Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Brockley Murals (1933-36) Part 2: Lunette and spandrels, cycle 1

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

One of the greatest and most gorgeous treasures of 20th century British mural art lies here, ironically mostly unseen, beneath the gallery opening on to the hall at Prendergast-Hilly Fields College, Lewisham. (At the time of painting, between 1933 and 1936, this school was called Brockley County School for Boys.)

Evelyn had graduated from the Royal School of Art (RCA) in 1932. She spent part of a postgraduate year studying mural painting under Charles Mahoney, her RCA tutor, who was to lead the Brockley Mural project. Work started in the spring of 1933. The following year two other recent RCA graduates, Violet Martin and Mildred 'Elsi' Eldridge, were also involved, but their work was limited to a panel each in the main hall. Although the initial mural scheme covered the five recessed hall panels and the gallery wall, an ambitious project in itself, it had been Evelyn's idea to expand the scheme to include the sub-gallery areas, presumably after consultation with Mahoney, Dr Sinclair the headmaster (referred to as 'Mr Zinc' in the letter below, Mr Livens the art master and Mr Pratt the janitor, school caretakers always being indispensable allies in such ventures. Evelyn (and Mahoney, to a  lesser extent) thus took on responsibility for the completion of these largely hidden areas, to which between them they devoted over two years.

* * *

The architecture of the underside of the gallery consists of three square ceiling areas, two semi-circular lunettes at either end and 24 spandrels, the triangular-ish areas between the tops of the arches and the ceiling. Mahoney contributed two of the three ceiling areas and the background to a third, one lunette and the spandrels on either side of it. Evelyn was responsible for all the rest, the figures in the central ceiling area, one lunette (The Cock and the Jewel, the most distant in the photo above) and 22 spandrels. Occasionally she spread her subject over two adjacent spandrels, and sometimes fitted two subjects into the space of one.

Nowhere is Evelyn's work more buoyant, vivid, cheerful, exquisitely designed and executed than in these small mural areas. The viewer feels the artist is revelling in her skill, in the profusion of her ideas and in the opportunity the Brockley School project gave a young artist setting out on her career to produce a journeyman masterpiece. Here Evelyn is at the height of her powers, in her sense of design - it must be far from easy, to design convincingly compelling images inside such an awkward frame - and colour, of close observation and wit, of such a vibrant and imaginative liveliness, of such a loving vitality and one-ness with nature.

We can perhaps guess why Evelyn felt so much in her element. By the summer of 1933 she and Mahoney had formed a close union, professional and emotional. They shared a studio in Hampstead. Through Mahoney (and to an extent through Sir William Rothenstein, Principal of the Royal College of Art, who came to Brockley School to see work in progress from time to time) Evelyn had stepped immediately from studentship to working on a major project that gave full rein to her gifts. She and Mahoney were united - initially - not only by love for each other but by a passion for plants and gardening, to such an extent that among their many artist friends they were nicknamed 'Adam and Eve'. (Evelyn was usually known as 'Eve'.) Evelyn was in love, and through her love for Mahoney filtered some at least of those inventive images that make up her contribution to the Brockley murals.

The overall subject for these murals was the fables of Aesop and others, although Evelyn later supplemented Aesop and his successors with other moral instances and even personal statements. There's a didactic message in almost every image, maybe appropriately enough for a school decoration, but this leads us to unexpected aspects of interpretation. Essentially Evelyn was an illustrator, in the tradition of the better Pre-Raphaëlites. Each of the fables has a moral, usually a warning against hubris. Evelyn's images in themselves carry no moral: they simply refer us back to her chosen fables. Some of these are well-known, like The Tortoise and the Hare, some obscure, like Flies and the Honeypot, in others the allusion is to some personal circumstance at some distance from the daily life of Brockley School and its denizens. Understanding of Evelyn's images only comes through familiarity with the fables or instances they illustrate.

Throughout Evelyn's career we find deeper meanings below the surface, behind the symbol, through the curtain of irony, in the shadow of the allegory. The morality Evelyn is invoking in the first cycle of spandrels and her single lunette is the morality of Nature herself and her Creator. This is why the background of the first 8 spandrels, the outdoor theatre for Aesop's little dramas to play out on, is the garden. Not just any garden, but the managed and organised garden she knew and loved at The Cedars, the Dunbar family home in Rochester. The garden at The Cedars was to some extent the forcing-bed for Evelyn's Christian Science, and by extension it stood for the land and all its abundance given by the Creator to mankind, on condition that mankind loved it and looked after it. This meant obeying its, and its creator's, laws. The garden is Evelyn's morality, and Aesop its top-dressing, so to speak. 

