Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Brockley Murals (1933-36) Part 2: Spandrels, cycle 2

Evelyn Dunbar and Charles Mahoney: The Brockley Murals, Ceiling, Lunettes and Spandrels 1933-36. Photographs by Richard Valencia ©Christopher Campbell-Howes, except where stated otherwise.

The spandrels (the triangular-ish spaces between the tops of the arches and the ceiling) of the second, central cycle of the sub-gallery arcade of Brockley School for Boys (now Prendergast-Hilly Fields school) are all by Evelyn. In fact this cycle was the last to be completed, and there is some reason for believing that they reflect her personal circumstances at the time of painting, the autumn and winter of 1935 and into early 1936. 

In the first cycle Evelyn allowed Aesop free rein in her family garden. The the third cycle will take us into more open country, but for the second cycle she invites us indoors to look at a rich and diverse series of interiors, some perhaps those at The Cedars, the Dunbar family home in Strood, Rochester. The season is something almost omnipresent in Evelyn's pictures: if the first cycle was clearly set in spring, and the third as will be seen in autumn, this current cycle must feature summer. How to express summer, though, if these eight spandrels are all interiors? Apart from the summer luminosity (except in The Spider and The Silkworms, where it is deliberately intended to be feeble), the necks of many of the spandrels are filled with flowers that in their flowering take us from spring into summer.

Some of these spandrels are based on known fables, some on moral metaphors, while one at least is clearly autobiographical. Each spandrel has its own subject, and one - The Nurse, the Child and the Fairy - she slips in across the neck of two adjacent spandrels, making a total of nine subjects. In all nine there's an underlying sense of captivity, betrayal and eventual futility, all somewhat at variance with Evelyn's usual doctrine of perpetual cheerfulness.

The Knight's Move in Chess

For the first spandrel, The Knight's Move in Chess, Evelyn moves clockwise from the central axis and invites the viewer into The Cedars. The older of her two brothers, Ronald, was a chess player. Evelyn's chessboard, what is visible of it, is tightly organised. Evelyn can be imagined asking Ronald to set up a particular game, and Ronald has obliged, very astutely, with classic Staunton design chessmen.

Chess, which originated in India, did not arrive in Europe until at least a thousand years after the time of Aesop (c.620-560BC). Certain moves in chess, however, have often been used as metaphors for aspects of human behaviour. G.K.Chesterton, for instance, a popular writer at the time Evelyn was painting (and who died in the summer of 1936, when her Brockley paint was hardly dry), conflated the Knight's crooked or even devious move in chess - two straight squares in any direction, followed by diagonal swerve or lurch - with a fable even more ancient than Aesop, The Fox and the Cat (or Hedgehog):

Aesop [...] understood that, for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of two. The fox in a fable must move crooked, as the knight in chess must move crooked.

In Chesterton's evocation of The Fox and the Cat/Hedgehog, the fox boasts of the many ways he has to escape from danger. The cat replies that she has only one means of escape, to run up a tree, and the hedgehog to curl up into a ball. Both are perfectly and consistently effective. Just then a pack of hunting dogs appears: the cat runs up a tree, the hedgehog rolls into a prickly ball, and while the fox dithers over which is the best of his many boasted means of escape the dogs tear him limb from limb.

Evelyn (or Ronald) has left the game frozen at a point of high drama, commensurate with the arrival of the hunting dogs in the fable. All depends on whose move it is, but the black knight is pinned: he cannot be moved without exposing the black king to check from the white bishop. For all his supposed flexibility of movement, the black knight is immobilised, the helpless prey of several other pieces. It may be that the white knight is similarly pinned, but our view of the chessboard is limited and we can't be certain.

The chessboard has been placed on a circular table covered with a blue cloth, one that will be seen four times altogether in this cycle. Segments of this table set up a logical sequence, complementing each other on opposite sides of this central section of the arcade, like 90┬║ slices of cake, forming a unifying factor among so much disparate material. Elsewhere in this cycle yellow and red tablecloths match each other diagonally. In the background there is a sideboard and two of the spindly, rickety chairs with which Evelyn furnishes these interiors. Two figures, one reading a newspaper, part of which has fallen to the floor, are not much bigger than the chessmen. The left side of the scene is taken up with a large, brilliantly-leaved coleus, still indoors perhaps pending outdoor summer planting.

