Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Brockley Murals (1933-36) Part 2: Ceiling, lunettes and spandrels (3)



Evelyn Dunbar and Charles Mahoney: The Brockley Murals, Ceiling, Lunettes and Spandrels 1933-36 (Author's photographs throughout)

All these images should enlarge if you click on them

The work of the final cycle of the ceiling, lunette and spandrels underneath the gallery at Prendergast-Hilly Fields College (which was Brockley County School for Boys at the time of painting) was shared between Evelyn and Charles Mahoney. In the photograph above there is firstly, and nearest to the viewer, Evelyn's 4-roundel ceiling, supported by her two spandrels The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse (left) and The Flies and the Honeypot (right), which were analysed here. Beyond that is Mahoney's ceiling, which features kites being flown, supported by the only two spandrels he painted, a double one entitled The Clock and the Dial, and finally, just above the main door to the hall, is his lunette, illustrating Aesop's fable of The Rose and the Butterfly.

None of this is very clear from the photo, which gives a general idea of the overall sub-gallery arcade - not only that, but the savage clash between the style of Evelyn's and Mahoney's artwork and such later institutional additions as the rolling service hatches on the right, the utilitarian clock (which may have another unexpected function*), the notices, the swing doors and emergency exit sign above them. But one mustn't cavil too much: this is a school, after all, and not an art gallery.

With Evelyn's final cycle of six spandrels, entirely hidden from view in the photograph above, we return to the same great outdoors which was the setting for her first cycle. But the season has changed: in the first cycle, everything was happening in spring. The central cycle of eight, the last to be painted, mostly featured indoor subjects. They were all based on, or referred to, human activities. If the question was asked what season they evoked (there's always a sense of season in Evelyn's work, even in some of her portraits), the answer would be summer.

This is important because the third cycle of spandrels is very definitely autumnal. As a point of reference, we start with Mahoney's lunette and adjacent spandrels:

Charles Mahoney: The Brockley Murals. Lunette: The Butterfly and the Rose. Spandrels: The Clock (L) and the Dial (R)

From the finished spandrels it's not easy to distinguish clock from sundial, but a preparatory oil sketch for The Clock and the Dial makes it clearer that the clock is on the left and the sundial on the right.

 
Charles Mahoney: The Brockley Murals Oil sketch for The Clock and the Dial. Courtesy of, and thanks to, Paul Liss of Liss Fine Art


There are other details that the oil sketch brings out: the gravestones at the foot of each spandrel, and a figure standing on the parapet of the left-hand church tower. This figure appears to be duplicated in the finished Dial. My fancy - honestly, nothing more - suggests that the figures on the parapets are Mahoney himself twice over, and that the lunette below is supposedly the view from his vantage point.

A yellow rose is growing just inside the parapet coping stones, two of which are joined by cast-iron staples, at the foot of the lunette. Below is a gravelled parterre, and the female figure on it may just be Evelyn, just as the miniature portrait in The Cock and the Jewel, at the far end of the sub-gallery arcade, may be of Mahoney. (Evelyn, with no hint of a ruder vernacular, used sometimes in the Mockney slang of the period to address Mahoney as 'cock' or 'matey-cock'.) The fable of The Butterfly and the Rose (the brownish blob just right of centre turns out to be a peacock butterfly) is ostensibly about inconstancy. Each accuses the other of flirting with every insect or flower in sight, but the moral is of course about the virtues of fidelity.


Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Hare and the Tortoise

Moving clockwise from Mahoney's Dial, the first of Evelyn's spandrels is devoted to maybe the best-known of Aesop's fables, The Hare and the Tortoise. Emerging from some bracken, one frond of which has already turned an autumnal brown, the tortoise is plodding along purposefully while the hare, his fellow-competitor in the famous race that he's destined never to win, is hurtling at full stretch in another direction. But where does the race end? In the background, the first item in a continual landscape that links all six of Evelyn's spandrels, is a graveyard. This graveyard is adjacent to the plant-festooned gravestone in Mahoney's Dial spandrel. What are they trying to tell us?

We follow the background landscape, noting an enclosed garden (which by its Latin name Hortus conclusus had a symbolic significance in much earlier religious painting connected with the Virgin, which I don't think applies here) with a gazebo, a fine garden bench, and onwards across the neck, still following the wall, until we come to a some wrought-iron gates and the drive into a fine country house, with, beyond it, an orchard with trees bare of leaves but well plenished with poultry. We're in the next fable, The Partridge and the Hare, but on the way something remarkable has happened:



Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals: The Hare and the Tortoise (L) and The Hare and the Partridge (R)


As we cross from The Hare and the Tortoise to the next spandrel, maybe wondering if it's the same hare in both, at the narrowest point of the neck, just above the apex of the window frame below, there's a small unobtrusive brown rectangle that might be anything, but which on close examination turns out to be a tree-trunk. This trunk continues its growth up and under the coving, and reappears to spread its branches on the edge of Mahoney's ceiling. I imagine this trespass was by agreement, and might, if it happened again, be interpreted as a deliberate statement of partnership. In fact it does happen again, in almost all the remaining spandrels, and it's obviously deliberate. The relationship between Evelyn and Mahoney is becoming clearer.


Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Hare and the Partridge (L) and The Fir Tree and the Bramble (R)

So far in this journey through fables as interpreted by Evelyn or Mahoney there has been barely a mention of the best-known fabulist after Aesop, the 17th Century French writer Jean de La Fontaine. His elegantly simple account - a translation follows - of Le Lièvre et la Perdrix, The Hare and the Partridge (Book 5, No. 17) reads:

Il ne se faut jamais moquer des misérables :
Car qui peut s'assurer d'être toujours heureux ?
    Le sage Ésope dans ses Fables
    Nous en donne un exemple ou deux.
    Celui qu'en ces Vers je propose,
    Et les siens, ce sont même chose.
Le Lièvre et la Perdrix, concitoyens d'un champ,
Vivaient dans un état, ce semble, assez tranquille,
    Quand une Meute s'approchant
Oblige le premier à chercher un asile.
Il s'enfuit dans son fort, met les chiens en défaut,
    Sans même en excepter Briffaut.
[dog's name]
    Enfin il se trahit lui-même
Par les esprits sortant de son corps échauffé.
Miraut
[another dog's name] sur leur odeur ayant philosophé
Conclut que c'est son Lièvre, et d'une ardeur extrême
Il le pousse, et Rustaut
[yet another dog's name], qui n'a jamais menti
    Dit que le Lièvre est reparti.
Le pauvre malheureux vient mourir à son gîte.
    La Perdix le raille, et lui dit :
    Tu te vantais d'être si vite :
Qu'as-tu fait de tes pieds ? Au moment qu'elle rit
Son tour vient; on la trouve. Elle croit que ses ailes
La sauront garantir à toute extrémité;
    Mais la pauvrette avait compté
    Sans l'Autour aux serres cruelles.


