Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Christmas Cards 1956-59

Evelyn Dunbar Christmas Card 1956
  © Estate of Evelyn Dunbar: private collection

These images should enlarge if you click on them

Maybe the title of Evelyn's and her husband Roger's Christmas card for 1956, not one of their best, speaks - rather obscurely - to all who have ever been pushed to finish their Christmas mail on time:

Eleventh Hour

Time presses: that's the modern slant
On doing only what you want.
Comes Christmas: here's the need to grant
A waiver for the expectant.
Conspirators that subjugate
Submit to man's apostolate.

The card, showing a man, probably Roger, deep in thought, and Evelyn has added 'What greeting from R and E?

Evelyn Dunbar Christmas Card 1957
  © Estate of Evelyn Dunbar: private collection

All that remains of their 1957 card is the sketch Evelyn made to accompany Roger's verse, which refers to one of his professional visits to the Caribbean as a member of HM Government's Commission to the Citrus Industry:

White is the skin and white the sand
that burns beneath the sun
Brown is the earth and brown the hand
that nurtures everyone
white-and-brown are the eyes that scan
the destiny of man

I've remarked before before how useful these Christmas cards are to the biographer, even at the level of this catalogue raisonné. In the summer of 1957, while Roger was in the Caribbean, Evelyn was working sporadically at Bletchley Park Training College on an abortive mural project, which was later downsized to the Alpha and Omega panels. Among the pressures that led to Evelyn downsizing this project was that their lease on The Elms, where they had lived since 1950, was due to expire before the end of the year.

Under pressure, and with Roger still on the other side of the Atlantic, Evelyn opted for a modern house in the village of Wye, formerly a vicarage. I remember discussing with Evelyn what they should call it. We made a list of more or less fanciful words reflecting the red-brown brick colour of their new house: 'sinoper', 'bole', 'russet', 'madder' (fairly quickly crossed out), 'reddle', and more. Eventually - maybe Roger called time on this - they settled for 'tan', and Tan House it became. They weren't happy there: 'It was our one mistake,' Roger recalled in Evelyn Dunbar: The Husband's Narrative, the unpublished account of their marriage which he produced in 2007, the year before he died. 'Strangely, we did not flourish there.'

Evelyn Dunbar Christmas Card 1958
  © Estate of Evelyn Dunbar: private collection

By 1958 Roger and Evelyn, having realised the limitations of Tan House (where there was no studio), moved to a farmhouse called Staple Farm, some 300' (90m) up on the North Downs a few miles from Wye. (Here there was a studio, perhaps the best she ever had.)

Evelyn's drawing shows a winged figure holding up a scroll featuring all the houses they had lived in. At the top is Vyner's Cottage, Long Compton, Warwickshire; next down is The Manor House, Enstone, Oxfordshire (these two appeared on their Christmas cards for 1945 and 1949 respectively); then, having moved to Kent, The Elms, Hinxhill, which now looks like this:

The Elms, Hinxhill. Evelyn's studio was between the front door and the conservatory, which she and Roger called the 'vigne'. This was where my portrait was painted in 1954. The conservatory appears to have been replaced and enlarged since then.

Then Tan House, a modern single storey house. Evelyn has very cleverly included in her vignette the Wye Crown on the hill behind the house. This is the outline of a crown cut in the chalk of the North Downs, which I believe was done to commemorate the accession of Edward VII in 1902. It's a well-known feature of the area.

And finally, at the foot of the scroll, Staple Farm, Hastingleigh.

Roger's double-rhymed verse, Chez Tous, mentions features of all the houses they'd lived in together:

Roofs of thatch, roofs of slate,
Lift the latch, come back late,
Walls of brick, walls of stone,
Cut bread thick, gnaw a bone;
Floors of wood, floors of tile,
Change the mood, drop the smile,
Ceilings high, ceilings low,
Needles ply, watch a show;
Helios, Mister Therm,
Play the boss, loose the perm;
Boulevards, country lane,
Show your cards, spare the cane;
Central heat, open fire,
Toast the feet, then retire;
Tile-hung or white stucco....
Homeward for rest we go.

Evelyn Dunbar Christmas Card 1959
  © Estate of Evelyn Dunbar: private collection

This was the last Christmas card Roger and Evelyn sent jointly. By the following May she was dead. Roger's double-sided verse is reflected in Evelyn's dark and quite obscure double-sided image. The left side shows two 11- or 12-year-old boys teetering on walls or rolling and piling logs, which presumably Roger has cut with the saw on the extreme right of the image. On the right, the same two boys are shown inelegantly asprawl on the hearthrug in front of the large open fire at Staple Farm.

We've met both these boys before: the dark-haired lad stooping over a log on the left is Roger's and Evelyn's nephew (and my half-brother) Richard, and the other is Barry Paterson, one of the two boys whom Evelyn enjoyed taking in from time to time during the last two years of her life from the Caldecott Community, a nearby children's home. Two years earlier Barry had been the model for Alpha in Evelyn's Alpha and Omega panels for Bletchley Park Training College.

Roger's verse reads:


See them outside, bole and boy,
Crumbling, tumbling,
Idle; vital.
See them inside, boy and bole.
Cumbent, lambent,
Lazing; blazing.
Change of place reverses role,
Restful, zestful boy or bole.

(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2013. All rights reserved.)

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