Evelyn Dunbar and Charles Mahoney: The Brockley Murals, Ceiling, Lunettes and Spandrels 1933-36 (Author's photographs throughout)
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. There's a fuller account of the history of these murals here.)
Evelyn had graduated from the Royal School of Art in 1933, by which time the Brockley mural project was under way, led by one of her erstwhile tutors, Charles Mahoney. Two other RCA final year students, Violet Martin and Mildred Eldridge, were also involved, but their work was limited to a panel each in the main hall. Evelyn (and Mahoney, to a lesser extent) devoted years to the completion of these largely hidden areas.
The architecture of the underside of this 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, one lunette and the single 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 1934 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 employment on a major project that gave full rein to her gifts. She and Mahoney were united not only by a deep 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 all those inventive images that make up her contribution to the Brockley murals.
The overall subject for these murals was the fables of Aesop. It's not known precisely who chose Aesop, or, in some cases, Aesop retold by William Caxton, La Fontaine, Robert Dodsley or John Gay or others. Probably it was Mahoney: in a letter to him dated February 1933, Evelyn writes 'It was a good idea to make Fables the subject. I find in them now more and more things which delight, and inspire to action!'¹
Evelyn's - and Mahoney's, for the two fables he illustrated - principal source is likely to have been Select Fables of Aesop and Others, edited and illustrated by the Northumbrian engraver Thomas Bewick and first published in 1818.
There's a didactic message in almost every image, appropriately enough for a school decoration, but this leads us to a curious aspect of interpretation. Each of the fables has a moral, usually a warning against hubris. But Evelyn's images in themselves carry no moral, they simply refer us back to her chosen fables, some well-known, like The Tortoise and the Hare, some obscure, like Flies and the Honeypot. Understanding of Evelyn's images only comes through familiarity with the fables 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 these spandrels and her single lunette is the morality of Nature herself. 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 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 he loved it and looked after it. And this meant obeying its, and its Creator's, laws. So the garden is Evelyn's morality, and Aesop its top-dressing.
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 you can't even look at it closely for any length of time without physical discomfort. (It's in this context that I apologise for the quality of the photographs accompanying this essay: most of the photos were taken on the coat-tails of the February 2013 Decorated Schools International Conference held at the school, when it would have been difficult, not to say tactless, to undermine the loftier themes of the conference by manhandling stepladders and lighting rigs.) To Evelyn audience wasn't something that mattered. To have created was enough. '[...she] preferred self-fulfilment to self-advancement', her husband Roger said of her, at the opening of her 2006 centenary exhibition at the St Barbe Museum and Gallery, Lymington. 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 or for 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.
Evelyn refers to the process of sub-gallery painting in her voluminous and appealingly illustrated correspondence with Charles Mahoney. (None of his replies exists.) For part of the time she spent working at Brockley School she took lodgings in Ermine Road, very close to the foot of that area of Lewisham called Hilly Fields, within a couple of minutes' walk of the school.
Evelyn Dunbar: Extract from letter to Charles Mahoney, autumn 1935
Here Evelyn has included a sketch contorting herself on a trestle as she attacks the central ceiling panel, the one which was to contain her finest figure drawing. Her palette is on a stand, drips of paint fall to the the ground. Or is it sweat? Evelyn frequently complained about the heat she experienced during the Brockley mural project. She has added - apart from the orphan 'I see you' in the upper left hand corner - 'I am thinking of taking a course in ballet after this. It may then prove the turning point in my career'.
Evelyn Dunbar: Extract from letter to Charles Mahoney, September/October 1935
In this second fantasy Evelyn has invented wings for herself and Mahoney, enabling them to reach the central ceiling panel, although Mahoney had no part in it other than the original 4-roundel design, contenting himself with the two rather anodyne ceiling panels either side of it. It's also a commentary on the impossibility of Evelyn and Mahoney working simultaneously on the ceiling trestles: Evelyn was an average 5' 7" in height, but Mahoney was very tall, 6' and maybe a little more.
The letter is addressed from the Dunbar family home (top left) 'The Cedars Strood Kent', and her text reads 'Dear Chas, I'm going to get some of my specials going next week on the job. Above see special news photo, taken before event.' At the side she has written 'I hope you get that letter sent on from Noon's. It was a special.' (Noon's was a Wiltshire farm at which Mahoney had stayed.) In the background is a group of boys and staff, some of whom at least are looking on.