[You should never mock the unfortunate;
For who can be certain of being happy all the time?
    The wise Aesop in his fables
    Gives us several examples.
    Aesop's, and the example I'm giving you in these verses
    Are the same.
The Hare and the Partridge, fellow-citizens of the same field,
Were living peacefully enough, it seems,
When an approaching pack of hounds
Obliges the former to seek refuge.
He flees to a thorny thicket, and gives the hounds the slip,
    Without exception, even Briffaut.
    But in the end he gives himself away
By the scent emanating from his heated body.
Miraut, having thought hard about the scent,
Concludes that it is his Hare, and with extreme energy
Pushes in, while Rustaut, who never lies,
    Says that the Hare has escaped again.
The poor creature is about to die in his form.
    The Partridge jeers at him, and says:
    'You boasted about being so fast:
    What's happened to your feet?' Even as she laughs
Her turn comes round: she is discovered. She thinks her wings
Will be able to save her from any emergency;
But the poor thing hadn't taken into account
The cruel claws of the goshawk.]
(My translation)

Evelyn has painted us a beautiful Partridge, and a fine lop-eared Hare, but of Briffaut, Miraut and Rustaut and the rest of the pack and the goshawk there is no trace. Maybe the little burial ground and Mahoney's gravestones in the previous spandrels are memento mori enough. And perhaps the goshawk is biding his time in the Fir-Tree in the next spandrel...



Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Fir Tree and the Bramble (L) and The Elm Tree and the Vine (R)


The fable of The Fir Tree and the Bramble isn't particularly edifying. The Fir Tree boasts of his usefulness to the building trade compared with the Bramble, which serves no useful purpose whatever. The Bramble retorts by suggesting to the Fir Tree that he won't be quite so self-satisfied when the foresters come to cut him down, when he'll wish he was a bramble and not a fir. Better to be poor and carefree than rich and overborne with the responsibilites wealth brings.

I think Evelyn selected this fable for no other purpose than to be a pair to its neighbour, which is perhaps the most significant of the entire 22 spandrels from her hand. Before exploring this, however, we could observe that the background, beyond the fence with its white posts, is a continuation of the horizon in the two Hare spandrels. The Fir Tree, towards which some tendrils of brambles are creeping, also extends upwards into Mahoney's ceiling. On the right of it, and beyond the fence, is another of Evelyn's ploughed fields, always a symbol of promise.

This next spandrel is entitled The Elm Tree and the Vine, which is barely a fable at all. It doesn't appear in Aesop. Its first written appearance - as far as I know - is in Ovid's Metamorphoses, a vast collection of legends from the remotest Classical antiquity written in Latin at about the start of the Christian era. Later fabulists turned the legend into a fable of interdependency, the elm serving no great purpose until pruned and trained into a supporting trellis for the creeping vine, the vine needing the support of the elm in order to stand upright and bear fruit, which was indeed common practice in the ancient world and still is in some Mediterranean vineyards. As such it became a metaphor for marriage.

Ovid's retelling of the legend, in Metamorphoses Book XIV, opens with a description of Pomona, and a few random lines clearly evoke an Evelyn-like figure: no more skilled a gardener existed . . . she was devoted to growing the fruit trees which gave her her name . . . she adored the countryside . . . she loved her garden passionately . . . and to such an extent that she preferred it to the many men who paid court to her. Hardly surprising: Ovid lists these suitors as Satyrs, Pans, Silenus (a disreputable old drunk) and Priapus (who gave his name to the condition known as priapism).

Enter Vertumnus, the Roman (or more probably Etruscan) god of plant growth, of change, of fruit trees, and especially seasons: 'Vertumnus then, that turn'st the year about,' as Thomas Nashe wrote in Summer's Last Will and Testament of 1600. Vertumnus fell in love with Pomona at first sight, but instead of wooing her conventionally he turned himself into an old woman, so as not to excite her suspicions with the partisan nature of the advice 'she' proceeded to give.

'Never mind all that ghastly sub-Olympian riff-raff,' was the tenor of Vertumnus' advice, 'regard instead yon noble elm who with his manly strength supports the trailing vine.' Pomona resists this analogy with marriage, especially as Vertumnus' kisses by this stage had become suspiciously more passionate than she might have expected from an old woman. But when Vertumnus changes his appearance into a handsome bronzed young man she resists no longer.

Evelyn's spandrel shows the Elm, again reaching up and beneath the coving into Mahoney's ceiling, while the tendrils of the vine creep towards the trunk of the elm and also up into sky, searching for something to latch on to. As in the previous spandrel, promise is hinted at in the furrows of the last of Evelyn's ploughed fields.

What is Evelyn trying to tell us about her relationship with Mahoney? Are we to look at an Evelyn/Pomona - Mahoney/Vertumnus scenario? If this is indeed the case, many things fall into place, including the overall design of the sub-gallery murals and the time scale. On one level, the sub-gallery decoration becomes a celebration of the professional partnership between the two artists. This partnership started in the spring of 1933, when Evelyn was approaching the end of her 4-year Royal College of Art Associateship course, and when Mahoney recruited her for the Brockley project. Whatever else may have drawn them together, a mutual love of plants and gardening united them, and this love is surely evident throughout the Brockley murals.  

And on another level, I think the sub-gallery decoration points to their developing personal relationship. I don't think there was anything unprofessional or inappropriate in the relationship, in the temper of the 1930s, between Evelyn and Mahoney (who was three years her senior) at the RCA. I think the first flowering of what became an intense emotional relationship between the two can be traced to the summer of 1933. Evelyn had graduated ARCA in June. Work had already started on The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk and possibly on The Cock and the Jewel lunette, and continued sporadically into the autumn. Evelyn was a free agent, but Mahoney was bound by the RCA terms and vacation periods. He frequently spent his holiday periods with colleagues, either on farms offering accommodation or with fellow artists in the country, and it's likely that the first time he and Evelyn went away together was to stay with Edward Bawden, another devoted gardener, at his house in Great Bardfield, Essex, in the late summer of 1933.

Their relationship was possibly at its most idyllic in 1934. Tiring of frequent train journeys between Rochester and Brockley, Evelyn rented rooms in Ermine Road, a few minutes' walk from Brockley School, and also a studio in Hampstead, which Mahoney came later that year to share with her. There were interruptions to the work at Brockley, caused to a lesser extent by limited availability of trestles and scaffolding - it seems likely that Evelyn had to wait until her colleagues Mildred Eldridge and Violet Martin had finished their hall panels before she could continue in situ with her work - and to a greater extent by endless scrounging for money to pay the artists. In the end both Mahoney (who was salaried by the RCA) and Evelyn (who was not, and may have been helped by her family and Mahoney) gave huge amounts of their time free.

