Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Brockley Murals (1933-36) Part 2: Ceiling, lunettes and spandrels (4)

Evelyn Dunbar and Charles Mahoney: The Brockley Murals The central ceiling panel (Author's photograph)

By June 1935 only Evelyn remained of the original team of four artists responsible for the Brockley Mural project. Violet Martin and Mildred Eldridge had each completed their panel on the south side of the main hall (where they are gradually fading because of their exposure to the sun, and will have disappeared in 20 years' time unless protective measures are taken). Charles Mahoney, Royal College of Art tutor and project leader, had finished two panels on the north side of the hall. Beneath the gallery he had also completed the lunette (The Butterfly and the Rose) and its adjacent twin spandrels (The Clock and the Dial) and two ceiling panels, one featuring the flight of birds and butterflies and the other of kites. His final contribution, possibly shared with Evelyn, was the trompe l'oeil plaster work, in the style of the Scottish designer Robert Adam, on the central ceiling panel.

Evelyn had finished her hall panel, The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk, the great Hilly Fields frieze, the sub-gallery lunette The Cock and the Jewel and several of the spandrels surrounding it, mostly suggestive of Spring. I don't know the exact order in which Evelyn painted her spandrels, and maybe it doesn't matter much. I imagine that no muralists of Mahoney's or Evelyn's standards, particularly in a joint venture, would ever dream of abandoning the top-down principle of wall painting, shared by muralists and interior decorators alike: however attached to each other they may have been, Evelyn would have had something to say if Mahoney's ceiling work had left splashes on her completed, and meticulously careful, spandrels beneath.

So we can assume that Mahoney's ceilings came first, and Evelyn's spandrels followed. I can't see much point in trying to reconstruct in detail which ceilings were done when. My private opinion is that the birds-and-butterflies ceiling, at the far end of the gallery, was finished first, allowing Evelyn to get on with The Cock and the Jewel lunette and the 'Spring' spandrels', featured here: second was the kite-flying ceiling inside and above the hall door, giving the all-clear to Evelyn's more autumnal series, which I wrote about here, in which some of her spandrel strands actually trespass upwards into Mahoney's ceiling. And finally, most probably in May 1935, Evelyn and Mahoney jointly started on the false plasterwork and four roundels of the central ceiling, as cartooned by Evelyn in two of her illustrated letters to Mahoney, which we've seen before. And we arrive at the phenomenon, for which I'm sure there's a polysyllabic historiographical term, of dating the letter (Evelyn rarely dated her letters) from the painting rather than the painting from the letter.

Evelyn Dunbar: excerpts from letters to Charles Mahoney, September/October 1935

From the first of Evelyn's cartoons above and from Mahoney's study below, it seems that originally both of them were going to fill the roundels with designs to be called The Four Winds of Hilly Fields. At some stage, probably when Evelyn took over sole responsibility for the roundels, she chose subjects more in keeping with the overall Brockley concept of Aesop's fables, using human figures in contrast to the animals, insects and inanimate objects predominate in her spandrels. The three figures in the top right-hand roundel in Mahoney's study below may possibly prefigure the trio that became Genius, Virtue and Reputation under Evelyn's brush.

Charles Mahoney The Brockley Murals: Study for the Adam-style trompe l'oeil plasterwork in the central ceiling panel, c.1934-35. Image by courtesy of, and with thanks to, Paul Liss of Liss Fine Art.

For whatever reason, in all probability the pressure of his work at the Royal College of Art, by the end of May 1935 Mahoney had withdrawn from any further active part in the Brockley project, leaving the completion of the roundels to Evelyn. I wouldn't like to think that they fell out over this ceiling, but I can imagine the patience of each being severely tried with the tediously repetitious task of filling in the hachuring on the borders of each roundel. It's inconceivable that they both worked simultaneously on this ceiling: Mahoney was over 6' (>180cm) tall, and would have had to crouch most uncomfortably on the scaffolding to allow Evelyn at 5' 6" (167cm) to reach the ceiling at all. The upper of Evelyn's two drawings above suggests an amusing way round this difficulty, maybe with a subtext about the nuisance to the school of constantly having trestles and ladders in place in a busy thoroughfare.

The result of Mahoney's withdrawal was some of the most stunning and technically brilliant painting ever to come from Evelyn's brush, and something with which I suspect Mahoney would have found it hard to compete.