If The Knight's Move in Chess seems abstruse, its obscurity is crystalline clarity compared with...

The Artist and his Patrons.

The Artist and his Patrons, clockwise to the right of The Knight's Move in Chess, reaches the heart of the three arcade spandrel cycles. This is the 10th (or 11th, depending on which end you start from) of the 22 spandrels Evelyn painted, so if she had a particular message to give or point to make, it is likely to be found here, on the spandrels inside the central arch of the arcade.

It comes as a surprise that among the 700-odd fables ascribed to Aesop or his successors, a canon sometimes known as the Perry Index, not one is called The Artist and his Patrons. There are one or two fables involving sculptors and the relative values of art and nature (nature always wins, of course), and others about the worth of artists compared with those who buy their work, an idea maybe reflected in Evelyn's ceiling roundel immediately above, which is entitled Industry and Sloth. Indeed, the blue-smocked figure of Industry encompasses the Artist's studio below with her hands.

If there is no such fable in the recognised canon, Evelyn has something else in mind. With some trepidation I advance the following ideas, which owe almost everything to an essay by Professor Giancarlo Fiorenza entitled Fables, Ruins and the "bell' imperfetto" in the Art of Dosso Dossi.

The fables of Aesop existed firstly in Greek and then in Latin, and it was not until the Renaissance that the first translation into a contemporary language appeared, the Italian edition of 1479. This was published in Verona and was illustrated with 'lively woodcuts', to quote Professor Fiorenza. (Echoes of Thomas Bewick?) It became a best-seller, not least because Aesop opened the door to the popular wisdom of the ancient world just at a time when the humanist movement was searching for something to parallel, complement or even challenge the otherwise universal Christianity.

Among the artists who were drawn into the world of Aesop was the agreeably nicknamed Dosso Dossi (c.1490-1542), whose real name was Giovanni di Niccol├▓ de Luteri; Dosso was the name of the village he came from. In 1531 Dosso Dossi was one of several artists engaged by Bernardo Clesio, the Prince-Bishop of Trento, to decorate the extensions he was undertaking to his palace in the mediaeval Castello del Buonconsiglio. Today this massive fortified palace dominates the town of Trento, in the foothills of the eastern Italian Alps. Among the 19 rooms Dosso decorated was La Stua de la Famea, 15th century local dialect for 'the family dining room', and in this sense having much the same function as the room Evelyn and Mahoney were decorating at Brockley School. Here Dosso painted ten lunettes in fresco of the fables of Aesop, drawing on the 1479 Verona edition and especially its 'lively woodcuts' for some of his ideas. The Prince-Bishop's entourage and guests can be imagined sitting at his generous table and discussing Dosso's lunettes and the meaning of the fables illustrated in them. Some they would recognise instantly, again not too unlike the boys at Brockley School queueing up at the arcade service hatches for their school dinners. Clesio's guests would perhaps notice that the horizons in Dosso's lunettes were on a continuous level, just as Evelyn's first and third cycle exteriors and the ceiling heights in the second cycle interiors are in Brockley School, as though they were looking out from the heights of the Castello on to the outside 'real' world to which Aesop's fables assigned some sense of order. And some, sensitive or censorious, would remark on Dosso's between-lunette spandrels, which he decorated with paintings of deliberately distressed Classical statuary, a nose missing here, an arm snapped off there, a phallus somewhere else. This is the bell' imperfetto (beautiful imperfection) of Professor Fiorenza's title, and the presence of such knocked-about statuary is to imply the approval and legitimisation by its ancient Graeco-Roman ancestors of then contemporary culture, including the newly available Aesop. The statuary is nude and explicit. Some 15 years after Dosso laid down his brush the Council of Trent, held to reorganise the Catholic church against the threat of the Reformation, was held in the Castello del Buonconsiglio, and it was possibly then that Dosso's offending genitals were whitewashed out.

In the top right-hand corner of Evelyn's spandrel of The Artist and his Patrons there is an extraordinary and unique phenomenon: so far all Evelyn's human figures have been reduced in size almost to invisibility, but here a life-size left hand holds a length of fine material stretched across the neck of the spandrel and into the neighbouring one, The Parrot and his Cage, where a right hand holds it, in much the same way as a towel might be held up to screen someone changing on the beach.

