Thursday, 9 May 2013

Autumn and the Poet (1960)

Evelyn Dunbar Autumn and the Poet (1960) Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery, Maidstone, Kent

Evelyn worked sporadically on Autumn and the Poet for the best part of 12 years. She began it when she and her husband Roger were living in Enstone, a village in Oxfordshire. It was on one of the easels in her studio at Staple Farm, Hastingleigh, in Kent, when she died in May, 1960, shortly after signing it 'ED' in the lower left hand corner. 

She made several preliminary attempts for this painting, one of the greatest to come out of the 20th century. Here is one, dating from Evelyn's Enstone days:

Evelyn Dunbar The Poet Surprised by Autumn (?1949) Private collection

Evelyn gave this version to her friend Mary Landale, whom she taught at the Ruskin School, Oxford, in the years immediately after World War 2. The evolution speaks for itself.

Autumn and the Poet is a statement of everything Evelyn believed in, a sort of testament. She had strong beliefs, partly inherited from her mother Florence, partly worked out for herself through the perspective of her Christian Science. They were confirmed largely by her husband Roger, in his time a leading horticultural economist. She held her beliefs to be self-evident and easy to adhere to. The only doubts she had concerned the readiness of humankind to play its part in the Covenant.

The Covenant - my term, not Evelyn's: she had no particular name for it - was, as she conceived it, the promise given by the Creator to the human race of a fertile and eternally abundant land, in return for mankind's promise to cherish it, to appreciate it and to care for it through intelligent and devoted husbandry. For Evelyn the 'Creator' was the Old Testament God, probably because she found the clearest expression of her beliefs in Genesis, in the great family saga of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, a history studded with reminders that 'the Lord will provide.' The symbol of what the Lord had originally provided was the Garden of Eden.

She acknowledged freely that her ideas were by no means the monopoly of Christianity. Mother Earth, Gaia, Mother Nature and their like were all expressions of the same ideas. So were more particularised deities, Isis, Juno, Ceres, Persephone. The Old Testament God, and the scriptural apparatus around him, was her preferred hook to hang her beliefs on. She was in no way a Creationist: her horizons were far wider. But she rarely spoke about these things, except through her painting.

She loved the land with a quiet energy and a private passion that separated her from her colleagues, and which makes it difficult to label her, for those - chiefly Americans - who draw strength and reassurance from classification. Evelyn resisted any attribution to this school or connection with that movement. Maybe we begin to see why if we look closely at the more distant landscape in Autumn and the Poet.

Fields bordered with hedges stretch away into the distance until they become indistinguishable from low hills on the horizon. The fields are in harrowed stubble from the late summer's harvest, or pasture, or maybe fallow, or already ploughed, this last Evelyn's unfailing metaphor for promise. There's nothing specially beautiful or picturesque about this landscape. It's an everyday countryside view, common throughout most of England, especially in the south. It's unassuming, unsentimental - and fashioned by the hand of man.
The hand of man has levelled this land, drained it, ploughed it, manured it, sown it, harvested it, set his herds and flocks to graze on it. In maintaining it, it has maintained him. It's the Covenant in action. All Evelyn's landscapes are the same, not just her many landscapes per se, but the backdrop against which many of her wartime Women's Land Army paintings are set.

(For this reason she was never particularly interested in landscapes in which the hand of man wasn't evident. Only once, to my knowledge, did Evelyn paint a landscape for its perceived aesthetic beauty: Wye from Olantigh of 1953. Mountains, moorland, cloudscapes - with one notable exception, in A Land Girl and the Bail Bull - snow scenes, urban landscapes, forests, deserts, lakes, didn't interest her. No sketches are known from her reasonably extensive overseas travel. Even in Dorset, the one important painting in which the sea could be expected to feature, the viewer is directed inland, away from the sea.)