It should also be noticed that in these little cartoons the spandrels and lunettes have not yet been started. Very sensibly, Evelyn and Mahoney are working top-down, to avoid splashes on completed work.
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To the paintings. All the images should enlarge if you click on them.
Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Cock and the Jewel
Evelyn's lunette - as opposed to Mahoney's, at the opposite end of the gallery - features Aesop's fable of The Cock and the Jewel. I don't know from which collection of Aesop's fables Evelyn took this subject, but in looking for an account of it I discovered an enjoyably bad one written in the 1720s by Samuel Croxall, D.D., describing himself as 'Late Archdeacon of Hereford':
A brisk young Cock in company with two or three Pullets, his mistresses, raking upon a dunghill for something to entertain them with, happened to scratch up a jewel; he knew what it was well enough, for it sparkled with an exceeding bright lustre; but, not knowing what to do with it, endeavoured to cover up his ignorance with a gay contempt. So, shrugging up his wings, shaking his head, and putting on a grimace, he expressed himself to this purpose: indeed, you are a very fine thing; but I know not any business you have here. I make no scruple of declaring that my taste lies quite another way; and I had rather have one grain of dear delicious barley, than all the jewels under the sun.
The Ven. Dr Samuel Croxall's 'Application' or pointing of the moral went as follows, and please don't be put off - this is the only time I'm going to quote him:
There are several people in the world that pass, with some, for well accomplished gentlemen, and very pretty fellows, though they are as great strangers to the true use of virtue and knowledge, as the Cock upon the dunghill is to the real value of the Jewel. He palliates his ignorance by pretending that his taste lies another way: but whatever gallant airs people may give themselves on these occasions, without dispute, the solid advantages of virtue, and the durable pleasures of learning, are as much to be preferred before other objects of the senses, as the finest brilliant diamond is above a barleycorn. The greatest blockheads would appear to understand, what at the same time they affect to despise; and nobody yet was so vicious as to have the impudence to declare in public, that virtue was not a fine thing.
But still, among the idle, sauntering young fellows of the age, who have leisure, as well to cultivate and improve the faculties of the mind, as to dress and embellish the body, how many are there who spend their days in raking after new scenes of debauchery, in comparison of those few who know how to relish more reasonable entertainment? Honest and undesigning good sense is so unfashionable, that he must be a bold man who, at this time of day, attempts to bring it into esteem.
How disappointed is the youth, who in the midst of his amorous pursuits, endeavouring to plunder an outside of bloom and beauty, finds a treasure of impenetrable virtue concealed within! And, why may it not be said, how delighted are the fair sex, when from a crowd of empty, frolic, conceited admirers, they find out, and distinguish with their fair opinion, a man of sense, with a plain unaffected person, which at first sight they did not like!
I much prefer Evelyn's closely observed and resolutely cheerful 'application', with its very handsome and brilliantly combed and wattled cockerel discovering a jewel in the form of a pendant with a miniature painted on it.
The scene, Brueghelian in its attention to detail, Chaucerian in its timelessly rural spirit (cf. 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. The yard and the poultry are reminiscent of the hen-run in the upper right-hand background of Evelyn's large Brockley panel through the arch in the adjacent hall, The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk. A clocking or broody hen has been isolated in a little triangular coop, to prevent her from sitting uselessly on other hens' eggs. Two white-clad women and a child beyond the enclosure are trying to get something out of a tree, maybe a hen - it's not very clear - whose wings haven't been clipped enough to prevent escape. Maybe the man standing on a fruit-picking ladder beyond the right-hand wall is offering to help.
(The ceiling panel featuring birds in flight above The Cock and the Jewel is by Mahoney. Together with its pair at the other end of the gallery, which features kites being flown, they frame Evelyn's central panel. I would like to consider this central panel and its authorship in detail in a separate essay.)
Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Crow and the Pitcher and The Spider and the Swallows
Starting the first cycle of 8 spandrels clockwise from The Cock and the Jewel, there is firstly The Crow and the Pitcher. 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 possible, 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.