Detail from The Artist and his Patrons

What is happening? At Brockley School (or its current incarnation) the open arch corresponds inversely with the spandrels in Dosso's Stua de la Famea, that is, it occupies the space between the paintings. This is exactly where the over-explicit statuary would have been, had Dosso's design in Trento been somehow magically transported to Lewisham. Evelyn's life-size hands are holding a modesty drape. Modesty drapes are very common in Renaissance and later painting and sculpture, effectively and sometimes with stunning artistry disappointing prurient eyes; this may be Evelyn's witty and joyfully sympathetic response to Clesio's guests and their latter-day descendants.

The spandrel itself shows an artist's paintbox with the lid open, standing on a table with a red cloth on it. In the box are tubes of oil paint, bottles of various oils and solvents and a selection of brushes. In the top left-hand corner the artist, maybe the figure in a blue overall, and standing for all artists male and female, is talking to two patrons about whatever there is on the easel, edge on to the viewer at the top of the image. To the right are spring and early summer flowers - tulips, grape hyacinths, polyanthus and especially pinks - of the kind which Florence Dunbar used to feature in her floral still-lifes. The whole is not a fable at all. Evelyn has used the strategically-placed central spandrel to pay a permanent and lasting recognition to all those who helped her to her present position: Sir William Rothenstein, Allan Gwynne-Jones, Dr Sinclair and his staff, her mother Florence Dunbar, her aunt and uncle Clara and Stead Cowling who helped her financially, and no doubt many others. And Charles Mahoney? Maybe.

 The Parrot and his Cage

Aesop's fable of The Parrot and his Cage is simply told, and with some relief after the previous rather heavy going. His mistress has taken advantage of a summer's day to open the windows, and has inexplicably left the cage door open. We can't see the parrot because, having long been envious of other birds' freedom, he has flown away. In the background we can see his distraught mistress, waving her arms in the air as she vainly calls him back. The Venerable Dr Croxall, the Aesopian ex-Archdeacon of Hereford, described it as follows in a 1792 version of Aesop's fables:

But alas! poor Poll was mistaken; a thousand inconveniences, which he never dreamt of, attended this elopement of his. [...] He is buffeted by the savage inhabitants of the grove; and his imitation of a human voice, which formerly rendered him so agreeable, does but the more expose him to the fierce resentment of the feathered nation. The delicate food with which he used to be fed, is no more; he is unskilled in the ways of providing for himself, and even ready to die with hunger. But just before he breathed his last, he is said to have made this reflection: ah, poor Poll! were you but in your cage again, you would never wander more.

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

In The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse Evelyn draws on Aesop, maybe with a sideways glance at Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse. Somehow the town mouse has scrambled up the blue table-cloth covering the circular table which we saw three spandrels ago in The Knight's Move in Chess. Instead of a chessboard there is a fine porcelain fruit bowl, overflowing with fruit, apples, a quince, a banana and trusses of grapes, complemented by a similarly decorated dish with unshucked hazelnuts in it. Following the town mouse, a bit uncertainly, is the country mouse, Timmy Willie in Beatrix Potter's version, who may have arrived in town that very morning in a hamper of vegetables. In the background a human figure in the doorway is shooing them away. Devotees of Beatrix Potter will recognise the story, and some may have noticed that she prefaces her story with the dedication 'To Aesop in the shadows'. There is no mention of fruit in either Aesop or Potter, so Evelyn has gone to another of the many versions of this very ancient fable, or to her own imagination, for the abundance of forbidden fruit which gives the country mouse the collywobbles.

Flies and the Honeypot

Evelyn has made an engaging little household vignette out of Flies and the Honeypot. This fable, not among the most profound, tells how some flies were attracted to a jar of honey. Being obliged to set foot on it if they wanted to eat it, they found they were stuck. So they expired, but not before remorse set in: 'Foolish creatures that we are, for the sake of a little pleasure we have destroyed ourselves.'