Having established the stage set, as it were, of the Covenant, Evelyn now starts on the main drama. As in so much of her work, Autumn and the Poet has a left-to-right travel, from the figure of Autumn towards the Poet. Autumn is an apparition: we don't know where she has come from nor where she's going. Nor do we know if Autumn is speaking because her head is turned away, facing downwards to the Poet, who is clearly Roger, and who indeed did model the figure. Autumn has an authoritative message to deliver, one that maybe needs no speech: the Poet, with a blank sheet of paper, is ready to take in what Autumn has to convey to him

Significantly, we've seen the same positioning of figures, with the same left-to-right travel, for six hundred years and more, since the dawn of the Renaissance:

Simone Martini The Annunciation with SS Margaret and Ansanus 1333 Uffizi, Florence

Fra Angelico Annunciation c.1450 Museo di San Marco, Florence

Edward Burne-Jones Annunciation 1879 Lady Lever Gallery, Port Sunlight, Merseyside

Henry Ossawa Tanner Annunciation 1896 Philadelphia Museum of Art

This isn't, of course, to equate Roger with the Virgin Mary nor Evelyn with the archangel Gabriel. But Evelyn has used a recognised pictorial formula to carry the idea of an important message being passed from a figure of authority to another, who at the very least is perplexed - indeed Simone Martini's 1333 Virgin reacts with revulsion - at being chosen to receive it. In the earlier version, Roger, almost grovelling on all fours, is 'surprised' by the apparition of Autumn: in the finished version, his expression displays a certain puzzled gravity.

This is an Annunciation, of a kind. Evelyn has reversed the genders of Annunciator and Annunciatee, and in all humility I think it would be a misreading of her character to make any assumptions of feminism. We're breaking into a dream, one of those dreams that sometimes frame Evelyn's more important allegorical paintings, as in Joseph's Dream, completed in 1943, and as in Jacob's Dream, her farewell painting, and there may be others. Roger, the poet, the interpreter of ideas, is dreaming a dream made for him by the figure of Autumn. Autumn's head has some resemblances to Evelyn with her hair pinned back. Autumn is a figure of some majesty, full-breasted, the latest and most mature in a series of long-bodied, small-headed female types that Evelyn made her own. Her predecessors, from the post-war years 1946-49, when I think Evelyn was experimenting to find the female shape that she found most expressive, are Oxford and Dorset.

Long after Evelyn died in May 1960, Roger wrote a pamphlet from which I've quoted before, entitled Evelyn Dunbar: The Husband's Narrative. He wrote this pamphlet in two slightly different versions in May and October 2007. He died the following August. He wrote this pamphlet, which is an account of his and Evelyn's marriage, because he felt, rightly or wrongly, that the biography of Evelyn, Gill Clarke's Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country, which had been published in 2006, gave a generous weight to Evelyn's pre-war career, and particularly to her very close relationship with Charles Mahoney, but at the expense of her achievements during her marriage to Roger. (They married in 1942.) This is true in the sense that her post-war life is not well documented and that an unknown amount of her post-war work was given away or lost.

The relevant statement in the October 2007 version of Roger's pamphlet is:

The manner of her death caused much heart-searching. Just once she mentioned "I've never felt quite right since we went to the dance" meaning the All Night Ball at the senate House, in 1958. She was not suffering in any way I could see and I left her to deal with it in her own way: it was not life-threatening. The fatal blood/heart condition is a different matter, but I am told, however, that if I had insisted on a check-up her condition may not have been revealed. Hypertension was not to the fore in 50's as it is today.

Leaving aside any suggestion of Roger feeling a need to exonerate himself, Autumn and the Poet takes on a new piquancy and urgency if, when it was nearing completion, Evelyn knew she was going to die. Her Christian Science would have dismissed the symptoms and consequences of high blood pressure as error, a wrong turning on the path to the Perfect Day, a mutant gene in Eden. Who knows the strength, or weakness, of what people really want to believe, who knows what doubts gnaw at their proclaimed beliefs in the face of great pain and adversity? Even Jesus on the cross was heard to exclaim 'My God, why have you forsaken me?'

I think this is important, because Autumn is going to die. Evelyn has dressed her in the most outlandish garments of any figure in any of her paintings. In fact it's a winding-sheet. At one stage my mother modelled the hang of the drapes. She must have meant individual parts of it, the folds over Autumn's left arm, say, or the plaid-like fall from her left shoulder, because it's hard to see how the garment works as a whole, without falling apart. (To be flippant, it must have been the very devil to iron.) The bare breast is interesting: Evelyn evokes a tradition of bare-breasted maternal figures in Western art, expressing a generalised capacity to feed, and for some reason it's usually the right breast that's displayed, the left concealed behind draperies. And surely Evelyn is alive to a particular subtlety of the death-regeneration theme of the whole painting here too: lactation only occurs immediately before and for a period after birth.

