Monday, 18 February 2013

Alpha and Omega (1957)

Evelyn Dunbar Alpha and Omega (The Bletchley Panels) 1957 Oil on 5-plywood (2'8" x 4'3":  81 x 132cm) Oxford Brookes University, Wheatley Campus

In late 1956 Evelyn was commissioned by the Board of Governors of Bletchley Park Training College and Dora Cohen, the Principal and an influential figure in the world of teacher training, to design and execute a mural to decorate the new college assembly hall. Evelyn had been recommended by an old friend, Percy Horton, Master of Drawing at the Ruskin School at Oxford, where Evelyn had been a Visitor since the late 1940s.

It's unlikely that Evelyn, together with practically the entire British population, had the slightest inkling of the true recent identity of Bletchley Park. From 1938 and throughout World War 2 the premises had been one of several stations of the Government Code and Cypher School. The tenth to be established of such out-of-London centres, it was known within the GCCS as Station X. In Bletchley Park, a late Victorian mansion not far from Milton Keynes, in Buckinghamshire, and its satellite buildings the colossi of cryptography and codebreaking, Alan Turing, Harry Hinsley, Gordon Welchman, Mavis Lever, Hugh Alexander and others took giant steps towards winning the war in cracking the various military codes used by the Germans, among them the famous naval Enigma.

By 1948 every vestige of what had been an extremely secret operation had vanished, leaving the main house standing in a wasteland of weeds and camouflaged huts. Some £500-worth of restitution, including the fashioning of an ornamental pond out of a circular ground-level concrete tank holding water in case of fire, was needed to turn the site into a suitable premises for a teacher training college, for which there was a pressing need immediately after the war. Bletchley Park, for female students only, was the last teacher training college to be established under the Ministry of Education's Emergency Recruitment of Teachers scheme, and maybe Evelyn refers obliquely to this in the 'Omega' of her title.

Evelyn spent the first half of 1957 preparing a selection of some five oil and water-colour sketches for the College to choose from. There are in fact ten, but some are different versions of the same idea:

  Evelyn Dunbar: Preliminary sketches 1, 3 and 9 for Bletchley Park Training College mural, 1957: Oil and water-colour on paper: Oxford Brookes University, Wheatley Campus

Evelyn Dunbar: Preliminary sketches 2 and 4 for Bletchley Park Training College mural, 1957: Oil and water-colour on paper: Oxford Brookes University, Wheatley Campus

Evelyn Dunbar: Preliminary sketches 5 and 7 for Bletchley Park Training College mural, 1957: Oil and water-colour on paper: Oxford Brookes University, Wheatley Campus

One, an expanded version of 5 and 7, stands on its own:

Evelyn Dunbar: Preliminary sketch 6 for Bletchley Park Training College mural, 1957: Oil and water-colour on paper: Oxford Brookes University, Wheatley Campus

The final two are the richest in invention:
 Evelyn Dunbar: Preliminary sketches 8 and 10 for Bletchley Park Training College mural, 1957: Oil and water-colour on paper: Oxford Brookes University, Wheatley Campus

(Dimensions: Nos. 1 - 4: c10" x 17": c.26 x 43cm. Nos. 5 - 10: c.8" x 12": c.19.5 x 29cm)

After Evelyn's death in May 1960 Roger had Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 framed. They were shown at a London exhibition mounted the following October by the Society of Mural Painters, of which Evelyn had been a member since 1944. In due course the eventual owner, Oxford Brookes University, acquired the complete set. They can be seen on-line here, where my numbering follows the given sequence.

Because Evelyn's finished product turned out to be a linked pair of panels, it's sometimes assumed that the original mural commission was for two paired images. It's difficult to make a convincing complementary pairing of any of these sketches. Each design, in its various versions, stands on its own. I don't think Evelyn, at this stage, had any intention of creating a pair of images which would reflect the purpose of Bletchley Park Training College. Presumably a set of four, possibly five, I suspect Nos. 1, 4, 5 (with an alternative in 6) and 10, were submitted. One was chosen to decorate the new college hall. Unfortunately we will never know which one.