The situation of these murals, too, tells us something about Evelyn. Few artists would be satisfied by having their work displayed to such little advantage that it can't even be looked at closely for any length of time without physical discomfort, a crick in the neck at least. To Evelyn audience wasn't something that mattered. To have created was enough.  I don't think it would have mattered much to her that her 'specials', as she referred to her sub-gallery work, would only be seen by generations of schoolboys queuing up for morning assembly, PE lessons or school dinners. While the moral pabulum offered by morning assembly was possibly no more nourishing than Aesop, school dinners may have had a much greater immediate appeal.

It has to be said that many of the spandrel paintings are superficially incomprehensible. The viewer wanders along the arcade and back maybe struck with admiration for their decorative qualities, but without any overall idea of what order they should be viewed in, whether there is any consistent thread or message, or even what individual spandrels are designed to illustrate. We would be mostly lost if it wasn't for a schedule published in the booklet produced for the February 1936 inauguration:

[Right-hand area, as viewed from the hall]

The Cock and the Jewel
The Crow and the Pitcher
The Spider and the Swallows
The Caterpillar and the Ant
The Bees, the Wasps and the Hornet
The Butterfly, the Snail and the Bee
The Jackdaw and the Pigeons

      By Evelyn Dunbar, ARCA

[Central area:]

The House of Cards
The Knight in Chess
The Artist and his Patrons
The Parrot and his Cage
The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse
Flies and the Honey Pot
The Spider and the Silkworm
The Nurse, the Child and the Fairy
The Needle and Pin

      By Evelyn Dunbar, ARCA


      By Cyril Mahoney, ARCA

Genius, Virtue and Reputation
Minerva and the Olive Tree
Industry and Sloth
Juno and the Peacock

      By Evelyn Dunbar, ARCA

[Left-hand area:]

The Fir Tree and the Bramble
The Elm and the Vine
The Fox and the Crab
The Ox and the Frogs
The Hare and the Tortoise
The Hare and the Partridge

      By Evelyn Dunbar, ARCA

The Clock and the Dial
The Butterfly and the Rose

      By Cyril Mahoney, ARCA

(Cyril was Mahoney's given name, although he was generally known as Charles or Chas or Charlie. He was originally nicknamed Charlie by his Royal College of Art colleague Barnett Freedman, probably for the agreeable euphony of 'Charlie Mahoney' and consequent rhyming possibilities.)

This listing can hardly have come from anyone other than Evelyn or Mahoney. There is evidence that Evelyn made a plan of at least part of the sub-arcade decoration, and that well in advance of starting work on it. Here she is writing to Mahoney from her Rochester home, The Cedars, on a page torn out of a school exercise book:

Letter from Evelyn to Mahoney, 25th June 1933. Tate Archive, ©Estate of Evelyn Dunbar

This letter is dateable with the unexpected help of Wisden, the annual record and register of cricket matches. In the lower left hand corner of page 2 there is a sketch of cricket being played. Several of the fielding side - the bowler, first slip and leg slip - are black. Few if any black players played in English county cricket in 1933, but that summer a West Indies side toured England. Three test matches were played, one of which was at Lord's, which is where Evelyn says she was in the adjacent paragraph. From such tiny clues and correspondences...) 

In paragraph 2 on page 1 Evelyn writes 'I am going to come armed on Tuesday with a plan for completing the spandrils [sic] under the balcony.' In the margin Evelyn has added herself as a mouse - like all the other figures in the letter - carrying a long roll of paper labelled PLAN at one end. It's unfortunate that this plan - or any other - doesn't appear to have survived, because it might have given weight to the strong suspicion that Evelyn modified her plan quite considerably as the work and particularly her relationship with Mahoney developed and declined. We can be reasonably confident that each of the three cycles of spandrels should be read clockwise; that the three cycles, left, centre and right reflect spring, summer and autumn; and the left hand, spring cycle was painted first, followed by the right hand, autumn cycle, with the central cycle being the last (and the least well painted) to complete the project.