The exquisitely coloured sky echoes the course of Autumn's life: between the trees, in the top right-hand corner, the pale sky is reminiscent of the dawn light on the horizon of A Land Girl and the Bail Bull. As the day runs its course, it darkens to the rich pale orange of evening. Presently, as the light starts to fail, Autumn is going to vanish, to thin out and disappear, leaving her fruit behind.

A short way down the left-hand track there's a looping strand of wild clematis, or old man's beard, one that appears consistently in The Poet Surprised by Autumn and other preliminary sketches. Some have likened this to the letter Ω, Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet, a metaphor for a waymark stage in the endlessly turning life cycle of birth, death and regeneration. Evelyn exploited it fully in Alpha and Omega, the Bletchley panels of 1957.

There's no finality about Omega. Its shape resembles a rudimentary womb, suggesting regeneration, birth within death: 'In my end is my beginning', T.S.Eliot wrote in East Coker (1940), the second of his Four Quartets, which Evelyn had on her and Roger's bookshelves in the original Faber edition. There are surprisingly strong links between Autumn and the Poet and East Coker. In exploring these links I found it quiveringly exciting to read, a too-good-to-be-true coincidence, about a dozen lines into the first stanza -

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank...

- where it seemed that these lines might have taken a trembling hold of Evelyn's charcoal in her very first sketches for Autumn and the Poet. And maybe they did, but this is mere superficiality, because the poem veers off immediately afterwards in a different direction, and the true links are much more profound. One interpretation of the elegiac and autumnal East Coker is Eliot's sorrow at the lack of spirituality in mankind's approach to the cycle of life, of birth, death and regeneration, although it's unlikely that any two people will agree over its precise meaning, which might also be said of Autumn and the Poet. Eliot ends the poem with the inversion of its opening line: 'In my end is my beginning.'

Some critics - not many, because very few people, let alone critics, have ever seen Autumn and the Poet - suggest that the whole painting is about death. Not so. Its meaning is much deeper: it's about rebirth and the continuity of life. Autumn may be wrapped in a winding-sheet, but it's also a cocoon, from which new life will appear. But who is to guarantee it?

Evelyn's original idea may have had different titles as it passed through its various metamorphoses before arriving at the finished version, but one thing she did not call it was 'Autumn and the Horticultural Economist'. She wouldn't have been wrong: Roger, seen leaning against a bank (actually an Oxfordshire or Warwickshire dry-stone wall) in the painting, was one of Britain's leading horticultural economists, who in due course became a world authority on certain aspects of his domain, notably tomatoes and fruit-farming. In this sense he has invested heavily in the exploitative approach to the changing seasons, the cycle of life, death and regeneration and the Creator's abundance, and in Evelyn's terms he has fulfilled mankind's part of the Covenant, and the Lord will continue to provide.

But it's not enough, and I think this is the basis of Eliot's complaint in East Coker. The land, the landscape of Evelyn's background, the source of the Creator's plenty, is to be loved, and the Creator too. Expressing the spiritual side of the Covenant, if only to say thank you, is a poet's work, and whatever we think of Roger's poetry, via the examples we've met in their Christmas cards, it can't be denied that he had an impressive command of language.

So the figure of Autumn, maybe assuming Evelyn's voice and persona, is saying to Roger, husband, horticultural expert and poet, 'I am called away: I shall return, maybe not in the form in which you now see me. Tell all the world, through your work and your word, about the Covenant, about the duty mankind owes to the Creator, to care for the land with love and industry in equal measure.'

She leaves in front of him, on a white sheet, as a gift for the present and a guarantee of the future, the fruits of the earth, in such profusion that they've spilled out of the sheet she has carried them in on to the ground. Whatever they are, potatoes, apples, pears, quinces, onions, they are stylised and generalised, and it's not to be suggested that water-melons necessarily grow in Kent.

