Saturday, 7 January 2017

August (1937-38)

August 1937 Oil on canvas Photo: Michael Shaw © Christopher Campbell-Howes. Private collection.

August is the second of the three oil versions of month-personifications which Evelyn had earlier produced in pen-and-ink form for her Country Life 1938 Gardener's Diary. (The first was February, subject of the previous post; the third was April, which will appear in the next post.)

There's some autobiographical background to this rather heavy and overblown image, one of the very few in Evelyn's work in which the subject is facing out of the frame, as though she was looking for something or someone that has gone, for something beyond the immediacy of the lush headiness of her surroundings.

Four years earlier, in the early summer of 1933 as she was about to leave the Royal College of Art and begin her career, Evelyn started an affair with one of her tutors, the artist - and particularly muralist - Charles Mahoney, who was some three years her senior. Although both Evelyn and Mahoney worked together by day on the Brockley Murals furtherance of the relationship was difficult and frustrating. Neither had their own home. Neither lived in circumstances where the bringing in of a young man/lady would be viewed favourably. The problem of spending quality time and intimacy together was solved partially by going to stay with friends, mostly colleagues of Mahoney. Typical of these were the artist Edward Bawden and his wife Charlotte, doyens of the group of artists gathered round the village of Great Bardfield in Essex. Given Evelyn's and Mahoney's love of plants and gardening and their readiness to involve themselves in their friends' gardens, it didn't take long for them to be nicknamed 'Adam and Eve'. Indeed Evelyn sometimes refers to herself as the Biblical Eve in the illustrated letters she frequently sent Mahoney. They never married. Evelyn would have liked to marry him, but Mahoney refused to be pinned down, claiming that marriage and children would jeopardise her career as an artist. While it can hardly be said that she threw herself at him, undoubtedly she gave him plenty of encouragement: here she is in provocative pose, proffering the apple of temptation, in a pictogram signature on a postcard she sent him in 1934. (I think the fruit have to be gourds, making the word 'gourdgeous', i.e. gorgeous.)

One of her letters from the following summer contains this image of herself as Eve...

...and underneath she has written 'Notice the absence of the serpent - I find smacking his bottom is best - he simply vanishes away then. Try it.' What does she mean? Has the Old Adam been importunate? Or the Old Eve, for that matter? Or is this a general exhortation to square up to temptation and send it packing?

And another letter from September 1936 contains a sort of mild period sexting:

 (These excerpts have been taken from the extraordinary collection of letters, 1933-39, from Evelyn to Mahoney - no replies survive - which are lodged in the Tate Archive, the gift of Elizabeth Bulkeley, Charles Mahoney's daughter. My photographs: © The Estate of Evelyn Dunbar)

In the summer of 1937 Evelyn was working on her drawings for the Country Life 1938 Gardener's Diary and finalising the text and drawings for Gardeners' Choice, the book she and Mahoney produced jointly, which appeared in the late autumn. In the final stages they worked together: Mahoney had found, or Evelyn had found for him, temporary lodgings in Rochester, a 20-minute walk from The Cedars, the Dunbars' house across the Medway in Strood. The relationship had been coming apart for over a year. Maybe this was Evelyn's last despairing attempt to save it. It failed. By early September Mahoney had disappeared, retreating to the outer edges of Evelyn's life.

In the context of the Eve/Evelyn sketches, it's interesting to compare the oil version of August above with the earlier pen-and-ink version below, which appeared in the Country Life 1938 Gardener's Diary. For one thing it's striking, and typical of Evelyn's spirited imagination, that the serpent has turned into a garden hose. I leave readers, who may wish to move on quickly having registered the inference of the pump, to draw their own compare-and-contrast conclusions. In fact between completion of the drawing below and the oil version, Evelyn miscarried.

August 1937 from the Country Life 1938 Gardener's Diary

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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