Thursday, 15 November 2018

Joseph in Prison (1949-50)

Joseph in Prison 1949-50 Oil on canvas 46 x 36cm (18" x 14") Photograph reproduced by kind permission of Woolley and Wallis

 It's always a very special moment when a long-lost painting of Evelyn's appears out of the blue. The moment becomes more special when the painting in question is one of a set or group, and the event takes on a yet greater significance when the painting hasn't been seen publicly for the best part of 70 years.

Evelyn, a committed Christian Scientist, knew the Bible well, especially the Old Testament. Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, consists largely of narratives, some would say foundation legends, rich in truths if not in truth, of the origins of the Jewish people. Indeed, Joseph's father Jacob had the alternative name Israel, indicating fatherhood of his people.

Joseph had a particular appeal to Evelyn. Last-born but one, he was his father's favourite, to the annoyance of his many brothers. He's probably best known for his famous coat of many colours, a present from his father, a gift translated into popular 20th century musical idiom by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber as his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Joseph had a propensity for the interpretation of dreams. Two youthful dreams suggested his superiority over the rest of his family, something hardly likely to endear him to his siblings.

There were echoes of this to some extent in Evelyn's family situation. At certain times in her career she felt something of a cuckoo in the nest of a family of Kentish shopkeepers. (She refers to herself as such in her 1937/38 allegory April.) Kindly and welcoming people though her Dunbar siblings were, they sometimes found it difficult to come to terms with an artist sister who, despite several years of professional training, earned next to nothing, received very few commissions, lived at home and subsisted on handouts from her father's and her wealthy uncle Stead Cowling's estates. Her mother Florence, an amateur artist, defended her stoutly at home, and it may well be that Evelyn felt her own situation just as sharply as her siblings.

Evelyn later referred to 1938/9 as her crisis years. Towards the end of 1937 she separated from Charles Mahoney, her former Royal College of Art tutor and later colleague and lover. A miscarriage deepened her depression and her future as an artist looked very bleak indeed. It was at this time that the idea of a series of paintings illustrative of the career of Joseph came into her head.

Joseph's Dream 1938-43 Oil on canvas 46 x 76cm (18" x 30") Photograph: Cambridgeshire County Council. Private collection

The first of what eventually became a trilogy was Joseph's Dream, a diptych or two-panel painting showing the adolescent Joseph in some perplexity confronted by his twin dreams of his brothers and parents bowing in homage before him, firstly in the form of sheaves of corn and then as the sun, moon and stars. Joseph's Dream was unfinished at the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939, by which time Evelyn had all but forsaken painting and was working behind the counter in her sisters' shop on Rochester High Street.

Everything changed for her in 1940. Through the intercession of friends in the art world she was gazetted as an official war artist. Then, during an early posting to paint Land Girls at Sparsholt Farm Institute, near Winchester, she met Roger Folley, formerly an agricultural economist but then an RAF officer. They married two years later. With Roger's encouragement and - by his own account - help in modelling Joseph's figure but not his face, Evelyn completed Joseph's Dream in time for exhibition with the New English Art Club in 1943, where it attracted a favourable press reception but remained unsold.

After the war Evelyn and Roger settled down to their first taste of extended married life, firstly in Warwickshire and later in Oxfordshire when Roger obtained a post at Oxford University Agricultural Research Institute. So began the most productive and inventive period of Evelyn's career. Away from her family (Florence had died in 1944) the tensions that underlay Joseph's Dream disappeared, giving place to wider and maybe nobler visions of reconciliation, among them the conviction, given the biblical Joseph's later history, that one day she would be worthy of them.

In the Genesis story, Joseph's brothers had been extraordinarily hostile to him and would have murdered him if Reuben, the eldest brother, had not intervened. He proposed instead that they should rob Joseph of his many-coloured coat, smear it with goat's blood to suggest to their father Jacob that he had been killed by a wild beast, and then push him into a deep pit, where he would certainly die. I hasten to add that this is not in any way to imply, of course, that the Dunbar siblings harboured murderous designs on their youngest sister.