By May 1935 Mahoney's work at Brockley had finished, and the last work he and Evelyn completed together, although not simultaneously given the difference in their heights, was probably the trompe l'oeil Adam-style plasterwork of the central sub-gallery ceiling. (This, which meant that Evelyn's central spandrel cycle was the last to be completed, will be considered in detail in the next essay.) Throughout the summer of 1935 Evelyn worked alone on the great Hilly Fields frieze, with occasional breaks to concentrate on the spandrels. Although in the voluminous and often delectably illustrated correspondence from Evelyn to Mahoney (his replies have not survived) there are hints at one or two cracks in their relationship from late 1934, it's from 1935 that Evelyn starts expressing her doubts about the firmness of its foundation. Most of these doubts take the form of her apologising for some aspect of her conduct to Mahoney, or for something involving Mahoney that's gone wrong at home in Rochester. There are frequent appeals for fresh starts and calls for more mutual understanding. Marriage is mentioned, but never advanced: Mahoney believed that marriage, especially with the possible advent of children, would put a brake on Evelyn's development as an artist. There were certainly significant religious and political differences between them.

I think - but who can judge the dynamic of other peoples' loves? - all this is reflected in the Brockley spandrels. The first cycle, where the setting of the various fables is in spring, is the earliest, and we can perhaps imagine Evelyn painting them in 1933/4 in the first flush of their love and of the extraordinary opportunity that has come their way to express it both through their art and their love of plants. Later, in 1934/5, there's a sense of coming down to earth, which is expressed in the current cycle of autumnal spandrels, which I find quite ambivalent: what exactly is being expressed? Are those reminders of death, the gravestones in Mahoney's The Clock and the Dial, and in Evelyn's The Hare and the Tortoise, symbolic of their mutual constancy (already commented on in Mahoney's lunette The Rose and the Butterfly) until the end? Or do they hint at the life-cycle of the relationship? Is the Pomona/Vertumnus scenario a comment on the past, the present or the future?


Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Fox and the Crab (R) and The Elm and the Vine (L)

We move on the the penultimate spandrel, The Fox and the Crab. The fable runs as follows: A crab, tiring of its inter-tidal zone and a diet of unwary molluscs and sand-fly larvae, decided to explore inland to see what better forage the hinterland might have to offer. In due course he came to a meadow, where he was set upon by a fox. The fox devoured him shell, claws and winking eye, but before he expired the crab was heard to exclaim, like so many other Aesopian creatures, 'I should have been content with my lot. If my dissatisfaction had not got the better of me, I should not now be in this fix.'

Evelyn's Fox is in the centre of the spandrel, and like many of the protagonists in her scenes is relatively small. To start with, I had some difficulty in finding the Crab, eventually slapping my brow in a 'Doh!' moment: of course there's no Crab, it's inside the Fox. But in fact there's a crab-like shape lurking in the greenery at the foot of the spandrel.


Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Frog and the Ox

For the last time the background continues into the last spandrel, carried by a long stretch of barbed wire (barbed wire? What's barbed wire doing in a set of timeless commentaries like these?) running from a post on the left of The Fox and the Crab to the right of The Frog and the Ox. Complementing the Crab in the previous spandrel, a handsome Frog also lurks in the fronds towards the foot of the spandrel, looking upwards and inwards towards the relatively tiny figure of the Ox in the middle distance. This is a somewhat wry comment, because in the fable the Frog, attempting to emulate the size of the Ox, puffs himself up until he bursts.

So we leave this autumnal cycle of spandrels, with their sometimes mixed messages. All that remains to discover in this treasure-house of mural art is the central ceiling, with its four extraordinary allegorical figures, the most technically brilliant painting to come from Evelyn's hand. We'll look at these next time.


* The unexpected function: before the advent of public address systems, embryo public speakers, who often launched their oratory in school assembly halls, were sometimes advised to speak to the clock at the back of the hall as a method of making sure their voices carried.

(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2013. All rights reserved.)




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Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Brockley Murals (1933-36) Part 2: Ceiling, lunettes and spandrels (2)



Evelyn Dunbar and Charles Mahoney: The Brockley Murals, Ceiling, Lunettes and Spandrels 1933-36 (Author's photographs throughout)

All these images should enlarge if you click on them

The second cycle of Evelyn's spandrels, two of which are facing us in the lower centre middle distance in the photo above, continue to delight and puzzle where the first cycle, which I analysed here, left off. In the first cycle Evelyn allowed Aesop, the mainspring of her subject matter, free rein in a garden very similar to the Dunbar family garden in Rochester.

In the second and central section of the sub-gallery arcade at Prendergast-Hilly Fields College (at the time of painting Brockley County School for Boys) Evelyn takes us indoors, with an extraordinarily rich and diverse series of interiors, some based on fables, others on moral metaphors. Each spandrel has its own subject, and one subject - The Nurse, the Child and the Fairy - she slips in across the necks of two adjacent spandrels, making a total of nine subjects.

For the first spandrel, The Knight's Move in Chess, she moves clockwise from the central axis and invites us into the Dunbar family home, The Cedars. Her elder brother Ronald was a chess player. Ronald taught me to play chess when I was ten or eleven. He was an amiable man, a local businessman suffering from dyspepsia for which he continually sucked somebody-or-other's Little Liver Pills. At a certain point in our games, generally far too early on, he would lean forward with a silent snort of triumph to make the move that checkmated me. (I wonder who else he played with? The older Dunbars, Ronald, Jessie and Marjorie, seemed to have very few outside contacts. 'They lived within themselves', Evelyn's husband Roger said of them once, inferring that the brilliant and charismatic Evelyn was something of a cuckoo in their nest, particularly after their mother Florence died in 1944.)

Chess, which originated in India, didn't arrive in Europe until at least a thousand years after the time of Aesop (c.620-560BC). Certain moves in chess, however, have often been used as metaphors for aspects of human behaviour. G. K. Chesterton, for instance, a very popular writer at the time Evelyn was painting (and who died in the summer of 1936, even as her Brockley paint was drying), conflated the Knight's crooked or even devious move in chess - two straight squares in any direction then a swerve or lurch to the side - with a fable even more ancient than Aesop, The Fox and the Cat (or Hedgehog):

Aesop [...] understood that, for a fable, all the persons must be impersonal. They must be like abstractions in algebra, or like pieces in chess. The lion must always be stronger than the wolf, just as four is always double of two. The fox in a fable must move crooked, as the knight in chess must move crooked.¹


In this fable the fox boasts to the cat/hedgehog of the many ways he has to escape from danger. The cat replies that he has only one means of escape, to run up a tree, and the hedgehog to curl up into a ball. Both are perfectly and consistently effective. Just then a pack of hunting dogs appears: the cat runs up the nearest tree, the hedgehog rolls into a prickly ball, and while the fox dithers over which is the best of his many boasted means of escape the dogs tear him limb from limb.

