Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Brockley Murals (1933-36) Part 2: Lunette and spandrels Cycle 3

Evelyn Dunbar and Charles Mahoney: The Brockley Murals, Ceiling, Lunettes and Spandrels 1933-36 (Author's photograph)

The work of the third and final cycle of the spandrels and the two lunettes beneath the gallery at Prendergast-Hilly Fields College (which was Brockley County School for Boys at the time of painting) was shared between Evelyn and Charles Mahoney, Evelyn painting six and Mahoney the remaining two, plus the lunette. 

With this final cycle (entirely hidden from view in the photograph above), we return to the same great outdoors which was the setting for her first cycle. But the season has changed: in the first cycle, everything was happening in spring. The central cycle of eight, the last to be painted, mostly featured indoor subjects. They were all based on, or referred to, human activities. If the question was asked what season they evoked (there's always a sense of season in Evelyn's work, even in some of her portraits), the inclusion of seasonal flowers, the absence of any suggestion of interior lighting (except in one significant case, The Spider and the Silkworms) and, it may be said, the flies in Flies and the Honeypot - all these indicate summer. This is important because the third cycle of spandrels is very definitely autumnal.

As a point of reference, we start with Mahoney's lunette and adjacent spandrels:

The Butterfly and the Rose

Charles Mahoney: The Brockley Murals. Lunette: The Butterfly and the Rose. All photographs Richard Valencia ©Christopher Campbell-Howes, unless otherwise stated

At the end of the arcade, facing Evelyn's The Cock and the Jewel lunette at the other end, is Mahoney's contribution to the arcade decoration: a lunette and the spandrels either side of it. A yellow rose is growing just inside the parapet coping stones, two of which are joined by cast-iron staples, at the foot of the lunette. Below is a gravelled parterre, and the rather forlorn female figure on it may just be Evelyn. The lunette shows the fable of The Butterfly and the Rose (a peacock butterfly), which is ostensibly about inconstancy. Each accuses the other of flirting with every insect or flower in sight, but the moral is about the virtues of fidelity.

Mahoney's two linked spandrels, The Clock and the Dial, flank his lunette. Both are about the passage of time.

Charles Mahoney: The Brockley Murals. The Clock (above) and The Dial (below)

Mahoney's spandrels, already autumnal in colour and mood, feature towers. On the left, a church tower, unmistakeably that of St Mary's Church, Great Bardfield, the Essex village where the artist and Royal College of Art tutor Edward Bawden lived, with whom Mahoney and Evelyn used sometimes to stay, is equipped with a clock. In her autobiography Long Live Great Bardfield Tirzah Garwood, widow of Eric Ravilious, describes it: 'The church had a very nice square clock made of wood painted blue and stuck up diagonally on the tower, where it was invisible to the major part of the village.' On the right, another so far unidentified building carries a sundial. In the fable of The Clock and the Dial, the two timepieces argue for supremacy, the sundial losing out because it cannot record passing time at night. A figure, perhaps Mahoney himself, looks down from the parapet on the left, and maybe his view includes the gravelled and fenced parterre in the lunette below. Perhaps in keeping with the general mood of this third cycle we should note the gravestones in both spandrels. Hidden away at the foot of the Clock spandrel is Mahoney's signature 'CM 35'.

Evelyn picks up the sequence with

The Hare and the Tortoise and The Partridge and the Hare

Moving clockwise from Mahoney's Dial, the first of Evelyn's spandrels in this section is devoted to maybe the best-known of Aesop's fables, The Hare and the Tortoise. Emerging from some ferns, one frond of which has already turned an autumnal brown, the tortoise is plodding along purposefully while the hare, his fellow-competitor in the famous race he is destined never to win, is hurtling at full stretch in another direction, in fact towards a small graveyard, the first item in a continuous landscape that links all six of Evelyn's spandrels in this cycle. This graveyard is adjacent to the plant-festooned gravestone in Mahoney's Dial spandrel. What are they trying to tell us?

