Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Brockley Murals (1933-36) Part 3: The ceiling





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 15 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 was the trompe l'oeil plaster work on the central ceiling panel. This included four roundels which Evelyn filled with Olympian goddesses or other moral personifications.

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, suggestive of spring. 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 spandrels beneath.

So we can assume that Mahoney's ceilings came first, and Evelyn's spandrels followed. It's likely 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 of the first cycle, featured here: second was the kite-flying ceiling inside and above the hall door, giving the all-clear to Evelyn's more autumnal series, cycle three, which appeared here, in which some of her spandrel strands actually trespass upwards into Mahoney's ceiling. And finally, most probably in the spring of 1935, Mahoney started on the grisaille, the false Adam-style decorative plasterwork of the central ceiling, surely a thanklessly repetitive task, but one with which he was perhaps pleased enough to have it photographed.

 Charles Mahoney and Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals. The central arcade ceiling, with grisaille by Mahoney and roundels Genius, Virtue and Reputation (L) and Minerva and the Olive Tree (R) by Evelyn Dunbar, summer 1935. Tate Archive


Evelyn refers to the painting of these roundels in two letters to Mahoney, written in the autumn of 1935. In the first Evelyn fantasises about herself and Mahoney - an 'I wish': Mahoney had left the project four months before - sprouting wings, the better to attack the ceiling above, while a wondering crowd of Brockley boys and staff gaze upwards at this unusual phenomenon. We note, however, that the spandrels below have not yet been started. She refers to her spandrels as 'her specials'.

 Letter from Evelyn to Mahoney, 3rd October 1935. Tate archive, ©Estate of Evelyn Dunbar

The second letter shows her still painting the roundels, but reaching the ceiling via a scaffold or trestle. The spandrels below have still not been started.

 Letter from Evelyn to Mahoney, 14th November 1935. Tate archive, ©Estate of Evelyn Dunbar

(The school row to which Evelyn refers was connected with a mislaid portfolio.) The notion, incidentally, that Evelyn and Mahoney might somehow have worked together simultaneously on this ceiling, like the winged artists in her 3rd October letter, is difficult to substantiate. It would have been very hard for them to share a platform: Mahoney was over 6' tall, Evelyn some 5'6". A photograph of them taken in 1936 by an itinerant street photographer, common at the time, shows the difference in their height.

Evelyn and Mahoney photographed in a London street by 'Sunny Snaps'. Probably winter, 1936. Tate archive.

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.

Juno and the Peacock



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



There are several versions of this fable. A notable one comes from William Caxton (c.1422-1492), a man of Kent otherwise known as The Father of English Printing. After relating how the Peacock, most beautiful and majestic of the birds, came in a fit of gloom and anguish to Juno, queen of the gods, grumbling that the other birds had got it in for him because he could not sing, Caxton makes Juno say, rather primly: 'Euery one oughte to be content of kynde [i.e. class, station], And of suche good as god sente unto hym; Wherof he must vse justly.'


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.

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.

Industry and Sloth


Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals Industry and Sloth
Photograph: Richard Valencia © 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 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 nicely 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 something really quite startling: she has 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.

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, 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.

Evelyn has reproduced the pylons as 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 of other large-scale public amenities 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. These 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)

To digress - I hope with relevance - 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.

Genius, Virtue and Reputation


Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals Genius, Virtue and Reputation
Photograph: Richard Valencia © 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.
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 woodcut illustrating the fable.

 Thomas Bewick: Genius, Virtue and Reputation

Minerva and the Olive Tree


Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals Minerva and the Olive Tree
Photograph: Richard Valencia © 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 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

As for the green trellises or pergolas beneath which Minerva/Pallas Athene is passing, we have seen one of them before:

Detail from The Jackdaw and the Pigeons: William Dunbar in the garden at The Cedars, Rochester

Here we are back in the garden at The Cedars, and if it isn't Evelyn's father wandering contentedly round it, it's Pallas Athene, divine provider of benefits to mankind, with an olive tree ready to plant. Her hat bears a strong resemblance to the hat Florence Dunbar used to wear for gardening. We finish where we began, in the Garden at The Cedars.



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 2019. 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
http://www.casematepublishing.co.uk/index.php/evelyn-dunbar-10523.html
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25






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