* * *

To the paintings. The first cycle consists of the semi-circular lunette at the far end of the gallery and the eight triangular-ish spandrels surrounding it. The lunette features Aesop's The Cock and the Jewel. She painted this lunette and maybe some of the spandrels in the summer of 1933, after completion of The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk, her panel in the adjoining hall, and before preliminary work on the Hilly Fields frieze.

The Cock and the Jewel. Photograph (and all succeeding photographs in this post) Richard Valencia ©Christopher Campbell-Howes

Evelyn's lunette features Aesop's fable of The Cock and the Jewel, the very first in Thomas Bewick's Select Fables of Aesop and Others. This is a difficult fable, dealing with appreciation, or the lack of it, of things of beauty and value, but it is possible that Evelyn chose it for other reasons, among them to complement the opposite lunette at the far end of the arcade.  Already there are suggestions of another agenda: using the fashionable Mockney of the 1930s, Evelyn often addressed Mahoney as 'cock' or 'matey cock', without necessarily any hint of a ruder vernacular. The Jewel is not a jewel, in the sense of a precious stone, but a pendant framing a miniature portrait. It would be interesting if the miniature was a portrait of Mahoney, however much it might stand the fable on its head, but it in no way resembles him.

The scene, Brueghelian in its attention to detail, Chaucerian in its timelessly rural spirit, reminiscent of The Nun's Priest's Tale, is set in a poultry yard, with scallop shells for the White and Buff Orpington hens to peck at (to strengthen their eggshells) and a circular water-bowl. Evelyn's cockerel is a magnificent bird, proud of mien and fiery of eye, his cascade of tail feathers fit for a field-marshal's full fig. The yard and the poultry are reminiscent of the hen-run in the upper right-hand background of The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk through the arch in the adjacent hall, and both may have their origins in William Dunbar's chicken run at The Cedars. A clocking or broody hen has been isolated in a little triangular coop, to prevent her from sitting on eggs that would otherwise be sold. Two white-clad women and a child are beyond the chicken-wire fence: one of the women is pointing upwards, probably at the fruit tree blossom just breaking out, telling us that the season is spring. 

The Crow and the Pitcher


Above and to either side of The Cock and the Jewel is a double spandrel, The Crow and the Pitcher. This matches Mahoney's double spandrel, The Clock and the Dial, at the other end of the arcade. The fable takes up the right-hand spandrel, while the left-hand spandrel sets the scene and the garden context of this first group of eight spandrels. In the background a buttressed brick wall, indistinguishable from the garden wall at The Cedars, which will become a frequent theme in Evelyn's garden images, runs across and links both spandrels. This wall, although faint at some points, encloses all eight spandrels, turning Evelyn's evocations of the garden at The Cedars into a hortus conclusus, a mediaeval theological term originally associated with the virginity of the Virgin Mary, but considerably extended to mean an enclosed space for quiet contemplation and refreshment of the spirit. One of several snails in this set of spandrels is eyeing up some early spring plants, hyacinths and narcissi. The ground has been prepared both for spring planting and, figuratively, for the eventual harvest of moral truths. Few leaves have yet appeared on the trees. A white-overalled figure is pushing a wheelbarrow along the path from the greenhouse, carrying a shrub to plant. The start both of the year and of the moral progression is being marked.

According to Aesop, a thirsty crow came across a pitcher, or jug, containing a little water. Despite pushing his beak and head into the jug as far as he could, he was unable to reach the water. He solved the problem by collecting pebbles in his beak and dropping them one by one into the jug. By thus displacing the water he brought it within his reach and drank his fill, proving that necessity is the mother of invention.

This takes place in the continuation of the left-hand garden. A white-smocked woman is tending a border. More early flowers bloom among the rocks on which the crow is perched, his form echoing the shape of the spandrel. As in many of these spandrels, Evelyn creates a strong sense of depth, almost as if her scene was in 3D: she achieves this partly through a very carefully worked perspective, partly by lifting the horizon and tilting the scene towards us, and partly through reducing the size of the woman in white, creating not only a sense of distance but, more importantly, thrusting the crow into centre stage. Another snail, feeling the first stirrings of spring warmth, is exploring the neck of the pitcher.

The Spider and the Swallows

Evelyn's Archimedean crow is a little more explicit than the spandrel next to it, The Spider and the Swallows. As Aesop tells it, the spider resented the swallows catching the flies she judged to be hers, and in revenge span a web large enough to catch the thieving birds. The swallows burst effortlessly through through the delicate gossamer, leaving the spider ruefully to accept her place in the great scheme of things.