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals Juno and the Peacock
 Photograph: Richard Valencia
Photo copyright © Christopher Campbell-Howes

A collector and translator of fables so far unrepresented in these essays is William Caxton, a man of Kent otherwise known as the Father of English Printing, who was born in the early 15th century and who died in about 1492. Here is his version of Juno and the Peacock:

Of Iuno the goddesse and of the pecok and of the nyghtyngale

Every one oughte to be content of kynde
And of suche good as god hath sente vnto hym;
Wherof he must vse Iustly
As reherceth this fable of a pecok, whiche came to Iuno the goddesse
And sayd to her 'I am heuy and sorowful
By cause I can not synge as wel as the nyghtyngale;
For euery one mocketh and scorneth me
By cause I can not synge.'
And Iuno wold comforte hym and sayd
'Thy fayre forme and beaute is fayrer and more worthy and of gretter preysynge than the songe of the nyghtyngale,
For thy fethers and thy colour ben resplendysshyng as the precious Emerawd,
And ther is no byrde lyke to thy fethers ne to thy beaulte.'
And the pecok sayd thenne to Iuno
'All this is nought syth I cannot synge.'
And thenne Iuno sayd ageyne thus to the pecok for to contente hym:
'This is in the diposycion of the goddes
Whiche haue gyuen to eyther of yow one propyrte, and one vertue,
Suche as it pleasyd them.
As to thee they haue gyuen fayr fygure,
To the egle haue they gyuen strengthe,
And to the nyghtyngale fayr & playsaunt songe;
And so to all other byrdes,
Wherfore euery one must be content of that that he hath.'

For the myserable auarycious the more goodes that they haue the more they desyre to haue.

[Everyone ought to be content with their kind
And of such quality as god has given him;
Which he must employ appropriately,
As witness this fable of a peacock, which came to the goddess Juno
And said to her 'I am heavy [with grief] and sorrowful
Because I can't sing as well as the nightingale;
For everyone mocks and scorns me
Because I can't sing.'
And Juno wanted to comfort him and said
'Your fair appearance and your beauty is more splendid and more worthy and more greatly to be praised than the song of the nightingale,
For your feathers and your colour are as resplendent as the precious emerald,
And there is no bird with plumage or beauty like yours.'
And the peacock then said to Juno
'All this is nothing if I can't sing.'
Then Juno said to him again, to make him more content,
'These things are at the disposition of the gods
Which gave to each of you one characteristic and one quality
As it seemed good to them.
Just as they gave you a beautiful appearance
So they gave the eagle strength
And the nightingale a fine and pleasant song;
And so on to all the other birds,
So everyone must be content with what he has.

For the miserly avaricious, the more goods they have, the more they desire to have.]

Evelyn has given us a Juno, who was after all the consort of Jupiter and thus queen of the Roman gods, with a splendidly homely appearance while assigning her an Olympian sky to fill in the grand High Renaissance or Baroque manner of Titian or Tiepolo. Evelyn's skill with Juno's foreshortening and the hang of her skirts, preventing any possible up-skirt lèse-majesté, is nothing less than Olympian too, especially considering that the goddess is wearing simple slippers, a voluminous red dress, a pale café-au-lait woolly cardigan with white edges and an extraordinary red and white scarf which almost hides a garland of what look like bay leaves. There's nothing especially regal about her face, either: the Queen of the Gods might be a favourite aunt.

(Curiously, Evelyn does much the same with a much later painting, Oxford of about 1948, where she dresses the goddess Isis - whom some equate with Juno - in similarly homely clothing.)

Her peacock is magnificent. He is sitting peaceably on Juno's right wrist, turning his crested head towards Juno to screech his complaint and to hear her discouraging reply. Evelyn has captured the wonderful peacock blue/green, and for the better balance of the composition has chosen wisely not to show the peacock with his tail fanned out in display (when, incidentally, you see how ragged peacock's tail feathers become after being dragged about in the dirt most of the time). The roundel is completed with a few trees and the suggestion of a cottage.

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals Industry and Sloth
Photograph: Richard Valencia
Photo copyright © Christopher Campbell-Howes

Moving clockwise from Juno and the Peacock, noting that the heads in all four roundels point more or less towards the central and very utilitarian light fitting, we come to Industry and Sloth. Here is Thomas Bewick's account of this fable:

Our term of life does not allow for long protracted deliberations

How many live in the world as useless as if they had never been born! They pass through life like a bird through the air, and leave no track behind them; waste the prime of their days in deliberating what they shall do, and bring them to a period without coming to any determination.
    An indolent young man, being asked why he lay in bed so long, jocosely and carelessly answered, Every morning of my life I am hearing causes. I have two fine girls, their names are Industry and Sloth, close at my bedside as soon as ever I awake, pressing their different suits. One instructs me to get up, the other persuades me to lie still; and then they alternately give me various reasons why I should rise, and why I should not. This detains me so long, as it is the duty of an impartial judge to hear all that can be said on either side, that before the pleadings are over, it is time to go to dinner.