(My private idea is that Evelyn would have preferred No. 10. The design is extremely bold and the symbolism is inventive and arresting. There's a compelling left-right travel to it, typical of Evelyn. The trunk of a knotted or pollarded willow tree, symbol of wisdom, has fallen. It's rotten, no more than a husk, and the wisdom it once contained has disappeared, no matter how minutely the children explore it, sitting on it, lying on it, clambering over it, peering through where an empty branch of wisdom might have been. Two slightly older figures, both apparently girls, on the right are indicating that what the children are looking for lies out of the frame, to the right. In No.8, the red-coated girl is pulling her companion in that direction, in No.10 she is pointing. There is some new building going on in the left background, as there is in many of these sketches, maybe reflecting the building going on at Bletchley Park, maybe symbolising the personal building that learning brings with it. What a mural this would have made!)

Now we start to unravel a fascinating tangle. Curiously, I was more closely involved, although marginally, with Evelyn's Bletchley Park work than with anything else she painted. (I don't count sitting for my portrait.) In July or August 1957, when I was 15, Evelyn invited me to accompany her to Bletchley for a week, to help her mix her paints, as she put it, and possibly for company as well: at that time Roger was on the other side of the Atlantic, serving on a UK Government Commission into the citrus industry in the Windward Islands, a commitment that lasted several months. We drove to Bletchley in their half-timbered estate car, which devotees of Morris Oxfords of the period will remember with affection.

In middle of the long summer vacation the College was deserted. We had the place to ourselves. Evelyn showed me the scope of her project: a new assembly hall had recently been built, or integrated into existing premises. It was to be decorated with a large mural. There was no mention of Alpha and Omega. Evelyn's task that week was to cover the selected wall area, as far as I remember facing an extensive window area, with glue size, and then, when the size was dry, to start the preliminary squaring up and sketching in of the principal elements. Evelyn encouraged me to help with the sizing, and I remember working on trestles, which we gradually lowered as we worked down the wall, happily slapping on the size with a large wallpaper brush, maybe 9" wide.

Once the job was finished there was time to kill while the size dried. I remember going into Oxford, some 50 miles away, of which my chief memories are going to tea at the Randolph Hotel and visiting Worcester College to see Evelyn's Summer Eights.

There's not the slightest doubt in my mind that the original Bletchley project was  comparable in size to The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk, the mural which she contributed to the Brockley murals twenty years and more before. Evelyn had made several visits to Bletchley before our week there, and would return the following week to start painting in earnest, although I would not be with her. The deadline for completion was November 29th, 1957, when Princess Alexandra of Kent was due to open the new hall.

Open it Princess Alexandra did, and although Evelyn was present there was no mural to grace the scene. What had happened? 

Evelyn was 50 and probably already affected by the hardening of the arteries that caused her death three years later, although her Christian Science would not allow her to recognise this imperfection. However enthusiastic she might have been at the start of the project, I think she later recoiled from the prospect of several weeks' travel between Wye and Bletchley, or several weeks - months, even - staying with friends in Oxford. Her summers were also the occasion for the courses and summer schools she gave at The Elms, a much more convenient and less solitary way of earning for a middle-aged woman than clambering about on trestles and scaffolds. Although not yet officially opened, the hall was already in use, meaning that Evelyn's painting time was limited to the summer vacation. I think many things conspired to drive Evelyn to abandon the project, or at least to look for a compromise. It's possible that Evelyn found her own designs too banal to be of lasting interest, maybe with the exception of 8/10, which might have been too bold to please the commissioning body.

I don't know what factors may have led to delaying the start of the mural, but as 1957 advanced it all became a terrible and nail-biting scramble. The lease on The Elms expired at the year's end. With Roger away in the Caribbean, it fell to Evelyn alone to house-hunt. With misgivings Roger, now returned from the Caribbean, and Evelyn moved in November into what they called Tan House, an uninteresting house in Wye with no studio. 'It was our one mistake', Roger wrote in Evelyn Dunbar: The Husband's Narrative, a pamphlet he produced for private circulation in the wake of Gill Clarke's 2006 biography of Evelyn: 'Strangely, we did not flourish there.' They stayed there for less than a year.

There was another factor, and a new interest. A mile or two from The Elms, at a place called Mersham le Hatch, was the Caldecott Community, a children's home founded by a remarkable woman called Leila Rendel. She named her children's home, which she had founded in the East End of London in 1911 and which had been housed in various places before finally coming to rest in East Kent, after Randolph Caldecott, a late Victorian illustrator of children's and other books. Her guiding principles for the nurturing and raising of children centred on the notions of healthy minds in healthy bodies and above all consistency and stability in a caring and ordered environment.