Evelyn's message doesn't stop there. Evelyn was a very positive person: if she could find a positive way of urging someone not to do something, she would. 'Don't' rarely existed in her vocabulary. 'Do' (whatever it might be) would show some positive example or lead to some way of looking at things that meant the hearer did not feel denied or guilty, but instead felt encouraged and glad to please her. Throughout the years when I was close to Evelyn, there was never any argument or difference. It's in the light of this that I want to look at the central thicket in Autumn and the Poet.

It's a massive thicket, taking up the triangle between the two lanes and the field beyond. It appear to be made up of brambles and more old man's beard. It's impenetrable, flourishing, and a waste of agricultural land, a disordered wilderness in total contrast to the neat and managed plantation of mature trees on the right of the painting. (Is there some suggestion of virility and dissemination associated with the Poet?) What is this thicket doing there? Firstly, I think it's a warning, in a typically Evelynish cautionary style: this is what happens if you disregard the message of Autumn and neglect the Covenant.

Secondly, there may be a reference to a famous Old Testament story, to be found in Genesis, Chapter 22, towards the beginning of the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob-Joseph story by which Evelyn set such store. To test his faith, God told Abraham to take his son Isaac up into the mountains and sacrifice him, that is presumably to cut his throat, put his body on an altar of wood and burn it. The New English Bible continues:

[...] So Abraham took the wood for the sacrifice and laid it on his son Isaac's shoulder; he himself carried the fire and the knife, and the two of them went on together. Isaac said to Abraham 'Father', and he answered, 'What is it, my son?' Isaac said, 'Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the young beast for the sacrifice?' Abraham answered, God will provide himself with a young beast for the sacrifice, my son.'  And the two of them went on together until they came to the place of which God had spoken. There Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. Then he stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son; but the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, 'Abraham, Abraham.' He answered, 'Here I am.' The angel of the Lord said, 'Do not raise your hand against the boy; do not touch him. Now I know that you are a God-fearing man. You have not withheld from me your son, your only son.' Abraham looked up, and there he saw a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. So he went and took the ram and offered it as a sacrifice instead of his son.

I can't be certain about this. I have a vague childhood memory of Evelyn having painted something to do with this story, but nothing more.

After Evelyn's death in May, 1960, Roger gradually dismantled her studio and the adjacent store, which I remember contained some 30-40 canvases (some may have been blank) and many portfolios of drawings, water colours, pastels and sketches, most of which have since disappeared. Roger re-married in 1961, by which time studio and store had been virtually cleared of any physical memory of Evelyn. Autumn and the Poet was given by Roger to his sister Joan (my mother) as a memento of a very rich and affectionate sister-in-law relationship, maybe particularly because my mother had been closely involved with the inception and progress of the painting since about 1947: much of the information about it here came from her. She kept it until 2004, when it was slightly damaged by smoke in a house fire. Members of the family paid for its restoration in time for its inclusion in the centenary exhibition of Evelyn's work at the St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, in Lymington, Hampshire, in 2006. This exhibition was curated by Dr Gill Clarke, whose biography Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country was published simultaneously.

Autumn and the Poet exhibited at St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire, September 2006. Standing next to the painting, with various members of the family, is Roger Folley, then aged 94, who made the inauguration speech. (Author's photograph.)

After the exhibition it was returned to the family for some years until it was sold recently. In a sense I have lived with Autumn and the Poet for most of my life. For me it represents the culmination of Evelyn's work. All that she believed, all that made her an early protagonist of Green values before the term was applied so widely and loosely, all her many husbandry paintings are summarised and crowned here. I believe this is very great painting which, like many outstanding works of art, is to be interpreted on several levels, as an allegory, as an exaltation of Creation, as a declaration of Evelyn's love and admiration for her husband. Some may see a political statement in it, as in many of Evelyn's paintings, where neatly organised and disciplined fields and plantations are a metaphor for certain types of social control.

Some may see Autumn and the Poet as the greatest work of an artist whose draughtmanship was exemplary, whose sense of design and colour was consummate, whose vision reached beyond the horizon, whose artistic comportment was unfailingly cheerful, down to earth and unsentimental, whose stance was persuasive rather than coercive and whose work, while never disregarding sometimes painful truths, nevertheless speaks to our better natures, warms us to this world and leaves us feeling glad to part of it. Autumn and the Poet is all these things and more, including a discreet but terrible warning about the abuse, violation and destruction of our planet.

(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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