Where did the image of Joseph's pit come from? One of the more unexpected of Evelyn's pastimes was rock-climbing, something she learnt from Roger, himself an experienced cragsman and fell-walker. One of their many rucksack-and-climbing-boot expeditions took them to Gordale Scar, a deep and forbidding ravine near Malham in North Yorkshire. The immediate visionary trigger that fused Joseph's pit with Gordale Scar isn't known, but the result was Joseph in the Pit, painted in 1947.

 Joseph in the Pit 1947 Oil on canvas 46 x 26cm (18" x 10") Photograph Petra van der Wal ©Christopher Campbell-Howes Private collection

Back to Genesis: in fact Joseph survived. Some of his brothers hauled him out and sold him to a band of passing nomads, who took him to Egypt, where they sold him as a slave. He was bought by Pharaoh's captain of the guard, a man called Potiphar. Attracted by Joseph's manly bearing, Potiphar's wife attempted to seduce him. When Joseph refused her advances, her lust turned to anger. She accused him of attempted rape and Joseph was thrown into prison.

So the third of Evelyn's Joseph trilogy is Joseph in Prison. Joseph has proved himself an able and trustworthy man to the prison governor, who gives him certain responsibilities. Among them is care of his fellow-prisoners, who include two of Pharaoh's close servants, his chief butler and chief baker. We aren't told why they were in prison, simply that Pharaoh was 'wroth' against them.

(Image as above, reproduced for ease of reference)

Sharing the same cell, each had a disturbing dream. The Genesis account goes on (Chapter 40, verse 6) 'And Joseph came into them in the morning, and looked upon them, and, behold, they were sad'. Here we are plunged into the actuality of Evelyn's Joseph in Prison. Joseph, the central figure in red, has opened the cell from the outside - evidence of his trustworthiness - to give breakfast of sheep's milk or something similar to the two inmates. Through the window dawn is breaking. Joseph, seen from above and in quarter profile, has a strong resemblance to Roger Folley. What is happening?

Later they recount their dreams. Joseph interprets them: for the butler it means release and a return to his former royal duties, but for the baker it means death. And so it turns out. Eventually Joseph's dream-prowess reaches Pharaoh's ears: he too has had a dream, which Joseph interprets as meaning that seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of bad harvests and famine. And so it comes to pass. Joseph becomes Pharoah's right hand man, in charge of agricultural management and the storage of corn in years of plenty and of its distribution in time of famine. The predicted famine is universal. The now aged Jacob and his sons come from their land of Canaan to find corn. They apply to Joseph: they do not recognise him in his Pharaonic grandeur, even less - perhaps hardly surprisingly - from his new name, Zaphnath-Paaneah, supposedly meaning 'the god speaks: man lives'. (He is known as Aziz in the Koranic version of this story.) But Joseph recognises them, and after some vetting he allows them corn in plenty. He has become the provider for his people, reconciliation is complete, and maybe Evelyn has proved herself worthy of her family.

A strong and constant thread running through Evelyn's work is the contract, or covenant, or promise, that the Creator will provide the means for mankind to survive and flourish in exchange for mankind's undertaking to look after creation with intelligence, industry and love. The notion is most simply expressed in the early Genesis creation legend of the Garden of Eden, given to Adam and Eve 'to dress it and keep it'. When Evelyn was painting Joseph in Prison, Roger - in any case a keen gardener - was working at the Oxford University Agricultural Research Institute. In 1950 he was appointed to the Economics Department of Imperial College, London, at its agricultural campus in Wye, Kent, where he became a leading horticultural economist with a worldwide reputation in certain areas. It would be over-fanciful to equate the biblical Joseph with Roger, but it is true that in other images (e.g. Autumn and the Poet)  Evelyn vested him with the mantle of one who, through his intellectual work, kept his side of the Creator's bargain and its promise of provision. An extraordinary tribute.

Joseph in Prison was exhibited in Oxford in 1949 or 1950, where it was sold to Lionel Herbert, a prominent Oxford solicitor. Lionel Herbert lent it back to Evelyn for her solo exhibition at Wye in 1953, since when it has not been seen in public. For me it is privilege to be in a position to show for the first time since 1953 all three paintings in Evelyn's Joseph trilogy.

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2018

Further reading...
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25