Leila Rendel encouraged neighbours who might have something interesting or stimulating to offer to adopt - not in any formal sense - children from the Caldecott Community. In 1957 she approached Evelyn, who responded, as might be expected, very positively (Roger was less interested: his work took him for longer and longer periods abroad), and subsequently boys from Caldecott came to The Elms to stay for odd weekends and sometimes for longer, especially during school holidays. With Evelyn's particular magic with lively and intelligent 10- and 11-year-olds it worked extremely well. Only two boys were 'adopted' by Evelyn over the remaining three years of her life, and one of these was a lad called Barry Paterson. (As witness to the deep impression Evelyn made on Barry Paterson, he has remained a member of the little world of Dunbarians ever since. Robert, another Caldecott Community protégé, continues to hold a bright candle for Evelyn.)

Barry's arrival coincided, I believe, with a general re-think of Evelyn's Bletchley Park Training College commitment. The mural and any contract accompanying it was scrapped, and instead, after discussion with Dora Cohen and the Governors, it was decided that Evelyn would paint two panels, not for the hall but for the College library, where there were spaces above the two doors.

The design for the library panels was to be based on the College's emblem. This emblem consisted of a small hunting horn, originally the property of the first Vice-Principal (who also ran the library), folded in on itself to resemble something like a lower-case alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, α. The horn, occasionally used in some form of College student ritual or ceremony, in its 'alpha' shape was enclosed inside the last Greek alphabet letter, the womb-like upper-case omega, Ω. The motto of the College amplified the first-and-last meaning of the emblem, In my end is my beginning.

This motto has a direct association with a line in Revelation 22:13, almost at the very end of the Bible: I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. It tallies neatly with Evelyn's convictions, derived to a large extent from Genesis, the first book of the Bible, of the relationship between the Creator's promise to mankind of an endlessly abundant earth in return for mankind's undertaking to cherish it, and the cyclical nature of the seasons, seedtime and harvest, life and apparent death. (I write 'apparent' because in a cherished nature nothing dies: in any living thing the seeds of rebirth are present.)

A year earlier, in September 1956, Lt. Col. Noel Byam Grounds, the vice-chairman of  the College Board of Governors, had died. In due course the vice-chairman's widow, Anna Byam Grounds, donated £200 (nearly £2,700 at 2013 values) in memory of her husband's attachment to and work for the College. The governors put this sum towards Evelyn's fees, specifically for painting the two library panels. It would have been a reasonable fee for the panels, but a mediocre sum for the initially proposed mural.

Evelyn was given a free hand with the design, always within the Alpha and Omega concept of the College emblem. An earlier version of Alpha, probably made before Barry's appearance, shows a more prominent alpha-shape -

Evelyn Dunbar: Sketch for Alpha: Crayon and colour wash on paper: Private collection

- but has no suggestion of the trumpet-blowing boy leading his fellows towards better things away from the primeval sea and the foreshore.

Evelyn Dunbar Alpha 1957 Oil on 5-plywood (2' 8" x 4'3": 81 x 132cm) Oxford Brookes University, Wheatley Campus

We can imagine Evelyn starting Alpha in late August or early September 1957. As the now abandoned mural would not feature in the November 29th opening ceremony of the new College hall, there was no particular deadline for finishing the panels. Nevertheless Evelyn intended to complete them in time and have them on display.

Providentially Barry Paterson arrived in time to spur Evelyn's imagination and to model for Alpha. On the edge of the wider consciousness and awarenesses that come with adolescence, he has come furthest inland from the sea, origin of all life, leaving other children (although some look more adult) absorbed in activities of purposeless innocence on the beach. Alpha, with a staff to help him through the lush and untamed vegetation, is looking out of the frame, and we can't see the terrain he is about to enter, only that he's at the start of his exploration. He's carrying something instantly recognisable to the students - and staff - of Bletchley Park Training College: the little hunting horn belonging to Miss Hodgson, the Vice-Principal, with which Evelyn had maybe taken a little licence to form into the 'Alpha' shape mentioned earlier.