The Dunbars' circular table with the blue tablecloth puts in its third appearance. This time there are the remains of afternoon tea. A woman is carrying everything away on a tray, followed by a frankly-painted cat maybe hopeful of a little milk. She has left behind a handsome china teapot on its earthenware stand, along with an open honeypot. There is a linen napkin rolled up and enclosed in a gilt napkin ring, marked with a capital P. A letter, with a red stamp, with the envelope torn as if to suggest that it has just been opened, hints at days when there were two daily postal deliveries. The addressee is A. Pratt, esq., living at The Limes, Princes Rd, SE 13. (There is no Princes Road in SE 13, but there is a Princes Rise not far from the school.) Mr Pratt is mentioned in one of Evelyn's letters to Mahoney. He was in all probability the Brockley School caretaker, and thus responsible for shifting the trestles and scaffolding about according to the artists' needs: a useful ally, and one to cosy up to, although maybe not via the tea-time circumstances shown here.

 Flies and the Honeypot detail

As for the honeypot, and the monstrous swarm of large fat ugly flies, what was a cosy, genteel, assured, unquestioningly bourgeois and English middle-class scene is instantly disturbed. For Evelyn this is quite a brutal image. The spandrel flowers announce high summer, and indeed a girl has opened the French windows, only to let the flies in.

The Spider and the Silkworm

Thomas Bewick's reading of The Spider and the Silkworm, clearly cogged from the Venerable Samuel Croxall, runs as follows:

A Spider, busied in spreading his web from one side of a room to another, was asked by an industrious Silkworm, to what end he spent so much time and labour, in making a number of lines and circles? The Spider angrily replied, Do not disturb me, thou ignorant thing: I transmit my ingenuity to posterity, and fame is the object of my wishes. Just as he had spoken, a chambermaid, coming into the room to feed her Silkworms, saw the Spider at his work, and with one stroke of her broom, swept him away, and destroyed at once his labours and his hope of fame.

Evelyn's illustration is dominated by an antiquated and feeble table lamp mounted on a curly metal bracket. This scene, representing fame as something slender and contrived, is presided over by the personages in Evelyn's ceiling roundel above, who represent Genius, Virtue and Reputation. The right hand side of the ill-fitting shade is festooned with a proprietorial web, while the spider is hanging just above the greenery. Maybe this low level of illumination is not surprising, maybe the lamp represents the fame the spider so ardently seeks, and which is being summarily swept away by the chambermaid. She is in the background with her broom, so thoroughly busy cleaning that she has piled a couple of Evelyn's spindly chairs on the the bed the better to clear any other offending webs away. Meanwhile, in a blue box in the foreground, covered with an open-weave cloth, her utilitarian and anonymous silkworms are munching away at the dark green mulberry leaves, of which there appears to be a plentiful supply just beyond the box. This is the last spandrel Evelyn painted. It is signed 'ED 1936' at the foot.

The Nurse, the Child and the Fairy

Presumably generations of young people at Brockley School and its later incarnations have occasionally glanced up at this extraordinary cross-spandrel mural, which in its form mirrors the hands with the modesty drape opposite. What do they make of it? Is it really a lavatory cistern and chain near the centre of the neck? No fable in the entire classical canon completely reflects what is going on here. Evelyn has conflated several elements from stories about changeling babies or children, probably with particular reference to The Mother, the Nurse and the Fairy, a short poem by John Gay, a minor 18th century poet better known for his libretto of The Beggar's Opera. A malevolent fairy has stolen a blonde child and has replaced it with a particularly swarthy, gipsyish one, maybe black. Anxious to relieve the blonde child's distraught mother, the nurse, water-jug in hand, is leading the changeling towards the bathroom across the neck of the spandrel, hopeful that a good scrub will put things right. The bathroom will soon be free: a man, curiously equally swarthy about the neck and forearms, is drying himself vigorously on a jack towel. Recognising that most Western societies have grown out of such notions since the 1930s, it is best to move on quickly. 

The Needle and the Pin

In a particularly obscure fable, best known, if known at all, through an interminable set of verses by the American Eliza Lee Follen (1787-1860), The Needle and the Pin waste so much of their time and employment slanging each other and claiming precedence that the Scissors have to intervene, convincing them that both have equal merit in their different ways, and an uneasy peace reigns between the pincushion and the needlecase. Evelyn's spandrel has not much to do with the fable, which is simply a cover for a personal statement. It may take some time and application, as though we were waiting for an optical illusion to click into place, to grasp that what appears to be a central pillar leaning to the right is in fact the frame of a dressing-table mirror, shown almost edgeways on. A blue felt heart-shaped pincushion with a yellow trim is hanging from the swivel, with the pin and needle stuck into it.