Evelyn's intelligent crow is a bit more explicit than the spandrel next to it, The Spider and the Swallows. According to Aesop, the spider resented the swallows for catching the flies she judged to be hers, and in revenge span a web large enough to catch the swallows. The swallows burst effortlessly through the delicate gossamer, leaving the spider ruefully to accept her place in the great scheme of things. H'm.
In many of these spandrels Evelyn makes the protagonists the least significant element. Above the flower-pots on the left and the broad-leaved, white-flowered hostas (could this variety possibly be Golden Spider?) is a flock of swallows flying way from the web they've torn to shreds. It isn't very clear, but it's a beautiful composition. In the neck of the spandrel is one of Evelyn's trade marks, a ploughed field, one of her most frequent symbols of promise.
Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Ant and the Caterpillar and The Bees, the Wasps and the Hornet
The next spandrel is worth exploring to find the Ant and the Caterpillar. I leave Dr Croxall in decent oblivion and turn instead to Robert Dodsley, an 18th Century man of letters, whose 1764 version of this fable runs as follows:
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 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 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 fit 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 upon him with unmerited contempt.
Evelyn's fat white caterpillar is taking its eafe on a marrow or courgette leaf, growing from a runner probably planted with that very long-handled fork and trowel we see stuck in the soil, and which we will see again as vignettes in the book Evelyn and Mahoney produced together in 1937, Gardeners' Choice. A large black ant sits a little further to the left, unaware of its forthcoming comeuppance. In the background is one of the sheds that Evelyn was so fond of, some rows of neatly planted potatoes - the season is spring - and further 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, are directed at us.
On the right, and at right angles to The Ant and the Caterpillar, 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 the hornet. In a judgement worthy of Solomon, the hornet instructs both to start making combs. So, naturally, the bees have it . . . and by this time, and with the possibility of more to come, I begin to wish Aesop had chosen rather larger moral exemplars than insects, if only because Evelyn would thereby have had more to get her teeth into. Otherwise we see more flowers, a garden that is a continuation of its next door neighbour's, a beehive with a hornet hovering above it, giving judgement to small swarms of wasps and bees (and no doubt their lawyers) below.
Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Butterfly, the Snail and the Bee (left) and The Jackdaw and the Doves (right)
I return to the elegant and amiable Mr Dodsley: A butterfly, proudly perched on the gaudy 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 have feasted my eyes with elegance and variety at The Leasowes. 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 wifeft 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 hast 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) from the foot of the spandrel, and as for the Bee, it needs a sharper focus to see her at all, because she has flown up into Mahoney's ceiling.
The viewer is probably more struck by the drama of the neighbouring (right-hand) spandrel, from which a jackdaw is flying out of the frame over our heads, like a low-flying aircraft, while human figures on the garden walk below appear to be oblivious of what's going on. In fact this is the final part of a 3-spandrel fable.
Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Jackdaw and the Pigeons
The first of the three Jackdaw-and-doves spandrels, immediately to the left of The Cock and the Jewel lunette, is an extension of the garden into which the Jackdaw is looking. There's another snail, some hyacinths and jonquils (which helps to convince me that Evelyn painted this in early spring) and a greenhouse. The Jackdaw, according to Aesop, has seen how well fed the Pigeons are, and wonders if by disguising himself as a pigeon he can ensure a similar meal-ticket. 'Borrowed feathers' are mentioned in Aesop, but Evelyn (along with several of Aesop's editors) has taken the notion a step or two further. It is clearly spring, and this is a very well cared-for garden, with several similarities to the Dunbar garden in Rochester as it appears in Winter Garden, on which Evelyn was working at the same time: the brick-edged beds, for one thing.
The Jackdaw is perched on a bucket of otherwise colourless horticultural oil, here dyed white to show the extent of coverage. A gardener is applying it to the trunks of the fruit trees, apple, plum or pear, to protect them from the various insect pests that will have lodged in the crevices of the trunk over the winter. The Jackdaw is contemplating the possibility of painting himself white and insinuating himself into the pigeon-cote. We don't see how exactly this comes to pass, but according to Aesop the Jackdaw was accepted into the pigeon-cote until he began to chatter. The croak of the Jackdaw being very different from the cooing of the Pigeons, his cover was blown and he was driven out, as we see in the third part, so compellingly that we're almost led to duck our heads. And 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.'
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.
¹ Quoted in Gill Clarke Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country p25
(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2013. All rights reserved.)
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EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
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448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25
is now available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25