When Alpha has found what he's looking for, will he sound his horn, and will the companions he has left on the beach follow him? Will they abandon the extraordinary childish and uninformed, indeed futile, pastimes Evelyn has given them, shrimping in the air, trying to fly a kite by means of a horse, while someone unhelpfully clutches at the string? Having no wider outlook than one's own reflection in the central pond? (This is maybe a reference to the ornamental pond at Bletchley.)

 Evelyn Dunbar Omega 1957 Oil on 5-plywood (2' 8" x 4'3": 81 x 132cm) Oxford Brookes University, Wheatley Campus

The second panel, Omega, is less subtle. Alpha's staff, transformed into a stake to hold up the dahlias and black-eyed susans, appears on the right of the painting, so presumably he has found what he was looking for. 'Omega' is represented by a large hoop up which a climbing plant or fruit tree that I can't identify has been trained, tended by a gardener. The ladder has no top to it (we shall see another such ladder in Evelyn's final painting, Jacob's Dream of 1960): so there is no upward limit to mankind's aspirations. Within the ambit of the omega is a family of four sitting or standing on a garden seat, and I wonder if Evelyn has fast-forwarded Barry Paterson into fatherhood and the achievement of the enlightenment and wisdom relayed and transmitted to him by the four other figures, students of education soon to be teachers, who take up the left hand side.

As far as I know one of Evelyn's Christian Science friends, a pleasant young woman called Marcella Allender, modelled for the serious-minded figure on the left. The blues of her cardigan and skirt, and whatever she's reading (it's not a book: could it be a sketch pad or a music score?) match exactly the colours Alpha is wearing in the earlier panel, one of the several unities between the two. A redhead student wearing the College blazer is waiting outside what Bletchley Park students would have recognised as the Principal's office. They would also have recognised the ornamental pond in the middle ground, as well as the (then) modern buildings behind the family, a legacy from Bletchley Park's wartime days.

The panels were still unfinished by November 29th, but all the same Evelyn took them to the official hall opening to give them further touches in situ. They were still not finished by the following February, when Dora Cohen, the Principal, mentioned them in her annual report, quoted in Gill Clarke's Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country:

    Although essentially completed Miss Dunbar, may we understand, still do some work on them for some time to come. She has spoken to the students of the evolution of her ideas and we have been fascinated by it. Very concisely, Alpha is represented by things untrained: vegetation, the sea, primitive sports and movements, an unclothed boy without family conventions. The dawn is coming up and the boy is turning his head away from the shadow to the lightening day. Omega gives cultivated flowers and a fruit-tree trained to the shape of Omega. There is a family, landscape, civilized girls and reading.
    After the first impact of unexpectedness most of us can truly say that the more we live with them the more we like them and even love them. There is no doubt whatever that the College has now a rare possession in trust.

In the same report Dora Cohen records that Evelyn was working as a temporary part-time lecturer at Bletchley Park, teaching there one day per week.

There are some rich and rare things in Alpha and Omega, and sometimes the viewer can overlook subtleties that would have had a compelling impact on the people for whom the panels were specifically designed. In 1969 Bletchley Park Training College was absorbed into Lady Spencer-Churchill College of Education, Oxford, which in turn became part of Oxford Brookes University in 1992. In a sense Alpha and Omega are the only relics of the teacher training college Evelyn did her best to crystallise in very difficult circumstances.

(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2013. All right 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


  1. Christopher: I see via online perusal Evelyn Evelyn Dunbar works are hold-up in numerous galleries, universities and school publicly accessible or inaccessible dotted about throughout GB. If there were/was a single locality deserving to hold her works where would that be? 'In other words' was she wedded to a place more than any other where she thrived and painted that is able to display her?

  2. Hello Anon: Thank you for this. Yes, they're widely dispersed. The greatest concentration is in the Imperial War Museum, thereafter the Tate and Manchester. I don't know if there's a reasonable public art gallery in Rochester or the Medway Towns? Given Evelyn's love of Kent and her strong connections with Rochester, which features in several paintings including The Queue at the Fish Shop, maybe the Medway Towns would be pleased to honour such an illustrious daughter - if the Tate or National Galleries didn't come into the reckoning. What do you think?

