Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Joseph's Dream (1938-42)

Joseph's Dream (1938-42) Oil on board (18 x 30in: 45 x 74cm) Photograph: Cambridgeshire County Council. Private collection

Living at home in Rochester and virtually unemployed after the disastrous break-up of Evelyn's relationship with her former Royal College of Art tutor and later lover Charles Mahoney led to one of the more significant paintings of her career, Joseph's Dream. Kindly, thoughtful and sympathetic people as the Dunbars were, it is likely that the siblings, hard-working and modestly successful with their various businesses, occasionally questioned the presence of one who contributed little in any material way to the household economy. Evelyn's seven years of part- and full-time post-school study, the only one of the siblings to go on to further education, may have seemed to them of doubtful value if unemployment was the result. There are family grounds for believing that she was considered by the others to be her mother's favourite, a preference naturally confirmed by their shared artistic leanings. Florence, on the other hand, may have felt particularly protective as possibly the only person living in The Cedars who knew about the disastrous final months of her daughter's relationship with Mahoney. Evelyn, not blind to the circumstances, clearly put a great deal of thought into her situation, which expressed itself in a curious way. From her situation came the embryo of an unusual trio of paintings, started in 1938, based on the Genesis story of Joseph.

Joseph's Dream (sometimes known as Joseph's Dreams, but this was not Evelyn's title) has an unusual history. Shown at the 1943 winter exhibition of the New English Art Club, it failed to find a buyer but succeeded in attracting favourable and perceptive comment from R.H.Wilenski, a leading modernist critic of his time:

'Joseph's Dreams' seemed to me the most interesting picture in the New English Art Club's exhibition at the Suffolk Street Galleries. 'Joseph's Dreams' can be described as a pair of predella panels in the neo-primitive Stanley Spencer aspect of the N.E.A.C. tradition, for this Joseph in his coat of many colours is surely not innocent of Burghclere. I found it interesting because it shows an artist who…has tackled a composition of which imaginative and not visual experience is the base.

Two years later Joseph's Dream was exhibited in Derby, and no doubt to Evelyn's amused surprise was described in the local paper as a '"problem" picture in the surrealist style'. Whether this discouraged potential buyers is not known, but still it did not sell. The catalyst for its eventual sale was Nan Youngman, an artist contemporary of Evelyn's who was strongly associated with art education and with founding a series of annual exhibitions called Pictures for School. What part Nan Youngman played in encouraging Evelyn to exhibit Joseph's Dream is not known, but it was while she was working as art advisor to Cambridgeshire County Council Education Department that Joseph's Dream was bought at the 1948 Pictures for Schools exhibition, held in London at the Whitechapel Gallery, as one of a set of morally instructive paintings by contemporary artists to circulate around Cambridgeshire schools.

Joseph is dressed in his coat of many colours, a gift from his father Jacob to his favourite son. The left hand of the twin dreams shows twelve sheaves of corn bowing to his sheaf. On the right the sun and moon and eleven stars pay homage to him. The original text comes from Genesis, Chapter 37:

Joseph had a dream; and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him still more. He said to them, 'Listen to this dream I have had. We were in the field binding sheaves, and my sheaf rose on end and stood upright, and your sheaves gathered round and bowed low before my sheaf.' His brothers answered him, 'Do you think you will one day be king and lord it over us?' and they hated  him still more because of his dreams and what he said. He had another dream, which he told to his father and his brothers. He said, 'Listen: I have had another dream. The sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.' When he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father took him to task: 'What is this dream of yours?' he said. 'Must we come and bow low to the ground before you, I and your mother and your brothers?' (NEB)

(Some time later Jacob sent Joseph on an errand to his brothers. Seeing him approach they said to one another (in the words of the King James Bible), 'Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit.' So his brothers, angry and jealous because Joseph was their father's favourite, captured him. Reuben, the eldest, interceded for Joseph, and instead of killing him they stole his coat of many colours, put him in a deep pit, smeared his coat with goat's blood and took it home to their father Jacob, saying undoubtedly Joseph was dead, an evil beast had devoured him. In fact, and unknown to them, Joseph was later rescued from the pit by passing nomads and was sold into slavery in Egypt. He rose to prominence as a trustworthy interpreter of dreams, and eventually became Pharaoh's right hand man. A great famine arose in Canaan, the land of Jacob and his large family, and they were compelled by hunger to travel to Egypt to find corn. The high functionary in charge of corn distribution was none other than Joseph, whom they did not recognise, and when they made obeisance before him, Joseph's Dream had come true and the irony was complete.)

Maybe (as Wilenski remarked) with the then recent example of Stanley Spencer boosting his impact by setting biblical figures in contemporary Cookham or the Sandham Memorial chapel at Burghclere in mind, Evelyn has shown that the countryside beyond the locus of Joseph's dreams is the Weald, fertile, abundant, tidy, organised. Evelyn knew Spencer's work and particularly admired it. Following a visit to Cookham or Burghclere she wrote to Mahoney in July 1936 'The great thing about Spencer's work, it does inspire one to get on with the job - a really thrilling job too'. Evelyn has taken a step further than Spencer, a bold, even thrilling one, taking in wider perspectives. Evelyn's Joseph has other concerns. The background countryside is clearly the Weald, the harvest is in, and already the fields have been ploughed in preparation for next year's crop. Here the Garden of England image runs like a backdrop behind both dreams: green pastures neatly fenced and gated, those ploughed fields of promise with furrows at right angles to the slope, following the contour (she knew what she was doing), trim plantations witnessing that informed stewardship of Creation that Joseph will take up. More, Evelyn has implied religious, indeed transcendental overtones by representing Joseph's twin dreams in two complementary panels, reminiscent (as Wilenski implied with the term 'predella') of a diptych, among other things a mediaeval folding altarpiece for use while travelling or for private devotions. 

Joseph has large brown eyes, and he is wide-eyed in wonder at the extraordinary vision of the sheaves. We do not see his face on the right, but his stance is similar in both: he seems arrested in mid-step, and his right hand is touching the walls of his dream-frame, as though he is afraid to relinquish his contact with something apparently solid and material, as though he cannot believe the import of his dreams. The uppermost of a few sheets of paper in the lower left hand corner of the right-hand panel is inscribed in Evelyn's handwriting Behold this dreamer cometh, quoting from Genesis 37:19. A bold step, referring to a future event, his near-fatal meeting with his brothers. The dream-frame is as insubstantial as a stage flat, Joseph is steadying himself against an illusion: the landscape, guarantor of the truth of his dreams, lies visible through and beyond the blinkers of his sleep-vision. He is incredulous, surprised, maybe a little frightened by what his visions must mean and the immense responsibilities they imply, not just in the context of the world, but of Evelyn's duty to her family, as though Joseph's Dream was also a guarantee both of her forgiveness and of her promise to prove her worth to her family.

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2017

Would you like to read more?
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
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448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25

It was a habit of Evelyn's occasionally to draw or paint the same image several times, as though to extract the last drop of virtue from it. Joseph's Dream is a case in point: there are - or were - two versions of it. I don't remember the version featured above (it was sold in 1948, when I was six, before I became a frequent visitor to Evelyn's house in Kent), but I remember another version of it reasonably clearly. The overall design was identical, but it was a little smaller and the coloration was slightly different, with a greater concentration of blues and greys. It hung above the lintel of Evelyn and Roger Folley's dining-room door, like a kind of grace before meat. I don't remember it after about 1954. It's possible that it was given to a friend of Evelyn's living in March, Cambridgeshire. If anyone reading this has any idea where this alternative version of Joseph's Dream might be, I'd be delighted to know of it. Perhaps via the comments below?

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