Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Brockley Murals (1933-36) Part 2: Ceiling, lunettes and spandrels (3)

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

All these images should enlarge if you click on them

The work of the final cycle of the ceiling, lunette and spandrels underneath 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. In the photograph above there is firstly, and nearest to the viewer, Evelyn's 4-roundel ceiling, supported by her two spandrels The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse (left) and The Flies and the Honeypot (right), which were analysed here. Beyond that is Mahoney's ceiling, which features kites being flown, supported by the only two spandrels he painted, a double one entitled The Clock and the Dial, and finally, just above the main door to the hall, is his lunette, illustrating Aesop's fable of The Rose and the Butterfly.

None of this is very clear from the photo, which gives a general idea of the overall sub-gallery arcade - not only that, but the savage clash between the style of Evelyn's and Mahoney's artwork and such later institutional additions as the rolling service hatches on the right, the utilitarian clock (which may have another unexpected function*), the notices, the swing doors and emergency exit sign above them. But one mustn't cavil too much: this is a school, after all, and not an art gallery.

With Evelyn's final cycle of six spandrels, 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 answer would be 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:

Charles Mahoney: The Brockley Murals. Lunette: The Butterfly and the Rose. Spandrels: The Clock (L) and the Dial (R)

From the finished spandrels it's not easy to distinguish clock from sundial, but a preparatory oil sketch for The Clock and the Dial makes it clearer that the clock is on the left and the sundial on the right.

Charles Mahoney: The Brockley Murals Oil sketch for The Clock and the Dial. Courtesy of, and thanks to, Paul Liss of Liss Fine Art

There are other details that the oil sketch brings out: the gravestones at the foot of each spandrel, and a figure standing on the parapet of the left-hand church tower. This figure appears to be duplicated in the finished Dial. My fancy - honestly, nothing more - suggests that the figures on the parapets are Mahoney himself twice over, and that the lunette below is supposedly the view from his vantage point.

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 female figure on it may just be Evelyn, just as the miniature portrait in The Cock and the Jewel, at the far end of the sub-gallery arcade, may be of Mahoney. (Evelyn, with no hint of a ruder vernacular, used sometimes in the Mockney slang of the period to address Mahoney as 'cock' or 'matey-cock'.) The fable of The Butterfly and the Rose (the brownish blob just right of centre turns out to be a peacock butterfly) is ostensibly about inconstancy. Each accuses the other of flirting with every insect or flower in sight, but the moral is of course about the virtues of fidelity.

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Hare and the Tortoise

Moving clockwise from Mahoney's Dial, the first of Evelyn's spandrels is devoted to maybe the best-known of Aesop's fables, The Hare and the Tortoise. Emerging from some bracken, 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 that he's destined never to win, is hurtling at full stretch in another direction. But where does the race end? In the background, the first item in a continual landscape that links all six of Evelyn's spandrels, is a graveyard. This graveyard is adjacent to the plant-festooned gravestone in Mahoney's Dial spandrel. What are they trying to tell us?

We follow the background landscape, noting an enclosed garden (which by its Latin name Hortus conclusus had a symbolic significance in much earlier religious painting connected with the Virgin, which I don't think applies here) with a gazebo, a fine garden bench, and onwards across the neck, still following the wall, until we come to a some wrought-iron gates and the drive into a fine country house, with, beyond it, an orchard with trees bare of leaves but well plenished with poultry. We're in the next fable, The Partridge and the Hare, but on the way something remarkable has happened:

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals: The Hare and the Tortoise (L) and The Hare and the Partridge (R)

As we cross from The Hare and the Tortoise to the next spandrel, maybe wondering if it's the same hare in both, at the narrowest point of the neck, just above the apex of the window frame below, there's a small unobtrusive brown rectangle that might be anything, but which on close examination turns out to be a tree-trunk. This trunk continues its growth up and under the coving, and reappears to spread its branches on the edge of Mahoney's ceiling. I imagine this trespass was by agreement, and might, if it happened again, be interpreted as a deliberate statement of partnership. In fact it does happen again, in almost all the remaining spandrels, and it's obviously deliberate. The relationship between Evelyn and Mahoney is becoming clearer.