  3. ...Have since mused about 'Dunbar gallery localities' and am surprised a Garden of Kent gallery or high-arched-over-foyer-entrance doesn't have a single Dunbar floriated brush stroke delicately dabbed on its walls. While Maidstone holds a significant archive of Kent stuff - I wonder that archive, if not of drawings and paintings, might have other archival bits-&-bobs related to Evelyn Dunbar? Who knows? Wasn't there some question (Why?) Wye College once had a 'Dunbar floral mural' painted then over-painted?

  4. Hello Anon, old friend. First of all, well done! Few could have wished for a happier outcome. Having just spent a few dismal days in and about the Medway Towns including Maidstone (and having re-discovered The Cedars, now virtually a squat), I'm drawn to the Tate and wonder how you feel about this.

  5. Have to say - since Evelyn Dunbar was so tied to Kent (we see this witnessed in your most illuminating blog) Kent deserves an example or two of Evelyn Dunbar works which it (Kent) doesn't appear to have any.

  6. A further thought - the National Trust? Evelyn was commissioned in 1959 to paint the White Garden at Sissinghurst, a place she had a great fondness for, but she died before the commission could be carried out.

  7. Thank you for a very well—informed and informative account of the Evelyn Dunbar, the Bletchley panels and the ‘preparatory sketches’. I am particularly pleased that you are able to give some account of why the sketches do not readily correspond with the painted panels – I have thought this myself when comparing them. I did not realise that Evelyn was a Christian Scientist, which was also Dora Cohen’s background.

    The panels remain in place in the library on the Oxford Brookes University Wheatley campus: we were asked to loan them for the 2006 exhibition, but on investigation it would have meant dismantling the library woodwork: they are built in. The two sets of framed sketches are kept on this campus (Harcourt Hill), which is the location of the School of Education (the lineal successor to Bletchley Park College) as well as an archive collection – these, of course, are available for viewing or study. In September 2004 (the centenary of Dora Cohen’s birth) I mounted an exhibition about the College and Miss Cohen. John Ward’s portrait of her has hung in the university since then.
    Some minor points, if I may.
    1 – You give an impression that the College occupied the whole of the Bletchley Park site, apart from the mansion – which of course, it did not. It actually had a fairly small group of buildings, pleasantly situated near the lake (and which the redoubtable and resourceful Miss Cohen had painted in a Bauhaus style – where she obtained the paint during rationing was unclear).
    2 – When you knew the College, the ‘tank’ for water supply may have been an ornamental garden, but in 1948 it became a scale working model of a lock on the nearby Grand Union Canal. This was a College project, involving staff and students, which made it to the front page of the Times Educational Supplement (12 February 1949). Multi-faceted, it meant an inventive use of resources, very scarce in that postwar austerity period, and lady students doing science. It was then taken forward into student work on health and education among the children who lived and worked on the barges. Innovative and enterprising – typical of the college.

    Peter Forsaith
    Oxford Brookes University

  8. Thank you, Dr Forsaith, for these very interesting comments and for your kind words, too. I mentioned the 'small' portrait Evelyn made of Dora Cohen in an earlier post (entitled 'Portraits') as well as one she painted of Dora Cohen's mother, but only in passing because I don't have photos of them and don't know where they now are. (John Ward and Evelyn painted together for a while in the late 50s.)

    Yes, I did know about the working model of the Grand Union Canal lock, but fascinating though it sounded it didn't seem particularly relevant to my theme. On the other hand it appeared to me that the the rather stark building in front of which the family is sitting in 'Omega' has something of Walter Gropius about it, but I wasn't sure, and my memories of Bletchley Park TC are now too faint to state with certainty that this building actually formed a recognisable part of the College.

    Incidentally, my grandfather (who makes a brief appearance in the post entitled 'Roger Folley (The Cerebrant)', studied at Westminster College in the 1890s, when it was situated in Horseferry Road, London. At the final reunion of former students before the College's removal to Oxford (in the late 50s?) following the sale of the premises to Channel 4, he called for the establishment of a Chair of Liberal Arts. You seem to be wearing the mantle of the old Westminster College very comfortably!

  9. Dear Chris

    The two portraits are in private ownership - email me if you want details.

    Interesting about your grandfather - I can probably find some details in the [Westminster] College archives if you are interested.