Thomas Bewick: Industry and Sloth

It would be a pity to quote Thomas Bewick at length without including one of the woodcuts for which he's better known: here is his illustration to Industry and Sloth. The young man of the fable, who reminds me strongly of Ilya Ilyich Oblomov in Goncharov's novel Oblomov (I have Evelyn's copy), has slung his unpressed suit on to what you might call a chairdrobe, has not bothered to conceal the chamber pot under the bed, and is attended by his 'two fine girls', one of whom seems set on keeping him in bed without much recourse to long protracted deliberations.

Evelyn's interpretation, in a marvellously balanced composition, is rather different from Bewick's. Industry is the busy figure in the front, dressed in bluey-green with a white pinafore and a curious brown sash that I can't quite explain. She's wearing sensible Mary-Jane shoes and has a sort of mob cap. She's looking out of the roundel frame, indeed her stance suggests plunging out of the confines of the ceiling altogether, as though what lies within it is not enough to contain her energies, while her clothes fan out behind her in the slipstream of her busy-ness.

Sloth, on the other hand, is more gorgeously dressed in red, with a long white cardigan, or bed-jacket, even, with scalloped edges. She isn't going far, if anywhere at all, because she's barefoot, and barely awake: she's yawning, her eyes are closed, an arm that might otherwise be active is pinned behind her head, the hand disappearing into a vast mop of hair that she hasn't bothered to cut or comb, reminiscent of Struwwelpeter.

Below the two figures Evelyn has done a remarkable and really quite startling and unexpected thing: she's put in a succession of electricity pylons. This is a very far cry from anything else in the Brockley murals. So far Evelyn and her Brockley colleagues have invoked a pastoral, generally timeless and very English world, very much of its mid-30s period: maybe we should explore what has led Evelyn to include these foreign bodies.

The novelist Evelyn Waugh, of the same generation as Evelyn, published his second novel Vile Bodies in 1930. (Evelyn (Dunbar) and her husband Roger had Vile Bodies on their bookshelves: it was Evelyn who introduced me to Waugh.) Towards the end of Vile Bodies Ginger Littlejohn and his bride Nina are flying to the Mediterranean for their honeymoon. As they take off into the English sky, moved by the view below, Ginger shouts above the roar of the aircraft engines excerpts from John of Gaunt's great access of patriotic nostalgia in Shakespeare's Richard II: This sceptre'd isle, this earth of majesty, this [he can't quite remember it] something-or-other Eden...this little world, this precious stone set in a silver sea...this blessed plot, and so on. And Waugh continues:

Nina looked down and saw inclined at an odd angle a horizon of straggling red suburb; arterial roads dotted with little cars; factories, some of them working, others empty and decaying; a disused canal; some distant hills sown with bungalows; wireless masts and overhead power cables; men and women were indiscernible except as tiny spots [...]

In June 1935, at the very moment, maybe, when Evelyn was painting Industry and Sloth and the other roundels, Stanley Baldwin became Prime Minister for the third time. Born and bred in Worcestershire, among the more rural of English counties, he was a politician of visions as irreconcilable as Ginger Littlejohn's and Nina's above. He promoted an ideal of countryside as representing the backbone moral resource of Britain, yet he was the man who in 1926 instigated the Central Electricity Board, which a few years later sent high-tension pylons marching across the very green and pleasant land he himself idealised.

The study of the concepts of country and countryside in Britain after the First World War is long winding garden path, and one that I don't want to be lured too far up here. Many of Evelyn's contemporaries - Edward Bawden, Kenneth Rowntree, Eric Ravilious, John Piper, Duncan Grant, Mahoney himself, the list is endless - wandered contentedly up and down it, wittingly or unwittingly fleshing out a paradisal otherwhere for an increasingly urbanised and economically depressed 1930s society, the one Nina Littlejohn sees from above. (And promptly feels sick.)

Did they hear the approaching march of what are sometimes called the Pylon Poets? Auden is there, and Stephen Spender, among a host of minor poets, some trying hard to reconcile the rape of the countryside with the advantages of an inexpensive and universal electricity supply. Attitudes to wind farms maybe aren't very different today. Here is Stephen Spender's 1933 poem The Pylons:

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made,
And crumbling roads
That turned on sudden hidden villages

Now over these small hills, they have built the concrete
That trails black wire
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret.