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Hare and the Partridge (L) and The Fir Tree and the Bramble (R)

So far in this journey through fables as interpreted by Evelyn or Mahoney there has been barely a mention of the best-known fabulist after Aesop, the 17th Century French writer Jean de La Fontaine. His elegantly simple account - a translation follows - of Le Lièvre et la Perdrix, The Hare and the Partridge (Book 5, No. 17) reads:

Il ne se faut jamais moquer des misérables :
Car qui peut s'assurer d'être toujours heureux ?
    Le sage Ésope dans ses Fables
    Nous en donne un exemple ou deux.
    Celui qu'en ces Vers je propose,
    Et les siens, ce sont même chose.
Le Lièvre et la Perdrix, concitoyens d'un champ,
Vivaient dans un état, ce semble, assez tranquille,
    Quand une Meute s'approchant
Oblige le premier à chercher un asile.
Il s'enfuit dans son fort, met les chiens en défaut,
    Sans même en excepter Briffaut.
[dog's name]
    Enfin il se trahit lui-même
Par les esprits sortant de son corps échauffé.
[another dog's name] sur leur odeur ayant philosophé
Conclut que c'est son Lièvre, et d'une ardeur extrême
Il le pousse, et Rustaut
[yet another dog's name], qui n'a jamais menti
    Dit que le Lièvre est reparti.
Le pauvre malheureux vient mourir à son gîte.
    La Perdix le raille, et lui dit :
    Tu te vantais d'être si vite :
Qu'as-tu fait de tes pieds ? Au moment qu'elle rit
Son tour vient; on la trouve. Elle croit que ses ailes
La sauront garantir à toute extrémité;
    Mais la pauvrette avait compté
    Sans l'Autour aux serres cruelles.

[You should never mock the unfortunate;
For who can be certain of being happy all the time?
    The wise Aesop in his fables
    Gives us several examples.
    Aesop's, and the example I'm giving you in these verses
    Are the same.
The Hare and the Partridge, fellow-citizens of the same field,
Were living peacefully enough, it seems,
When an approaching pack of hounds
Obliges the former to seek refuge.
He flees to a thorny thicket, and gives the hounds the slip,
    Without exception, even Briffaut.
    But in the end he gives himself away
By the scent emanating from his heated body.
Miraut, having thought hard about the scent,
Concludes that it is his Hare, and with extreme energy
Pushes in, while Rustaut, who never lies,
    Says that the Hare has escaped again.
The poor creature is about to die in his form.
    The Partridge jeers at him, and says:
    'You boasted about being so fast:
    What's happened to your feet?' Even as she laughs
Her turn comes round: she is discovered. She thinks her wings
Will be able to save her from any emergency;
But the poor thing hadn't taken into account
The cruel claws of the goshawk.]
(My translation)

Evelyn has painted us a beautiful Partridge, and a fine lop-eared Hare, but of Briffaut, Miraut and Rustaut and the rest of the pack and the goshawk there is no trace. Maybe the little burial ground and Mahoney's gravestones in the previous spandrels are memento mori enough. And perhaps the goshawk is biding his time in the Fir-Tree in the next spandrel...

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Fir Tree and the Bramble (L) and The Elm Tree and the Vine (R)

The fable of The Fir Tree and the Bramble isn't particularly 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 won't be quite so self-satisfied when the foresters come to cut him down, when he'll wish he was a bramble and not a fir. Better to be poor and carefree than rich and overborne with the responsibilites wealth brings.

I think Evelyn selected this fable for no other purpose than to be a pair to its neighbour, which is perhaps the most significant of the entire 22 spandrels from her hand. Before exploring this, however, we could observe that the background, beyond the fence with its white posts, is a continuation of the horizon in the two 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, and beyond the fence, is another of Evelyn's ploughed fields, always a symbol of promise.

This next spandrel is entitled The Elm Tree and the Vine, which is barely a fable at all. It doesn't appear in Aesop. Its first written appearance - as far as I know - is 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, the vine needing the support of the elm in order to stand upright and bear fruit, which was indeed common practice in the ancient world and still is in some Mediterranean vineyards. As such it became a metaphor for marriage.

Ovid's retelling of the legend, in Metamorphoses Book XIV, opens with a description of Pomona, and a few random lines clearly 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 condition known as priapism).

Enter Vertumnus, the Roman (or more probably Etruscan) god of plant growth, of change, of 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 instead of wooing her conventionally he turned 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 by this stage had become suspiciously more passionate than she might have expected from an old woman. But when Vertumnus changes his appearance into a handsome bronzed young man she resists no longer.

Evelyn's spandrel shows the Elm, again reaching up and beneath the coving into Mahoney's ceiling, while the tendrils of the vine creep towards the trunk of the elm and also up into 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.

What is Evelyn trying to tell us about her relationship with Mahoney? Are we to look at an Evelyn/Pomona - Mahoney/Vertumnus scenario? If this is indeed the case, many things fall into place, including the overall design of the sub-gallery murals and the time scale. On one level, the sub-gallery decoration becomes a celebration of the professional partnership between the two artists. This partnership started in the spring of 1933, when Evelyn was approaching the end of her 4-year Royal College of Art Associateship course, and when Mahoney recruited her for the Brockley project. Whatever else may have drawn them together, a mutual love of plants and gardening united them, and this love is surely evident throughout the Brockley murals.  