The background landscape travels from left to right, taking in a garden enclosed by another of Evelyn's buttressed brick walls. A summer-house is reminiscent of the one in The Cedars garden. A garden bench in decorated cast iron anticipates Edward Bawden's designs a year or two later. Onwards, across the neck of the spandrel, the wall continues until some wrought-iron gates are reached, opening into the drive leading to a fine country house. An orchard lies to its right, with trees bare of leaves but well plenished with poultry pecking at autumnal windfalls. By now the next fable, The Hare and the Partridge, has been reached, but on the way something unexpected has happened, something hinted at in the first cycle of spandrels, for example in The Butterfly, the Snail and the Bee, where the Bee wanders off into the ceiling above. We had another a moment or two ago: a fern frond on the extreme left of The Hare and the Tortoise reaches up into Mahoney's ceiling. More, at the narrowest point of the neck between the two spandrels there is a tree-trunk, probably a cedar, with spreading lateral branches. This trunk continues its growth up and under the coving, and reappears to spread its upper branches on the edge of Mahoney's ceiling. Were these trespasses authorised?  If it happens again might they be interpreted as deliberate statements of partnership? Or as statements of supplication from beneath? In fact it does happen again, in almost all the remaining spandrels. It is obviously deliberate. The relationship between Evelyn and Mahoney is becoming clearer.

An enjoyable version of The Hare and the Partridge is one by the best-known fabulist after Aesop, the 17th century French writer Jean de La Fontaine. His elegantly simple account of Le Lièvre et la Perdrix, The Hare and the Partridge, tells how a hare was boasting of his great turn of speed when a pack of hounds arrived. The hare sped off to his form, easily outrunning the hounds, believing himself safe. But things are rarely straightforward: the scent of his sweat gave him away, the hounds dashed in, and just before they tore him limb from limb the partridge cynically enquired about his celebrated turn of speed and what good it had done him. How much better off was she, the partridge, who could fly to safety...but even as she gloated she failed to see the fatal goshawk, claws spread for capture, swooping down on her. Evelyn has painted us a beautiful partridge, and a fine lop-eared hare. (Is it the same hare in both spandrels? Did the tortoise dine out on his famous victory ever after, safe from challenge, his rival having been dismembered by the hounds?)  The partridge has a wooden look, as though Evelyn, unable to find a suitable example in a book of birds, has copied it from a carved and painted model. Of the goshawk there is no trace. Maybe the little burial ground and Mahoney's gravestones in the previous spandrels are memento mori enough. 

The Fir Tree and the Bramble and The Elm Tree and the Vine

The fable of The Fir Tree and the Bramble is not greatly edifying. The fir tree boasts of his usefulness to the building trade compared with the bramble, which serves no useful purpose whatever. The bramble retorts by suggesting to the fir tree that he will not be quite so self-satisfied when the foresters come to cut him down, when he will wish he was a bramble and not a fir. I suspect that Evelyn selected this fable for no other purpose than to be a pair to its neighbour, which in terms of recording her love-life and aspirations is perhaps the most significant of all her 22 spandrels. Before exploring this, however, we might notice that the background, beyond the fence with its white posts, is a continuation of the horizon in the two previous 'hare' spandrels. The fir tree, towards which some tendrils of brambles are creeping, also extends upwards into Mahoney's ceiling. On the right of it, beyond the fence, is another of Evelyn's ploughed fields, symbol of promise, and indeed she has probably replaced the brick wall in the previous two spandrels with a post-and-wire fence just so that the ploughed field can be seen beyond.

The next spandrel is entitled The Elm Tree and the Vine, which is barely a fable at all. It does not feature in Aesop. An early appearance comes in Ovid's Metamorphoses, a vast collection of legends from the remotest Classical antiquity written in Latin at about the start of the Christian era. Later fabulists turned the legend into a fable of interdependency, the elm serving no great purpose until pruned and trained into a supporting trellis for the creeping vine, while the vine needed the support of the elm in order to stand upright and bear fruit. This interdependency was common practice in the ancient world and still is in some Mediterranean vineyards. As such it became a metaphor for marriage, and it can be interpreted here as a tacit proposal from Evelyn to Mahoney.