The valley with its gilt and evening look
And the green chestnut
Of customary root,
Are mocked dry like the parched bed of a brook.

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning's danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek
So tall with prophecy
Dreaming of cities
Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck.

Evelyn has exactly reproduced the pylons described by Spender, a design created by the architect Sir Reginald Blomfield, who also designed Lambeth Bridge and the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres. Blomfield modelled the shape and proportions of his tapering, latticed pylons on ancient Egyptian temple doorways, taking the classical Greek word πυλος, pylos, for such entrances as their name. In the early 1930s such pylons criss-crossed Britain, evoking anger, jokes in Punch, letters to The Times, health scares and demonstrations in much the same way as wind farms do today. Aesthetically, maybe they made the most of a bad job, but no one apart from the most hardened brutalist could say that they were objects of beauty.

So what is Evelyn doing? In asking the question we can stir into the mix the telegraph poles in the next roundel, Genius, Virtue and Reputation and the railway gantries in the last, and to my mind most Evelynish, roundel, Minerva and the Olive Tree, and all three are references to the contemporary modernisation of Britain. Evelyn's roundels evoke in their miniaturised way Classical deities and personifications and religious scenes, of the sort you see painted on the pseudo-celestial ceilings of 17th and 18th century palaces, Versailles or the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, to take two random examples, and Catholic churches of the period almost anywhere.

Johann Michael Rottmayr (1656-1730): detail of fresco in the dome of the Karlskirche, Vienna, 1714 (Photo: Josephine Campbell-Howes)

I've chosen the Karlskirche in Vienna out of hundreds of examples, not through any outstanding artistic merit but because on visiting the church on a cold morning in January 2013 my wife and I discovered that an extensive restoration programme was taking place. Wonder of wonders, among the technical installations was a lift, available to the public, which whirred and whisked us up to a viewing platform vertiginously high inside the dome, literally up into the gods, enabling us to take close-up and level photos of Rottmayr's vision of celestial shenanigans rather than craning our necks from far below. In the lower half of this fresco a bare-breasted angel with a flaming torch is setting fire to the books of some well-intentioned proto-Reformation character, probably the Czech Jan Huss, while the Whore of Babylon (what can they have had to say to each other?) clutches her takings behind her mask and Lucifer allows serpents to make free with his body. How very English Evelyn's figures appear by comparison.

So in her modest style and scale Evelyn has created her roundels within the Baroque tradition of ceilings decorated with figures that are supposed to have some power or influence over us mortals below. Or maybe figures that offer us some protection or reward in return for our obedience and subservience. Evelyn has nudged this notion into the 20th century by including in her roundels something controversial but very much of her time. She's giving the viewer a gentle reminder that the wisdom of the ages is just as relevant now as it was when Aesop invented his little moral stories.

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals Genius, Virtue and Reputation
Photograph: Richard Valencia
Photo copyright © Christopher Campbell-Howes

Diagonally opposite from Industry and Sloth is Genius, Virtue and Reputation. I take the original fable again from Thomas Bewick, noting on the way that of the 141 Bewick fables, Evelyn and Mahoney chose to depict no less than five out of the first eleven. Bewick has localised the fable, setting it in Britain, in much the same way as Evelyn, via her telegraph poles, has set her roundel in the 1930s.

Genius, Virtue and Reputation, three intimate friends, agreed to travel over the island of Great Britain, to see whatever might be worthy of observation. But as some misfortune, said they, may happen to separate us, let us consider before we set out by what means we may find each other again.
    Should it be my ill-fortune, said Genius, to be severed from you, my associates - which Heaven forbid! - you may find me kneeling in devotion before the tomb of Shakespear, or rapt in some grove where Milton talked with angels, or musing in the grotto where Pope caught inspiration.
    Virtue, with a sigh, acknowledged that her friends were not very numerous; but were I to lose you, she cried, with whom I am at present so happily united, I should choose to take sanctuary in the temples of religion, in the palaces of royalty, or in the stately domes of ministers of state; but as it may be my ill-fortune to be there denied admittance, inquire rather for some cottage where contentment has a bower, and there you will certainly find me.
    Ah! my dear companions, said Reputation, very earnestly, you, I perceive, when missing, may possibly be recovered; but take care I entreat you, always to keep sight of me, for if once I am lost, I am never to be retrieved.