A similar mirror appears in a letter from Evelyn to Mahoney, addressed from her lodgings at 95 Ermine Rd. Suddenly we are at the heart and actuality of the Brockley Mural project as it happened. The envelope appears to be dated 3rd June 1935, a Monday, just at the the time she was working on these spandrels. The previous Friday, May 31st, Mahoney had withdrawn from the mural project, his final contribution being an intricate grisaille of Adam-style decorative motifs on the ceiling immediately above the current set of spandrels.

Extract from letter to Mahoney, envelope probably dated 3rd June 1935. Tate Archive, ©The estate of Evelyn Dunbar

As a parting gift Mahoney gave her an antique escritoire, described in the letter above, while the envelope below is decorated (as Evelyn often did with her envelopes) with a sketch of Evelyn looking out of her 'new' escritoire.

Envelope from Evelyn to Mahoney, (?) 3rd June 1935. Tate Archive, ©The estate of Evelyn Dunbar

Although they continued to see a lot of each other, the halcyon period of working together at Brockley was over. At this time Evelyn was also struggling to produce a series of vignettes commissioned for a bedside dip-into miscellany called (for short) The Scots Week-End. Decorating a Scots Week-End chapter about the affections she uses a similar heart-shaped pincushion. This pincushion too has two pins or needles stuck into it, a Victorian symbol for the heart-piercing pain of parting from the loved one.

Illustration from The Scots Week-End and Caledonian Vade Mecum for Host, Guest and Wayfarer 1935

The House of Cards

The final spandrel of the central cycle is The House of Cards. The setting is the Dunbar sitting-room again, where the cycle started with The Knight's Move in Chess. The same round or oval table, with the same blue tablecloth that has been a unifying factor in several spandrels in this central group, now serves as the base for a house of cards. The House of Cards is not a fable, but one of Evelyn's moral instances, a metaphor for insubstantiality and impermanence, for all that is fallible. Might there also be a wry glance at her relationship with Mahoney, at least as far as working together at Brockley was concerned?

Although completed several months before, Evelyn felt she had to update this spandrel in time for the official inauguration of the Brockley Murals by the then Minister of Education on 21st February, 1936. There is an intriguing letter, dateable by inference, from Evelyn to Mahoney:

Extract from letter to Mahoney, February 1936. Tate Archive, ©The estate of Evelyn Dunbar 

'Dear Matey-' Evelyn writes, 'I didn't write yesterday because I was going all in at the old king [...] I've got him about a third done in about 3½ hours. I think he's looking alright. [...] It's less than two weeks now to the opening & there's still a good bit to do.'

What 'old king' was this? If indeed Evelyn's reference is to her work in the Brockley Murals, the only place in which a king appears is in The House of Cards. The court cards featured are the queen of diamonds on the lower level and a jack or knave two levels above. However, among the spare cards to the left of the structure is another court card, which turns out to be the king of clubs, whose features are sketchily done in a way sometimes typical of Evelyn when she is in a great hurry. The following is the merest conjecture, but on 20th January 1936, a fortnight at most before Evelyn wrote this letter, King George V died. A state funeral followed on the 28th. Evelyn was by not particularly adulatory about the monarchy, but she would have felt it ill-mannered at that moment, with the inauguration a few days away, to have represented the late King as being associated with something doomed to collapse like a house of cards. There was too little time to dissolve the original paint, or to scrape away the image without damage to the underlying plaster: the simplest and quickest solution lay in overpainting. Evelyn decided to overpaint the 'old king' and replace him with the jack. She was in a hurry, which is maybe why the mirror image of the upper half of the jack does not exactly match the lower half.    

The jack's face is just a blotch, as scumbled and imprecise as the queen is exact and carefully rendered. (Her background is unusually white, too: I wonder if this is because at the time of painting there was no queen? George V's successor was the unmarried Edward VIII, who abdicated some months later in order to marry a definitely un-virginal American divorcee, Mrs Wallis Simpson.) Whatever re-arrangement Evelyn made of the court cards on learning of George V's death, her choice of non-court cards cleverly reminds us that we are all, men and women, at sixes and sevens when left to our own devices, which can hardly be denied. 

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

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