Ovid's account of the legend, in Metamorphoses Book XIV, opens with a description of the demi-goddess Pomona, and a few random lines evoke an Evelyn-like figure: no more skilled a gardener existed…she was devoted to growing the fruit trees which gave her her name…she adored the countryside…she loved her garden passionately…and to such an extent that she preferred it to the many men who paid court to her. Hardly surprising: Ovid lists these suitors as Satyrs, Pans, Silenus (a disreputable old drunk) and Priapus (who gave his name to the unfortunate condition known as priapism). Enter Vertumnus, the Roman (or more probably Etruscan) god of plant growth, of change, fruit trees and especially seasons: 'Vertumnus, then, that turn'st the year about' as Thomas Nashe wrote in Summer's Last Will and Testament of 1600. Vertumnus fell in love with Pomona at first sight, but before courting her conventionally he metamorphosed himself into an old woman, so as not to excite her suspicions with the partisan nature of the advice 'she' proceeded  to give. 'Never mind all that ghastly sub-Olympian riff-raff,' was the tenor of Vertumnus' advice, 'regard instead yon noble elm who with his manly strength supports the trailing vine.' Pomona resists this analogy with marriage, especially as Vertumnus' kisses have by this stage become suspiciously more passionate than she might have expected from someone apparently as old as her grandmother. But when Vertumnus re-metamorphoses into a handsome bronzed young man she resists no longer.

Evelyn's spandrel shows the Elm, again reaching up and beneath the coving into the bosom of Mahoney's ceiling, while the particularly tenacious tendrils of the vine creep towards the trunk of the elm and also up into the sky, searching for something to latch on to. As in the previous spandrel, promise is hinted at in the furrows of the last of Evelyn's ploughed fields. But nothing in Mahoney's ceilings ever reaches down towards Evelyn.

 The Fox and the Crab and The Frogs and the Ox

The Fox and the Crab is the penultimate spandrel. A crab, tiring of its inter-tidal zone and a diet of unwary molluscs and sand-fly larvae, decides to explore inland to see what better forage the hinterland might have to offer. He comes to a meadow, where he is set upon by a fox. The fox devours him shell, claws and winking eye, but before he expires the crab is heard to exclaim, like so many other Aesopian creatures, 'I should have been content with my lot. If my dissatisfaction had not got the better of me, I should not now be in this fix.' Evelyn's fox is in the centre of the spandrel and like many of the protagonists in her scenes is relatively small. There is a rather larger crab lurking in the greenery at the foot of the spandrel. A fine umbellifer, skeletal in autumn, reaches up under the coving into Mahoney's sky.

The background continues into the final spandrel, The Ox and the Frogs, and what had started as a fine brick wall in The Hare and the Tortoise, and had reduced to a post-and-wire fence in The Fir Tree and the Bramble, has now become a long stretch of bleak barbed wire running from a post on the left of The Fox and the Crab through to the right of The Ox and the Frogs. Complementing the crab in the previous scene, and indeed the tortoise in the opposite spandrel, a handsome frog (a singleton despite the title) also lurks in the fronds towards the foot of the spandrel, looking upwards and inwards towards the relatively tiny figure of the ox in the middle distance. This is a somewhat wry comment, because in the fable the frog, attempting to emulate the size of the ox, puffs himself up until he bursts.
 * * *
Difficult and misleading though it can be to try to grasp the dynamic of other peoples' relationships, it is clear that Evelyn's growing doubts about the stability of her relationship with Mahoney are reflected in these spandrels. The first cycle, where the setting of the various fables is in spring, is the earliest, and Evelyn can be thought of as painting them in 1933-34 in the first flush of their love and of the extraordinary opportunity that has come their way to express it both through their art and their love of plants. Later, in 1934-35, there is a sense of coming down to earth, which is expressed in the more uncertain ideas of the current cycle of autumnal spandrels. Somehow the sense of joy, fun and confidence evident in the spring spandrels has been replaced by something more sombre and uncertain, no matter how many ploughed fields Evelyn puts in her backgrounds. Last to be painted, in 1935-36, the central cycle of interiors carries more negative images than either of the outer cycles. So we leave this autumnal cycle of spandrels, with their sometimes mixed messages. All that remains to discover in this treasure-house of mural art is the central ceiling, with its four extraordinary allegorical figures, the most technically brilliant painting to come from Evelyn's hand.

(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2019. All rights reserved.)

Would you like to read more?

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