I try to put myself into the position of a boy from Brockley County School looking up at this, maybe while queueing at the service hatch below for his school dinner, and wondering what on earth is going on. He would undoubtedly recognise the marching column of telegraph poles, he might be able to tell us that as a result his house was now 'on the telephone' with a now unimaginably simple number like Brockley 28 and that all calls went through a manual operator at the local telephone exchange whose principal utterance, after having asked which number you wanted, was "trying to connect you", but otherwise I suspect complete mystification. That the three female figures are holding hands would have further perplexed him.

We can guess that Genius, Virtue and Reputation - a magnificent composition again - have linked hands to reduce the risk of them losing each other. Which is which? I think Genius is the left-hand figure, dressed in a low cut but full-skirted creamy dress. Under her arm she is carrying a blank canvas, which no doubt Evelyn left blank deliberately. Who can invent a work supposedly by a genius without proclaiming him/herself to be similarly endowed? The majestic central figure, Virtue, wears a long green dress with an amazing red cloak, flaring out behind and encompassing the trio. Reputation, in a greeny-blue dress with a white trapeze jacket, is waving an admonitory finger, and this is curious because she is doing exactly the same in Bewick's rather workaday wood cut illustrating the fable.

 Thomas Bewick: Genius, Virtue and Reputation

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals Minerva and the Olive Tree
Photograph: Richard Valencia
Photo copyright © Christopher Campbell-Howes

So we come to the last roundel and the last of Evelyn's contributions to the Brockley Murals. The subject doesn't appear in the Perry Index, a list of all the fables of Aesop. It comes from an ancient Greek foundation legend, so I suppose the deity in question really ought to be Pallas Athene, and not her Roman counterpart Minerva. There are various versions of it, but the gist of it is that in Athens at the time King Cecrops, which is roughly the same lost-in-the-mists-of-time period as King Lear, King Lud or even Old King Cole, Zeus invited the gods to make a gift to the city of Athens, one by which the city would prosper. Only two gods took part, Poseidon, god of the sea, and Pallas Athene, goddess of wisdom.

The legends differ over what Poseidon's gift was: a horse, the wind, a spring, which turned out to be salt. Pallas Athene gave the city an olive tree, claiming that her gift would provide food, shelter and fuel. Zeus - or King Cecrops - judged this to be the more useful gift, and awarded Pallas Athene patronage of the city, henceforth to be called Athens after her. The legend is remembered, for what it's worth, on the Greek 1 Euro coin, which features Pallas Athene's emblem, the little owl (Athene noctua) and an olive on a small olive branch.
Greek 1 Euro coin

At last at the end of this long Brockley journey we arrive at Evelyn's true credo, one that shaped her painting from the start in Winter Garden to the very end, Jacob's Dream, and which was bound up with the Christian Science that eventually became a bone of contention between Evelyn and Mahoney. It was this guiding philosophy which tended to distance Evelyn from her contemporaries. This is the notion of a generous and beneficent higher power - the Creator, or god, goddess (as in this case), Mother Earth, Gaia, what you will - providing humanity with something endlessly useful and sustaining. In most of Evelyn's work I describe this as the Covenant, because it usually takes the form of a contract between the Creator and humankind, whereby in return for humankind's promise to love and cherish the gift, the Creator promises an endlessly productive and abundant earth. Evelyn's countryside isn't just to be looked at, it's to be worked and loved in equal measure.

Here then is Minerva or Pallas Athene apparently struggling with her gift, an olive tree, among the gantries associated with railways, the lattice steel frames for mounting signals on, and the ancient legend has been magically transported by Evelyn's brush from pre-Classical Greece to the industrial British here and now of 1935.

A final word on the ensemble of the Brockley Murals. The premises now housing the murals is now the flourishing Sixth Form Centre of Prendergast-Hilly Fields College. As such the murals are not on display to the public. Some guarantee of their preservation was given when the building and the murals within it were listed in 1992, putting some onus of protection on the building's owners. At that time some repair work was done to Evelyn's panel The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk. As mentioned above, two of the hall panels are gradually disappearing because of exposure to sunlight, and will disappear altogether in a few years' time unless they are protected. The same is true to some extent of Evelyn's great Hilly Fields frieze, which spans the width of the hall facing the light: the colours, I feel certain, which were once as vibrant as those under the more shaded gallery, are beginning to fade. It would be matter of the most shameful, if inadvertent, vandalism to allow some the greatest murals of the 20th century to decay and die.

(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

No comments:

Post a Comment