In this, as in many of these spandrels, Evelyn makes the protagonists the least prominent element. Above the flower pots on the left and the broad-leaved, white-flowered hostas, a flight of swallows - the curve of the leaning tower of flower pots draws the eye to it - is wheeling above the web they are about to wreck. Evelyn records the moments before the action: a wrecked spider's web does not cut much artistic mustard. In view of the oncoming swallow-blitz, the spider appears to have taken shelter in one of the flower pots. The beauty of this composition is largely due to Evelyn's handling of complementary curves, from the veins of the hosta leaves to the jet from the woman's hose, watering from a standpipe to her right. In the neck of the spandrel is yet another trade-mark ploughed field. The background garden continues into

 The Caterpillar and the Ant

Robert Dodsley, an 18th Century man of letters, the publisher of Alexander Pope among others, gives an elegantly lively account of The Caterpillar and the Ant:

As a caterpillar was advancing along one of the alleys of a beautiful garden, he was met by a pert lively Ant, who toffing up her head with a fcornful air, cried, Prithee get out of the way, thou poor creeping animal, and do not prefume to obftruct the paths of thy fuperiors, by wriggling along the road, and befmearing the walks appropriated to their footfteps. Poor creature! Thou lookeft like like a thing half made, which nature not liking, threw by unfinifhed. I could almoft pity thee, methinks; but it is beneath one of my quality to talk to fuch mean creatures as thou art: and fo, poor crawling wretch, Adieu.

The humble caterpillar, ftruck dumb with this difdainful language, retired, went to work, wound himfelf up in a filken cell, and at the appointed time came out a beautiful Butterfly. Juft as he was fallying forth, he obferved the fcornful ant paffing by: Proud infect, faid he, ftop a moment, and learn from the circumftances in which you now fee me, never to defpife any one for that condition in which Providence has thought to place him; as there is none fo mean, but may one day, either in this ftate or in a better, be exalted above thofe who looked down on him with unmerited contempt.
Evelyn's very handsome caterpillar - one, it seems, yet to be discovered by entomologists - is taking its eafe on a marrow or courgette leaf growing from a runner probably planted with the long-handled fork and trowel stuck into the soil. A large black ant sits a little farther to the left, unaware of its forthcoming comeuppance. In the background is a shed, one of the temples to husbandry of which Evelyn was so fond. Some rows of neatly planted potatoes are reminders that the season is spring. Farther along to the left there are human figures reduced in size to the scale of the insects, as if to remind us that Aesop's morals, although assigned to insects and other small creatures, are directed at us. In a few spandrels' time a minor artist from the Italian renaissance, Dosso Dossi, takes the stage. Dosso was a very early interpreter of Aesop's fables. His backgrounds feature everyday activities, mostly in the country, undertaken by people far smaller in scale than the moral protagonists. It is perfectly possible that Evelyn took the idea from Dosso, maybe having been introduced to him by Mahoney. The Butterfly, incidentally, is looking down from Mahoney's ceiling above. This is the first interaction between ceiling and spandrel. There will be more.

The Bees, the Wasps and the Hornet

On the right and at right angles to The Caterpillar and the Ant is The Bees, the Wasps and the Hornet. In Aesop's fable both bees and wasps claim exclusive rights to make honey. Outraged by the wasps' presumption, the bees lay the matter before Mr Justice Hornet. In a judgement worthy of Solomon, the hornet requires both to start making honeycombs. So, naturally, the bees have it, while the outwitted wasps gnash their mandibles. Otherwise there are more spring flowers, a garden that is another continuation of its next-door neighbour's, and a hive with a hornet hovering above it, ladling out judgement to small swarms of wasps and bees (and no doubt their lawyers) below. There is some evidence of damage to this spandrel, in the upper part and in the neck leading to its neighbour, where there is a second interaction between Evelyn's spandrel and Mahoney's ceiling.

The Butterfly, the Snail and the Bee

The amiable Mr Dodsley once again:

A Butterfly, proudly perched on the leaves of a French marygold, was boafting the vaft extent and variety of his travels. I have ranged, faid he, over the graceful and majeftic fcenes of Hagley, and I have feafted my eyes with elegance and variety at The Leafowes. I have wandered through regions of eglantine and honeyfuckle, I have revelled in kiffes on beds of violets and cowflips, and have enjoyed the delicious fragrance of rofes and carnations. In fhort, my fancy is unbounded, and my flight unreftrained, I have vifited with perfect freedom all the flowers of the field or garden, and muft be allowed to know the world in a fuperlative degree.

