Monday, 16 January 2017

An English Calendar (1938)

An English Calendar 1938 72 x 72in (182 x 182cm) Photo: Richard Valencia © Christopher Campbell-Howes. Imperial College, London

Evelyn's final exposition of the month-designs she had originally made for the Country Life 1938 Gardener's Diary was in An English Calendar, the largest canvas she had attempted to date. A few of the months are old friends. April - subject of the previous post - is almost unchanged. February, however, has lost her complicit furtiveness, and not to her advantage, while August has lost her previous deeply personal autobiographical elements, the symbols of her desire and its fulfilment have been confiscated and she has become merely a pretty woman sitting on a garden bench and - these things are always important in Evelyn's work - looking into the ensemble of the composition rather than outside the frame. She and February have sacrificed their individuality for the sake of overall design and, I think, to suit Evelyn's overall purpose.

Similarly with some of her other Gardener's Diary precursors. Evelyn originally conceived of July like this:

 July from Country Life 1938 Gardener's Diary

This chap is a wonderful July, a hands-down winner in comparison with the unexceptional village-vegetable-show figure in An English Calendar. He has harvested an enormous crop of vegetables, so impressive an abundance that the outsize sack - it is almost a tarpaulin, not to speak of a conjuror's cloth - is not big enough to take them all, so that he has to hold under his arm the giant cabbage he has grown. So great is the tumbling profusion of these vegetables that their weight has smashed the fence. I can imagine Evelyn hugging herself with delight at the sudden appearance of this notion at the end of her pencil, this image of Nature's outrageous generosity endorsed as something quite normal by the deadpan and incurious expression on the gardener's face.

Similarly with September...

September from Country Life 1938 Gardener's Diary

...and while Evelyn has preserved the vegetable marrows in both versions there's no doubt in my mind as to which Mrs September, this one or the more insipid version in An English Calendar, has the greater individuality and the stronger identification with the abundance of produce at what is traditionally Harvest Festival time in the United Kingdom.

An English Calendar was exhibited at Wildenstein's Gallery, London, in 1938. It attracted favourable press notices, with the exception the Left Review of May 1938, in which a critic calling himself 'Toros' wrote:
Evelyn Dunbar showed invention and fancy - rare qualities in these times. But her outlook is thoroughly petit-bourgeois. There is a small-town or suburban atmosphere about it - a contented preoccupation with the little details of life among cabbages and marrows. A larger horizon and subject-matter are required to give a real chance to her very considerable powers as a designer.

'Toros' was in fact Percy Horton, a tutor at the Royal College of Art and later Master of the Ruskin School in Oxford. Evelyn worked on his staff from c.1948 until her death in 1960; they had always been good friends. There's an irony here: I wonder if Horton would have levelled the same petit-bourgeois criticism if Evelyn had not substituted the very strong images originally designed for Gardener's Diary for the much paler and more anodyne figures that ended up in An English Calendar?

The reason for the weakening of the individual figures in An English Calendar by comparison with those in Gardener's Diary is obscure, but may have something to do with the picture not really being about the months at all, but about the natural annual cycle of birth, growth, harvest, death, resurrection and mankind's relationship with creation. This takes us to the heart of Evelyn's work. Personality, or the marked individuality of the month-personification, doesn't really come into this thesis; it's the activity that counts, rather than the personage associated with it. Central to this is the sun, duly occupying the central square, and we may notice that the chicken wire enclosing the empty boxes has been cut away to reveal the sun more obviously. And the humble idea of chicken wire leads to something else: the surround, the boxes, are not merely a design feature, nor a convenient framework. The framework is like a huge wooden garden planter, stood on its side. What we are seeing is the earth in all its abundance, and mankind's duty to look after this gift, symbolically reduced to the dimensions of the garden.

An English Calendar never sold, and in 1957 Evelyn donated it to Wye College, where her husband Roger Folley lectured in horticultural economics. For years it hung in Withersdane Hall, the administrative centre of the college, giving rise to false rumours that it was a mural. When Wye College closed down, it was recovered by the parent body, Imperial College, in whose possession it still is.

Text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2017

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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