Evelyn's chessboard, what we can see of it, is tightly organised. I can imagine her asking her brother Ronald to set up a particular game of chess, and Ronald has obliged with his chessmen of the classic Staunton design. He has left the game frozen at a point of high drama, commensurate with the arrival of the hunting dogs in the fable. All depends on whose move it is, but the black knight is pinned: he can't be moved without exposing the black king to check from the white bishop. For all his supposed flexibility of movement, the black knight is immobilised, the helpless prey of several other pieces.
 

Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Knight's Move in Chess and The Artist and his Patrons

The chessboard has been placed on a circular table covered with a blue cloth, one that we'll see four times altogether. Segments of this table set up a logical sequence, complementing each other on opposite sides of this central section of the gallery, like 90 º slices of cake, forming a unifying factor among so much disparate material. (Elsewhere in this cycle yellow and red tablecloths match each other diagonally.) In the background there is a sideboard and two chairs, and two figures not much larger than the chessmen, one of whom is reading a newspaper. The left side of the scene is taken up with a large brilliantly leaved coleus. If The Knight's Move in Chess seems abstruse, its obscurity is bright compared with The Artist and his Patrons.

In The Artist and his Patrons, clockwise to the right of The Knight's Move in Chess, we come to the heart of the entire sub-gallery spandrel cycle. It's the 10th (or 11th, depending on which end you count from) of the 22 spandrels she painted, so if Evelyn had a particular message to give or point to make, it's likely to be found here, on the spandrels inside the central arches of the gallery.

It came as a surprise to discover that among the 700-odd fables ascribed to Aesop or his successors, there isn't one called The Artist and his Patrons. There are one or two fables involving sculptors and the relative values of art and nature (nature always wins, of course), and others about the worth of artists compared with those who buy their work, an idea maybe reflected in Evelyn's adjacent ceiling roundel in the photo above, which is entitled Industry and Sloth.

With this mind, it's with some trepidation that I advance the following ideas, which owe almost everything to an article in Volume 119 (No.1 Supplement) of the January 2004 edition of Modern Language Notes (MLN), entitled Fables, Ruins, and the "bell' imperfetto" in the Art of Dosso Dossi by Giancarlo Fiorenza, currently Assistant Professor of Art History in California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

The fables of Aesop existed firstly in Greek and then in Latin, and it wasn't until the Renaissance that the first translation into a contemporary language appeared, the Italian edition of 1479. This was published in Verona, and was illustrated with 'lively woodcuts', to quote Professor Fiorenza. It became a best-seller, not least because Aesop opened the door to the popular wisdom of the ancient world just at a time when the humanist movement was searching for something to parallel, complement or even challenge the otherwise universal Christianity.

Among the artists who were drawn into the world of Aesop was the agreeably nicknamed Dosso Dossi (c.1490-1542), whose real name was Giovanni di Niccolò de Luteri: Dosso was the name of the village he came from. In 1531 Dosso Dossi was one of several artists engaged by Bernardo Clesio, the Prince-Bishop of Trento, to decorate the extensions he was undertaking to his palace in the mediaeval Castello del Buonconsiglio. Today this is a massive fortified palace dominating the town of Trento, in the foothills of the Italian South Tirol.

From the surviving correspondence between the frequently absent Prince-Bishop Clesio and his clerks of works we learn that - maybe this gives a pointer to where all this is leading - Dosso was given free rein with his decorations, indeed encouraged to invent them. Clearly his patron was a man as open and kindly with his spirit as with his purse. Among the 19 rooms Dosso decorated was La Stua de la Famea (15th Century dialect for the family dining-room, or bar, even) an upper-floor dining room. Here Dosso painted ten lunettes in fresco of the fables of Aesop, drawing on the 1479 Verona edition and especially its 'lively' woodcuts for some of his ideas.



Dosso Dossi (c.1490-1542): Fables and Ruins La Stua della Famea, Castello del Buonconsiglio, Trento, Italy

So we can imagine the Prince-Bishop's entourage and guests sitting at his generous table and discussing Dosso's lunettes and the meaning of the fables illustrated in them, some of which they would recognise instantly, not too unlike the boys at Brockley School queuing up at the serving hatches beneath the gallery for their school dinners. Clesio's guests would perhaps notice that the horizons in Dosso's lunettes were on a continuous level, just as Evelyn's are in Brockley School, as though they were looking out from the heights of the Castello on to the outside real world which Aesop's fables evoked.

And some, sensitive or censorious, would remark on Dosso's between-lunette spandrels, which he has decorated with paintings of Classical statuary, as knocked about a bit - the bell' imperfetto (beautiful imperfection) of Professor Fiorenzo's title - through the ages, I suppose to imply the approval and legitimisation of then contemporary culture by its ancient Graeco-Roman ancestors. The statuary is nude and explicit, as indeed it originally was. Later, I don't know when, maybe during the great ecumenical Council of Trent some 15 years afterwards, offending genitals were painted out. Now, in the top right-hand corner of Evelyn's spandrel of The Artist and his Patrons there's an extraordinary and unique thing: so far all Evelyn's human figures have been reduced in size almost to invisibility, but here a life-size left hand holds up a piece of fine material stretched across the neck of the spandrel and into the neighbouring one, The Parrot and his Cage, where the right hand holds it, like a kind of screen, in much the same way as a towel might be held up to screen someone changing on the beach.

What's happening? At Prendergast-Hilly Fields College (i.e. the former Brockley School), the open arch corresponds inversely with the spandrels in Dosso's Stua de la Famea, that is, it occupies the space between the paintings. This is exactly where the over-explicit statuary would have been, had Dosso's design in Trento been somehow magically transported to Lewisham . . . and Evelyn's hands are holding up what I believe is called a modesty drape. Modesty drapes are very common in Renaissance and later painting and sculpture, effectively and sometimes with stunning artistry screening out prurient eyes: this is Evelyn's witty and joyfully sympathetic response to Clesio's guests and their descendants. Maybe this is a little private joke between Evelyn and Mahoney.

It's difficult to believe that Evelyn and Mahoney didn't discuss every aspect of the proposed Brockley decoration before the work started and while it was in progress. It's equally hard to believe that they weren't aware of Dosso's work. There are so many parallels: the continuous horizons we see in the first eight and the last six spandrels, which we'll look at in the next post; the diminutive size of the principal figures; the inclusion of everyday activities unconnected with the fable that's being illustrated, like someone reading the paper in The Knight's Move in Chess; the fascination with plants and flowers; a certain wit and deft light-heartedness.