A Snail who hung attentive to his wonders on a cabbage leaf, was ftruck with admiration; and concluded him, from all his experience, to be the wifest of animal creatures.

It happened that a Bee purfued her occupation on a neighbouring bed of marjoram, and having heard our oftentatious vagrant, reprimanded him in this manner: Vain, empty flutterer, faid fhe, whom inftruction cannot improve, nor experience itfelf enlighten! Thou haft rambled over the world; wherein does thy knowledge of it confift? Thou haft feen variety of objects; what conclufions haft thou drawn from them? Thou haft tafted of every amufement; haft thou extracted any thing for ufe? I too am a traveller: go and look into my hive; and let my treafures intimate to thee that the end of travelling is to collect materials either for the ufe and emolument of private life, or for the advantage of the community.

(Hagley and The Leasowes were estates belonging respectively to a patron and a colleague of Dodsley.)

Evelyn has endorsed the Bee's condemnation by making her Butterfly a cabbage white, whose larvae are among the most destructive garden pests. The Snail, a bit part if ever there was one, is stolidly making its way to taste the delights of Hagley (or maybe The Leasowes), and as for the Bee, no time should be wasted looking for her, because she is not there. Having delivered herself of these strictures, and proving that she is indeed the traveller she claims to be, she has buzzed off out of Evelyn's spandrel and up into Mahoney's ceiling, no doubt to harangue the other butterflies there.

In the background, a woman is struggling with a push-mower, pitting her strength against the most unkindest cut of all, the first spring growth. If it was not already obvious that all these things are happening in spring, there is perhaps another clue in the position of the Snail, not on Mr Dodsley's cabbage leaf, but on some new rose shoots, one of Evelyn's literary allusions:

The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in His heaven -
All's right with the world!

(from Robert Browning: Pippa passes)

The Jackdaw and the Pigeons

Evelyn spreads the fable of The Jackdaw and the Pigeons over two adjacent spandrels, working from right to left. The jackdaw, according to Aesop, has observed how well fed the pigeons are, and wonders whether by disguising himself as a pigeon he can obtain a similar meal-ticket. The term 'borrowed feathers' actually comes from Aesop, but Evelyn has taken the notion a step or two farther.

On the right the jackdaw is perched on a bucket of horticultural insecticide, coloured white to enable the user to see the area he has covered. A gardener is applying it to the trunks of fruit trees, apple, plum or pear, to protect them from the various insect pests that will have lodged in the crevices of the trunks over the winter. The jackdaw is contemplating the possibility of painting himself white with this stuff and insinuating himself into the pigeon-cote. It is not explained exactly how this comes to pass, but according to Aesop the jackdaw was unquestioningly accepted into the society of pigeons until he began to chatter. The croak of jackdaws being very different from the cooing of pigeons, his cover was blown and he was driven out, as is shown if the eye travels across the neck and into the next spandrel. So compelling is flight of the pigeons chasing the jackdaw out that we are almost led to duck our heads. Aesop tells us in conclusion that on attempting to return to his own kind, the jackdaw was chased out as a white interloper: 'so desiring two ends, he obtained neither.'

If it is ever questioned that this first cycle of spandrels is based on The Cedars garden, the small figure walking beneath a pergola in the upper centre of the right-hand spandrel dispels all doubt. This is the figure of William Dunbar, and Evelyn is paying a touching homage to her father, who died in March 1932, some 18 months before these spandrels were painted. Like the other people in the garden, he is oblivious to the high drama being played out among the birds.
Detail from The Jackdaw and the Pigeons: William Dunbar, Evelyn's father, walking in the garden at The Cedars, the Dunbar home in Strood, Rochester.

These mises-en-scène in the Dunbar garden in Rochester (alas, no longer there: the site is now occupied by about 40 houses) with gravelled walks, pergolas, fruit trees, sheds, greenhouses, vegetable plots, the gardeners Alf and Bert and all the riches of a large and much-loved garden, conclude the first cycle of eight spandrels. The second instalment of this mini-series will consider the next eight.

Text (updated) ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2019. 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

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