature. Goethe, in his play Faust, calls this elemental quality das Ewigweibliche, the ever-womanly. Evelyn would have had no problem with this deity being a woman. Nor with her ordinariness, or even dowdiness, in this painting: her power needs no reinforcement with jewels or finery.

Isis offers the same conditional guarantees to Lucius as the Old Testament Jehovah offers to Abraham and his descendants, especially Joseph, in Genesis: the same promise of an endlessly abundant and bountiful Creation, in return for the same devotion to it and its Creator - or Creatress, in this case. This is the constant thread through Evelyn's life and work, which I've called the Covenant in these essays.

Evelyn has had to compromise with the figure of Mother Earth, Gaia, Ceres, Isis, whatever you prefer to call her, in order to be able to extend her lap and her thighs to accommodate the maquette of Oxford University on her lap, so placed adjacent to her womb as to suggest that she has given birth and therefore assumes the role of mother and protectress. The dreaming spires are only vaguely identifiable: Evelyn has stylised them. Oxonians and devotees of the TV series Inspector Morse or its successor Lewis may argue endlessly over them. The outer coat of her mantle - another visual pun suggesting the mantle of Isis, maybe that of the Virgin Mary, whose cloak is traditionally blue - is of Oxford blue. Raised in protection of her creation, its angle and that of her right forearm echo the shape and endorse the purpose of the spires below, themselves conceived by their mediaeval architects as fingers pointing to heaven.

In the shadow of one of those spires, somewhere in the body of the university, Roger is working in the Economic Research Institute, the self-styled Cerebrant whom we saw, as painted by Evelyn, among his books in his study at The Manor House, Enstone, in the previous post. Roger had left Leeds University in 1936 after four years' study with two degrees, B.Sc (Hons) and, by special dispensation of the Senate, B.Comm. Between graduating and taking up his first post as Costings Officer at Sparsholt Farm Institute, where he met Evelyn in 1940, he worked on various farms in his native Lancashire and in the Cotswolds, with such aptitude and energy that he could claim, much later, that by his twentieth year he was managing a 250-hectare farm.² (It's possible that this farm, on the Gloucestershire uplands, was the setting for Evelyn's Singling Turnips.)

If you google 'R R W Folley' an immense list of Roger's publications appears. Most are professional papers, with the occasional article thrown in. His three major publications, Tomatoes the Dutch Way, The Economics of a Fruit Farm and Intensive Crop Economics feature here and there in the Google second-hand booksellers' lists. Most of his publications appeared after he left Oxford in 1950 to live in Kent and work at Wye College, then the agricultural research campus of Imperial College, London, between Ashford and Canterbury. At the time when Evelyn was painting Oxford, Roger was on the first rungs of the ladder leading to agricultural economics being recognised internationally as an academic discipline, and he himself as one of its leading exponents.

If you compare the background landscape of Oxford with Evelyn's iconic painting Joseph's Dream, the key to so many of her beliefs, the similarities are obvious. Although Oxford is less finished than Joseph's Dream, there are still the same neat orchards, trim hedges, carefully husbanded farmland. Ploughed fields, Evelyn's recurrent symbol of promise, take up the middle distance. The Covenant, the contract between mankind and nature, is in full operation. Roger has accepted the mantle of Joseph as the agent of the Covenant, and this is Evelyn's benediction, no less powerful for her invocation of the pagan deity Isis.

Oxford was never exhibited, to my knowledge, nor sold. At some stage it was given to a friend. It has only recently resurfaced.

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

¹ Geoffrey Ashe The Virgin Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd London 1976

² Roger Folley That's Farming,That Was Article in Wye College magazine 1991

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

No comments:

Post a comment