The spandrel itself shows an artist's paintbox with the lid open, standing on a table with a red cloth on it. In the box are tubes of oil paint, bottles of various oils and solvents and a selection of brushes. In the top left-hand corner the artist, maybe the forward figure in a blue smock of the type Evelyn often wore, and standing for all artists male or female, is in discussion with two patrons. The upright lid of the paintbox separates the two halves of the image. To the right are spring flowers - tulips, grape hyacinths, polyanthus - of the type which Evelyn's mother Florence used to include in her floral still lifes. The whole is not a fable at all, but a permanent and lasting tribute to all those who helped Evelyn to her present position: Charles Mahoney, Sir William Rothenstein, Dr Sinclair (the headmaster of Brockley County School for Boys) and his staff, her mother Florence Dunbar and no doubt many others.

 

Evelyn Dunbar The Brockley Murals The Parrot and his Cage (left), and The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse (right)

Aesop's fable of The Parrot and his Cage is simply told, and with some relief after the previous heavy going. His mistress has allowed the parrot a little freedom, and has inexplicably left the window open. We can't see the parrot, because, having long been envious of other birds' liberty despite living an in-cage life of Reilly, he has flown away. In the background we can see his distraught mistress, waving her arms in the air as she vainly calls him back. The Ven. Dr Croxall, the Aesopian ex-archdeacon of Hereford, described it as follows in his 1722 version of Aesop's fables:

But alas! poor Poll was mistaken; a thousand inconveniences, which he never dreamt of, attended this elopement of his. [...] He is buffeted by the savage inhabitants of the grove; and his imitation of a human voice, which formerly rendered him so agreeable, does but the more expose him to the fierce resentment of the feathered nation. The delicate food with which he used to be fed, is no more; he is unskilled in the ways of providing for himself, and even ready to die with hunger. But just before he breathed his last, he is said to have made this reflection: ah, poor Poll! were you but in your cage again, you would never wander more.


Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse (right)

In The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse Evelyn draws on Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse rather than Aesop. Somehow Johnny Town-mouse has scrambled up the blue tablecloth covering the circular table that we saw three spandrels ago in The Knight's Move in Chess. Instead of a chess-board there's a splendid pierced-work porcelain fruit bowl, overflowing with fruit, apples, a quince, a banana and trusses of grapes, complemented by a similarly decorated dish with unshucked hazelnuts in it. Following Johnny Town-mouse, a bit uncertainly, is Timmy Willie, the country mouse, who may have arrived accidentally in town that very morning in a hamper of vegetables. In the background a human figure in the doorway is shooing them away. Devotees of Beatrix Potter will recognise the names, and of course the story, and some may have noticed that Beatrix Potter prefaces her story with the dedication 'To Aesop in the Shadows'.

In fact Beatrix Potter expands on Aesop's original fable, inverting it to have the country mouse first visiting the town mouse. Aesop has the town mouse making an uncomfortable visit to the country mouse, and there's no reciprocal visit, as in Beatrix Potter. There's no mention of fruit in either Aesop or Potter, so Evelyn has gone to another version of the many versions of this very ancient fable, or to her own imagination, for the abundance of forbidden fruit which gives the country mouse the collywobbles.

(This is very probably the first time that mice appear prominently in Evelyn's work. Among her possessions was a carved wooden mouse dressed in a bouffant skirt, which served her as a sort of mascot. In the later 50s she decorated a bedroom frieze with mice for Anne Skilbeck, the daughter of the then Principal of Wye College. However, the locus classicus, if that's the term, for Evelyn's mice drawings is An Episode in the History of the Lake District, an illustrated diary of a short Lakeland holiday in 1941, where the four protagonists - herself, her then fiancé Roger Folley, Roger's friend Glynn Burton and Margaret Goodwin, a former fellow Royal College of Art student - feature as mice.)


Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Flies and the Honeypot (left) and The Spider and the Silkworm (right)

Evelyn has made an engaging little household vignette out of the fable of The Flies and the Honeypot. The fable, not among the most profound, tells how some flies were attracted to a jar of honey. Being obliged to stand in it in order to eat it, they soon found they were stuck. So they expired, but not before remorse set in: 'Foolish creatures that we are, for the sake of a little pleasure we have destroyed ourselves.'

The Dunbars' circular table with the blue tablecloth puts in its third appearance, complementing the mice-infested segment of table we've just left. Afternoon tea is being cleared away. A woman is carrying everything away into the kitchen, followed by a frankly-painted cat hopeful of a saucer of milk. She will return for the very fine teapot and the honeypot next to it, and maybe for a linen napkin rolled up and enclosed in a gilt napkin ring. And there's a letter, with a red stamp, with the envelope torn as to suggest that it has just been opened, hinting at leisured days when there were two daily postal deliveries. The envelope reads A. Pratt, esq, The Limes, Princes Rd, SE 13. Mr Pratt was probably the school caretaker.

Then there's the honeypot, and some large fat flies, and what was a cosy, genteel, assured, unquestioningly bourgeois and English middle-class domestic scene is instantly disturbed. Of all Evelyn's Brockley images - I might say anywhere - this is the most brutal.


Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Spider and the Silkworm (right) and The Flies and the Honeypot (left)

The Northumbrian engraver Thomas Bewick's reading of the The Spider and the Silkworm, the subject of Evelyn's next spandrel, goes as follows:

He that is employed in works of use generally advantages himself or others; while he who toils alone for fame must often expect to lose his labour.

How vainly we promise ourselves that our flimsy productions will be rewarded with immortal honour! A Spider, busied in spreading his web from one side of a room to the other, was asked by an industrious Silkworm, to what end he spent so much time and labour, in making a number of lines and circles? The Spider angrily replied, Do not disturb me, thou ignorant thing: I transmit my ingenuity to posterity, and fame is the object of my wishes. Just as he had spoken, a chambermaid, coming into the room to feed her Silkworms, saw the Spider at his work, and with one stroke of her broom, swept him away, and destroyed at once his labours and his hope of fame.



Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Spider and the Silkworm (detail)

Evelyn's illustration of this is dominated by a strange artefact in the middle of the spandrel, which turns out to be a lamp, mounted on a curly bracket or gimbal so that its light can be directed wherever it's wanted. It's burning very dimly at the moment, if it's alight at all. The right-hand side of the shade is festooned with a proprietorial web, while the spider herself is hanging just above the silkworms' box. Maybe this low level of illumination isn't surprising, because I see this lamp as representing the fame the spider so ardently seeks, and which is being summarily suppressed by the chambermaid sweeping all his work away. We can see her in the background with her broom, so thoroughly busy at her spring cleaning that she has piled a couple of Evelyn's spindly chairs on to the bed the better to clean any offending webs away. Meanwhile, there is a blue box covered with an open-work cloth, in which her utilitarian silkworms are munching away at the dark green mulberry leaves, of which there appears to be a plentiful supply just beyond the box.


Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Nurse, the Child and the Fairy (extreme upper left) and The Needle and the Pin (centre and right)

In The Nurse, the Child and the Fairy Evelyn spreads her illustration over the necks of two adjoining spandrels, just as she did with the two hands holding up a length of material, maybe a modesty drape, across the necks of the pair of spandrels directly opposite, otherwise occupied by The Artist and his Patrons and The Parrot and his Cage. The two parts are linked by black and white tiled floors in each. It's not clear to me whether The Nurse, the Child and the Fairy travels from left to right, or vice versa. This is annoying because it might give a clue as to whether the whole ensemble of spandrels moves clockwise, anti-clockwise or in some other order.



Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Nurse, the Child and the Fairy (detail)

I hope there's no shame in admitting defeat: I've no idea what The Nurse, the Child and the Fairy is about. In the detail above the Nurse is holding the Child by the hand, while the Fairy hovers above and to the left, to what purpose I don't know. There's no such fable in Aesop or in any of his successors, although there are other fables about changelings that echo the title, notably by John Gay. I'm afraid I can't make head nor tail of the meaning of Evelyn's illustration.

I don't know if Evelyn's The Needle and the Pin is taken from the following poem by the American poetess Eliza Lee Follen (1787-1860), but it will do excellent service for any other version:

The Pin, Needle, and Scissors: A Fable

'Tis true, although 'tis sad to say,
Disputes are rising every day.
You'd think, if no one did deny it,
A little work-box might be quiet;
But 'tis not so, for I did hear,
Or else I dreamed it, 'tis so queer,
A Pin and Needle in the cushion,
Maintain the following discussion:

The Needle, 'extra fine, gold-eyed,'
Was very sharp, and full of pride.
And thus, methought, she did begin:
'You clumsy, thick, short, ugly Pin,
I wish you were not quite so near;
How could my mistress stick me here?
She should have put me in my place,
With my bright sisters in the case.'

'Would you were there!' the Pin replied;
'I do not want you by my side.
I'm rather short and thick, 'tis true;
Who'd be so long and thin as you?
I've got a head, though, of my own,
That you had better let alone.'

'You make me laugh,' the Needle cried;
'That you've a head can't be denied;
For you a very proper head,
Without an eye, and full of lead.'

'You are so cross, and sharp, and thin,'

Replied the poor insulted Pin,
'I hardly dare a word to say,
And wish, indeed, you were away.
That golden eye in your poor head,
Was only made to hold a thread;
All your fine airs are foolish fudge,
For you are nothing but a drudge;
But I, in spite of your abuse,
Am made for pleasure and for use.
I fasten the bouquet and sash,
And help the ladies make a dash;
I go abroad and gaily roam,
While you are rusting here at home.'

'Stop!' cried the Needle; 'you're too much;
You've brass enough to beat the Dutch;
Do I not make the ladies' clothes,
Ere I retire to my repose?
Then who, forsooth, the glory wins?
Alas! 'tis finery and pins.
This is the world's unjust decree,
But what is this vain world to me?
I'd rather live with my own kin,
Than dance about like you, vain Pin.
I'm taken care of every day:
You're used awhile, then thrown away;
Or else you get all bent up double,
And a snug crack for all your trouble.'

'True,' said the Pin, 'I am abused,
And sometimes very roughly used;
I often get an ugly crook,
Or fall into a dirty nook;
But there I lie, and never mind it;
Who wants a pin is sure to find it.
In time I am picked up, and then
I lead a merry life again.
You fuss so at a fall or hurt,
And if you touch a little dirt,
You keep up such an odious creaking,
That where you are there is no speaking;
And then your lacquey Emery's called,
And he, poor thing, is pricked and mauled,
Until your daintiness--O shocking!
Is fit for what? to mend a stocking!'

The Needle now began to speak--
They might have quarrelled for a week--
But here the Scissors interposed,
And thus the warm debate was closed:
'You angry Needle! foolish Pin!
How did this nonsense first begin?
You should have both been better taught;
But I will cut the matter short.
You both are wrong, and both are right,
And both are very impolite.
E'en in a work-box 'twill not do
To talk of every thing that's true.
All personal remarks avoid,
For every one will be annoyed
At hearing disagreeable truth;
Besides, it shows you quite uncouth,
And sadly wanting in good taste.
But what advantages you waste!
Think, Pins and Needles, while you may,
How much you hear in one short day;
No servants wait on lordly man
Can hear one half of what you can.
'Tis not worth while to mince the matter;
Nor men nor boys like girls can chatter.
All now are learning, forward moving,
E'en Pins and Needles are improving;
And, in this glorious, busy day
All have some useful part to play.
Go forth, ye Pins, and bring home news!
Ye Needles, in your cases muse!
And take me for your kind adviser,
And only think of growing wiser;
Then, when you meet again, no doubt,
Something you'll have to talk about,
And need not get into a passion,
And quarrel in this vulgar fashion.
Less of yourselves you'll think, and more
Of others, than you did before.
You'll learn that in their own right sphere
All things with dignity appear,
And have, when in their proper place,
Peculiar use, intrinsic grace.'
Methought the polished Scissors blush'd
To have said so much,--and all was hush'd.


Evelyn's The Needle and the Pin spandrel is a complex composition. It may take some time and application, as though we were waiting for an optical illusion to click into place, to see that what appears to be a central pillar leaning to the right is in fact the frame of a mirror, shown almost edgeways-on, hinged on to a moulded wooden support. A blue felt needle-holder fringed with a yellow trim, or maybe a shallow pin-cushion, is hanging from the frame, with the warring needle and pin stuck into it. The mirror and its frame and base is standing on a dressing table covered with a fringed yellow cloth. There's a tortoiseshell comb in the foreground, and the whole design is given depth by the  bedroom in the background. Two figures, one dressed in a housemaid's apron are making a bed on a handsome iron bedstead: they're stretching a sheet over, while a pillow lies on the floor and more bedclothes are lying folded on a bedside chair. The mirror, of late Victorian design, is a miniature feat of trompe l'oeil perspective, a scene portrayed from above while actually viewed from below.


Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The House of Cards

We move on to the final spandrel in this central cycle, The House of Cards. We're in the Dunbar sitting-room again, where we started with The Knight's Move in Chess. The same round or oval table, with the same blue tablecloth that has been a unifying factor in several spandrels in this central group, now serves as the base for a house of cards. Aesop predated chess and playing cards by at least a thousand years, but the house of cards in itself stands (or falls) as a metaphor for insubstantiality and impermanence, for all that is fallible, without the need for an accompanying fable.