And on another level, I think the sub-gallery decoration points to their developing personal relationship. I don't think there was anything unprofessional or inappropriate in the relationship, in the temper of the 1930s, between Evelyn and Mahoney (who was three years her senior) at the RCA. I think the first flowering of what became an intense emotional relationship between the two can be traced to the summer of 1933. Evelyn had graduated ARCA in June. Work had already started on The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk and possibly on The Cock and the Jewel lunette, and continued sporadically into the autumn. Evelyn was a free agent, but Mahoney was bound by the RCA terms and vacation periods. He frequently spent his holiday periods with colleagues, either on farms offering accommodation or with fellow artists in the country, and it's likely that the first time he and Evelyn went away together was to stay with Edward Bawden, another devoted gardener, at his house in Great Bardfield, Essex, in the late summer of 1933.

Their relationship was possibly at its most idyllic in 1934. Tiring of frequent train journeys between Rochester and Brockley, Evelyn rented rooms in Ermine Road, a few minutes' walk from Brockley School, and also a studio in Hampstead, which Mahoney came later that year to share with her. There were interruptions to the work at Brockley, caused to a lesser extent by limited availability of trestles and scaffolding - it seems likely that Evelyn had to wait until her colleagues Mildred Eldridge and Violet Martin had finished their hall panels before she could continue in situ with her work - and to a greater extent by endless scrounging for money to pay the artists. In the end both Mahoney (who was salaried by the RCA) and Evelyn (who was not, and may have been helped by her family and Mahoney) gave huge amounts of their time free.

By May 1935 Mahoney's work at Brockley had finished, and the last work he and Evelyn completed together, although not simultaneously given the difference in their heights, was probably the trompe l'oeil Adam-style plasterwork of the central sub-gallery ceiling. (This, which meant that Evelyn's central spandrel cycle was the last to be completed, will be considered in detail in the next essay.) Throughout the summer of 1935 Evelyn worked alone on the great Hilly Fields frieze, with occasional breaks to concentrate on the spandrels. Although in the voluminous and often delectably illustrated correspondence from Evelyn to Mahoney (his replies have not survived) there are hints at one or two cracks in their relationship from late 1934, it's from 1935 that Evelyn starts expressing her doubts about the firmness of its foundation. Most of these doubts take the form of her apologising for some aspect of her conduct to Mahoney, or for something involving Mahoney that's gone wrong at home in Rochester. There are frequent appeals for fresh starts and calls for more mutual understanding. Marriage is mentioned, but never advanced: Mahoney believed that marriage, especially with the possible advent of children, would put a brake on Evelyn's development as an artist. There were certainly significant religious and political differences between them.

I think - but who can judge the dynamic of other peoples' loves? - all this is reflected in the Brockley spandrels. The first cycle, where the setting of the various fables is in spring, is the earliest, and we can perhaps imagine Evelyn painting them in 1933/4 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 1934/5, there's a sense of coming down to earth, which is expressed in the current cycle of autumnal spandrels, which I find quite ambivalent: what exactly is being expressed? Are those reminders of death, the gravestones in Mahoney's The Clock and the Dial, and in Evelyn's The Hare and the Tortoise, symbolic of their mutual constancy (already commented on in Mahoney's lunette The Rose and the Butterfly) until the end? Or do they hint at the life-cycle of the relationship? Is the Pomona/Vertumnus scenario a comment on the past, the present or the future?

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Fox and the Crab (R) and The Elm and the Vine (L)

We move on the the penultimate spandrel, The Fox and the Crab. The fable runs as follows: A crab, tiring of its inter-tidal zone and a diet of unwary molluscs and sand-fly larvae, decided to explore inland to see what better forage the hinterland might have to offer. In due course he came to a meadow, where he was set upon by a fox. The fox devoured him shell, claws and winking eye, but before he expired the crab was 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. To start with, I had some difficulty in finding the Crab, eventually slapping my brow in a 'Doh!' moment: of course there's no Crab, it's inside the Fox. But in fact there's a crab-like shape lurking in the greenery at the foot of the spandrel.

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Frog and the Ox

For the last time the background continues into the last spandrel, carried by a long stretch of barbed wire (barbed wire? What's barbed wire doing in a set of timeless commentaries like these?) running from a post on the left of The Fox and the Crab to the right of The Frog and the Ox. Complementing the Crab in the previous spandrel, a handsome Frog 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.

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. We'll look at these next time.

* The unexpected function: before the advent of public address systems, embryo public speakers, who often launched their oratory in school assembly halls, were sometimes advised to speak to the clock at the back of the hall as a method of making sure their voices carried.

(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2013. 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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