Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Seven Days (1938)

Seven Days 1938 (18" x 30": 45 x 76cm) Photograph: P. van der Wal © LissLlewellyn Fine Art. Private collection.

In 1937 Evelyn was commissioned by the magazine Country Life to produce their annual Gardener's Diary for the following year. She designed everything, cover, frontispiece, end papers, vignettes, and chose suitable texts to accompany each month, but her chief input was her design for each of the months. We'll look at some of these in due course, but for now I think the experience of portraying or illustrating things that come in sets or series, like the months of the year, pleased her and opened up other paths to explore. One of these was Seven Days, which she painted in 1938.

'Design for a mural' is written on the frame and scrawled on the back. It was exhibited in May 1939 at the Corn Exchange, Rochester, with this subtitle. What mural this refers to is not known. There's an unusual clue to its destiny as a mural design if you look carefully at the figures: every one of them is outlined in red, sometimes quite crudely. These red outlines don't add anything to the picture at all. On the contrary, it would be better without them. So why are they there?

A conjecture is that some time, maybe years, after exhibition Evelyn actually did have an idea and maybe a site for a mural. How should she transfer Seven Days from its existing canvas to a cartoon or even directly on to the wall plaster? If she outlined the figures in thin, wet red paint, she could then press a sheet of cartridge paper firmly on to the canvas. The paper would pick up the imprint of the wet paint. If this paper was in turn immediately pressed on to a second sheet or canvas or wall, the images would appear just as they were on the original Seven Days canvas, preserving their outlines and proportions. Or maybe - and more likely - Evelyn intended merely to print it onto a second sheet of cartridge paper, allowing her to square the images up to a more acceptable size for a mural. Whatever the case, and for whatever reason, Evelyn forgot to remove the red outlines, the paint dried, the canvas went into her store and didn't reappear until it was rediscovered in the Hammer Mill Oast attic in 2013.

Which way should we read the figures? Left to right, the normal direction we read in, or right to left, following the group from the light to the dark, following the increasing length of the shadows? Does it matter? I think it does, maybe in the Kierkegaardian sense of life being lived forwards but understood backwards. Taking its theme from the Country Life diary mentioned above, on one level it's all about gardening, with one telling exception. Moving from left to right, numbers 2 and 3 (the woman with the lily and hydrangeas), 4 and 5 all carry references to making things grow, to looking after creation, even at the level of the garden, in return, as is usual in Evelyn's work, for having been given it by the creator. Number 6 sums up the benefits: she's carrying a basket of fruit, probably plums. Then Number 7, whom we can now confidently associate with Sunday, is reading, she's attending to things of the mind. Maybe it's her Bible, we don't know, but significantly behind her there's a door in the wall, maybe opening on to wider horizons and brighter truths. The top of the wall is strongly lit, suggesting that whatever lies beyond it basks in sunlight.
But Seven Days is a personal statement, too. In the preliminary sketches - one is shown below - Number 1 is carrying a baby, her own particular harvest and promise for the future. Why did Evelyn change her to a woman carrying washing? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that a little before the design of Seven Days was finalised Evelyn miscarried. The father was her former Royal College of Art tutor Charles Mahoney, later her colleague and lover. They weren't married. They came apart as her pregnancy was confirmed. The miscarriage and separation was a time of terrible misery for her. Like Joseph in the previous post, she was in her pit, abandoned, without hope of rescue. I don't know how she got out of the pit, but I suspect prayer had a lot to do with it. (And I suspect too that if Sunday is indeed reading from the Bible, she may well be taking strength from the Old Testament book of Job, a favourite with Evelyn - who knew the Bible very well - for coming to terms with suffering.) 

I think Evelyn can be excused for leaving the pain of miscarriage behind her, for substituting the more anodyne but cleansing Monday washday, and for turning Sunday into something much deeper and more philosophical than the dancing figure eating cherries on the right below.

 Study for Seven Days 1937 Pencil Photograph © The author. Private collection.

(Text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2016)

If you'd like to
 EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is now available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25