Evelyn was working on this cycle, and in particular on The House of Cards,  almost until the eve of the official opening of the Brockley murals on February 21st, 1936. There's a tantalising letter, dateable only by inference, from Evelyn to Mahoney, in which she writes 'I didn't write yesterday because I was going all in at the old king [...] I've got him about a third done in about 3½ hours. I think he's looking alright. [...] It's less than two weeks now to the opening & there's still a good bit to do.'

What 'old king' was this? If Evelyn's reference is to her work in the Brockley Murals, the only place in which a king appears is in The House of Cards. The court cards featured are the queen of diamonds on the lower level and a jack, or knave, two levels above. However, among the other cards to the left of the structure is another court card, which turns out to be the king of clubs, whose features are very sketchily done in a way sometimes typical of Evelyn when she is a very great hurry. The following is the merest conjecture, but on January 20th, a fortnight at most before Evelyn wrote this letter to Mahoney, King George V died. A state funeral followed on the 28th. Evelyn was neither particularly pro- nor anti-monarchy, but she would have felt it tactless at that particular moment to have represented the late King being associated with something doomed to failure, like a house of cards.

 The jack's face is as scumbled and imprecise as the queen is exact and carefully rendered - and, while we're at it, unusually white in her background. And there's a strange anomaly: the border shows the trefoil symbol for clubs, while next to the jack's head is the symbol for spades. Which is he, clubs or spades? If any sense is to be made of Evelyn's reference to the 'old king', I think she repainted all the court cards on hearing of George V's death, but forgot to change the marginal clubs to spades on the jack.    

The House of Cards is Evelyn's final comment on this cycle, where all the images imply some human element or activity taking place mostly indoors. People - or mice masquerading as people - feature much more strongly here than in the previous cycle, where everything takes place in the garden and where human figures are reduced to marginal ciphers, something like the occasional human figures in the Bayeux Tapestry. Evelyn's choice of cards may cleverly suggest that we're all, men and women, at sixes and sevens, when we're left to our own devices, which can hardly be denied. The true, substantial, permanent and infallible morality is that of nature.



Many thanks to my wife Josephine for her invaluable and untiring help in the preparation of this essay.


¹G. K. Chesterton, Introduction to V.S.Vernon Jones: Aesop's Fables, A New Translation. New York, 1912



(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2013. All rights reserved.)



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Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Brockley Murals (1933-36) Part 2: Ceiling, lunettes and spandrels (1)


Evelyn Dunbar and Charles Mahoney: The Brockley Murals, Ceiling, Lunettes and Spandrels 1933-36 (Author's photographs throughout)

One of the greatest and most gorgeous treasures of 20th century British mural art lies here, ironically mostly unseen, beneath the gallery opening on to the hall at Prendergast-Hilly Fields College, Lewisham. (At the time of painting, between 1933 and 1936, this school was called Brockley County School for Boys. There's a fuller account of the history of these murals here.)

Evelyn had graduated from the Royal School of Art in 1933, by which time the Brockley mural project was under way, led by one of her erstwhile tutors, Charles Mahoney. Two other RCA final year students, Violet Martin and Mildred Eldridge, were also involved, but their work was limited to a panel each in the main hall. Evelyn (and Mahoney, to a lesser extent) devoted years to the completion of these largely hidden areas.

The architecture of the underside of this gallery consists of three square ceiling areas, two semi-circular lunettes at either end and 24 spandrels, the triangular-ish areas between the tops of the arches and the ceiling. Mahoney contributed two of the three ceiling areas, one lunette and the single spandrels on either side of it. Evelyn was responsible for all the rest, the figures in the central ceiling area, one lunette (The Cock and the Jewel, the most distant in the photo above) and 22 spandrels. Occasionally she spread her subject over two adjacent spandrels, and sometimes fitted two subjects into the space of one.

Nowhere is Evelyn's work more buoyant, vivid, cheerful, exquisitely designed and executed than in these small mural areas. The viewer feels the artist is revelling in her skill, in the profusion of her ideas and in the opportunity the Brockley School project gave a young artist setting out on her career to produce a journeyman masterpiece. Here Evelyn is at the height of her powers, in her sense of design - it must be far from easy, to design convincingly compelling images inside such an awkward frame - and colour, of close observation and wit, of such a vibrant and imaginative liveliness, of such a loving vitality and one-ness with nature.

We can perhaps guess why Evelyn felt so much in her element. By 1934 she and Mahoney had formed a close union, professional and emotional. They shared a studio in Hampstead. Through Mahoney (and to an extent through Sir William Rothenstein, Principal of the Royal College of Art, who came to Brockley School to see work in progress from time to time) Evelyn had stepped immediately from studentship to employment on a major project that gave full rein to her gifts. She and Mahoney were united not only by a deep love for each other but by a passion for plants and gardening, to such an extent that among their many artist friends they were nicknamed 'Adam and Eve'. (Evelyn was usually known as 'Eve'.) Evelyn was in love, and through her love for Mahoney filtered all those inventive images that make up her contribution to the Brockley murals.

The overall subject for these murals was the fables of Aesop. It's not known precisely who chose Aesop, or, in some cases, Aesop retold by William Caxton, La Fontaine, Robert Dodsley or John Gay or others. Probably it was Mahoney: in a letter to him dated February 1933, Evelyn writes 'It was a good idea to make Fables the subject. I find in them now more and more things which delight, and inspire to action!'¹

Evelyn's - and Mahoney's, for the two fables he illustrated - principal source is likely to have been Select Fables of Aesop and Others, edited and illustrated by the Northumbrian engraver Thomas Bewick and first published in 1818.

There's a didactic message in almost every image, appropriately enough for a school decoration, but this leads us to a curious aspect of interpretation. Each of the fables has a moral, usually a warning against hubris. But Evelyn's images in themselves carry no moral, they simply refer us back to her chosen fables, some well-known, like The Tortoise and the Hare, some obscure, like Flies and the Honeypot. Understanding of Evelyn's images only comes through familiarity with the fables they illustrate.

Throughout Evelyn's career we find deeper meanings below the surface, behind the symbol, through the curtain of irony, in the shadow of the allegory. The morality Evelyn is invoking in these spandrels and her single lunette is the morality of Nature herself. This is why the background of the first 8 spandrels, the outdoor theatre for Aesop's little dramas to play out on, is the garden. Not just any garden, but the managed and organised garden she knew and loved at home in Rochester. The garden at The Cedars was to some extent the forcing-bed for Evelyn's Christian Science, and by extension it stood for the land and all its abundance given by the Creator to mankind, on condition that he loved it and looked after it. And this meant obeying its, and its Creator's, laws. So the garden is Evelyn's morality, and Aesop its top-dressing. 

