Thursday, 24 November 2016

Joseph in the Pit (1947)


Joseph in the Pit 1947 (1' 6" x 10": 46 x 26cm) Photo: P. van der Wal © Christopher Campbell-Howes. Private collection.

In due course we shall have a look at the first of Evelyn's Joseph trilogy, Joseph's Dream. Evelyn painted a third, Joseph in Prison, to complete her Joseph trilogy, but it was sold some time before her 1953 solo exhibition and has never been seen in public since.

The Genesis story tells how Joseph remained unpopular with his siblings because of his pretensions to superiority as evidenced by his father Jacob's favouritism and by his dreams of his family paying homage to him. In due course, having exasperated his brothers, they threw him into a well or pit, having previously relieved him of his famous coat of many colours and smeared it with goat's blood to convince Jacob that his favourite son had been attacked and killed by a wild beast. The brothers left him to perish in the pit, little suspecting that he would be rescued by passing nomads, who took him to Egypt where they sold him as a slave. After various adventures including a spell in prison as a result of a false accusation of attempted rape (his imprisonment being the subject of Evelyn's third Joseph painting), he rose to become Pharaoh's grand functionary and right-hand man, chiefly through his devastating accuracy in interpreting dreams. In his new ascendancy, supervising food distribution, he received his brothers caps in hand, come from famine-stricken Canaan to Egypt to search for corn. They didn't recognise him until he revealed himself to them and proved to be their saviour.

Evelyn shows Joseph at his lowest ebb. All seems hopeless. Uniquely in all Evelyn's outdoor work, nothing is growing, not the slightest weed or blade of grass to signify regeneration. The pit, which probably owes something to Gordale Scar in North Yorkshire, which she had visited once or twice during hill-walking expeditions with her husband Roger Folley - the pit lowers over Joseph terrifyingly. Despair, starvation and slow death can only follow.

The pit is impressively painted. When she painted Joseph in the Pit, Evelyn had recently started teaching at The Oxford School of Art. (A little later she started teaching at the Ruskin.) She had never taught before, and she felt a need to organise and rationalise her ideas about colour. Surprisingly, her lecture notes about colour survive. To some extent they are based on balanced and measured contrast of opposites. Examined closely Joseph in the Pit reveals these ideas in action: there are unexpected flashes of reds and oranges and yellows, pale greens and blues. Some of them are minute, but it doesn't matter: they sharpen up the predominant gathered gloom.

When Evelyn started Joseph's Dream about ten years earlier, she was partly making an autobiographical statement about her status within the Dunbar family, not of course out of any notions of superiority, more to do with her duty of stewardship and exploitation of the creative gift her four siblings did not share. Crisis darkened her life in the last years of the 1930s. A miscarriage, separation from her lover the artist Charles Mahoney, poverty, failure of her Rochester art gallery, absence of any commissions, all progressively drove her finally to abandon painting and to eke out an existence serving behind the counter in her sisters' haberdashery shop. It seemed that salvation had passed her by. Joseph in the Pit is a backward glance at those difficult times.

Of course salvation hadn't passed her by, any more than it had for Joseph. The point of the Bible story, apart from symbolically prefiguring the life of Jesus, is that the Lord will provide. Evelyn was 'rescued' in 1940, largely through Sir William Rothenstein, who had been Principal of the Royal College of Art during Evelyn's student years. His suggestion that she might apply to become an Official War Artist was the first rung of the ladder out of the pit. She was accepted, and her career began to take off. However retrospective Evelyn's vision was by 1947, Joseph in the Pit was - and is - a powerful antidote to despair.

(Text © Copyright 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

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