The situation of these murals, too, tells us something about Evelyn. Few artists would be satisfied by having their work displayed to such little advantage that you can't even look at it closely for any length of time without physical discomfort. (It's in this context that I apologise for the quality of the photographs accompanying this essay: most of the photos were taken on the coat-tails of the February 2013 Decorated Schools International Conference held at the school, when it would have been difficult, not to say tactless, to undermine the loftier themes of the conference by manhandling stepladders and lighting rigs.) To Evelyn audience wasn't something that mattered. To have created was enough. '[...she] preferred self-fulfilment to self-advancement', her husband Roger said of her, at the opening of her 2006 centenary exhibition at the St Barbe Museum and Gallery, Lymington. I don't think it would have mattered much to her that her 'specials', as she referred to her sub-gallery work, would only be seen by generations of schoolboys queuing up for morning assembly or for school dinners. While the moral pabulum offered by morning assembly was possibly no more nourishing than Aesop, school dinners may have had a much greater immediate appeal.

Evelyn refers to the process of sub-gallery painting in her voluminous and appealingly illustrated correspondence with Charles Mahoney. (None of his replies exists.) For part of the time she spent working at Brockley School she took lodgings in Ermine Road, very close to the foot of that area of Lewisham called Hilly Fields, within a couple of minutes' walk of the school.


Evelyn Dunbar: Extract from letter to Charles Mahoney, autumn 1935

Here Evelyn has included a sketch contorting herself on a trestle as she attacks the central ceiling panel, the one which was to contain her finest figure drawing. Her palette is on a stand, drips of paint fall to the the ground. Or is it sweat? Evelyn frequently complained about the heat she experienced during the Brockley mural project. She has added - apart from the orphan 'I see you' in the upper left hand corner - 'I am thinking of taking a course in ballet after this. It may then prove the turning point in my career'.

Evelyn Dunbar: Extract from letter to Charles Mahoney, September/October 1935

In this second fantasy Evelyn has invented wings for herself and Mahoney, enabling them to reach the central ceiling panel, although Mahoney had no part in it other than the original 4-roundel design, contenting himself with the two rather anodyne ceiling panels either side of it. It's also a commentary on the impossibility of Evelyn and Mahoney working simultaneously on the ceiling trestles: Evelyn was an average 5' 7" in height, but Mahoney was very tall, 6' and maybe a little more.

The letter is addressed from the Dunbar family home (top left) 'The Cedars Strood Kent', and her text reads 'Dear Chas, I'm going to get some of my specials going next week on the job. Above see special news photo, taken before event.' At the side she has written 'I hope you get that letter sent on from Noon's. It was a special.' (Noon's was a Wiltshire farm at which Mahoney had stayed.) In the background is a group of boys and staff, some of whom at least are looking on.

It should also be noticed that in these little cartoons the spandrels and lunettes have not yet been started. Very sensibly, Evelyn and Mahoney are working top-down, to avoid splashes on completed work.


* * *


To the paintings. All the images should enlarge if you click on them.


Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Cock and the Jewel

Evelyn's lunette - as opposed to Mahoney's, at the opposite end of the gallery - features Aesop's fable of The Cock and the Jewel. I don't know from which collection of Aesop's fables Evelyn took this subject, but in looking for an account of it I discovered an enjoyably bad one written in the 1720s by Samuel Croxall, D.D., describing himself as 'Late Archdeacon of Hereford':


A brisk young Cock in company with two or three Pullets, his mistresses, raking upon a dunghill for something to entertain them with, happened to scratch up a jewel; he knew what it was well enough, for it sparkled with an exceeding bright lustre; but, not knowing what to do with it, endeavoured to cover up his ignorance with a gay contempt. So, shrugging up his wings, shaking his head, and putting on a grimace, he expressed himself to this purpose: indeed, you are a very fine thing; but I know not any business you have here. I make no scruple of declaring that my taste lies quite another way; and I had rather have one grain of dear delicious barley, than all the jewels under the sun.

The Ven. Dr Samuel Croxall's 'Application' or pointing of the moral went as follows, and please don't be put off - this is the only time I'm going to quote him:

There are several people in the world that pass, with some, for well accomplished gentlemen, and very pretty fellows, though they are as great strangers to the true use of virtue and knowledge, as the Cock upon the dunghill is to the real value of the Jewel. He palliates his ignorance by pretending that his taste lies another way: but whatever gallant airs people may give themselves on these occasions, without dispute, the solid advantages of virtue, and the durable pleasures of learning, are as much to be preferred before other objects of the senses, as the finest brilliant diamond is above a barleycorn. The greatest blockheads would appear to understand, what at the same time they affect to despise; and nobody yet was so vicious as to have the impudence to declare in public, that virtue was not a fine thing.
But still, among the idle, sauntering young fellows of the age, who have leisure, as well to cultivate and improve the faculties of the mind, as to dress and embellish the body, how many are there who spend their days in raking after new scenes of debauchery, in comparison of those few who know how to relish more reasonable entertainment? Honest and undesigning good sense is so unfashionable, that he must be a bold man who, at this time of day, attempts to bring it into esteem.
How disappointed is the youth, who in the midst of his amorous pursuits, endeavouring to plunder an outside of bloom and beauty, finds a treasure of impenetrable virtue concealed within! And, why may it not be said, how delighted are the fair sex, when from a crowd of empty, frolic, conceited admirers, they find out, and distinguish with their fair opinion, a man of sense, with a plain unaffected person, which at first sight they did not like!


I much prefer Evelyn's closely observed and resolutely cheerful 'application', with its very handsome and brilliantly combed and wattled cockerel discovering a jewel in the form of a pendant with a miniature painted on it.

The scene, Brueghelian in its attention to detail, Chaucerian in its timelessly rural spirit (cf. The Nun's Priest's Tale), is set in a poultry yard, with scallop shells for the White and Buff Orpington hens to peck at (to strengthen their eggshells) and a circular water bowl. The yard and the poultry are reminiscent of the hen-run in the upper right-hand background of Evelyn's large Brockley panel through the arch in the adjacent hall, The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk. A clocking or broody hen has been isolated in a little triangular coop, to prevent her from sitting uselessly on other hens' eggs. Two white-clad women and a child beyond the enclosure are trying to get something out of a tree, maybe a hen - it's not very clear - whose wings haven't been clipped enough to prevent escape. Maybe the man standing on a fruit-picking ladder beyond the right-hand wall is offering to help.

(The ceiling panel featuring birds in flight above The Cock and the Jewel is by Mahoney. Together with its pair at the other end of the gallery, which features kites being flown, they frame Evelyn's central panel. I would like to consider this central panel and its authorship in detail in a separate essay.)

        
Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Crow and the Pitcher and The Spider and the Swallows

Starting the first cycle of 8 spandrels clockwise from The Cock and the Jewel, there is firstly The Crow and the Pitcher. According to Aesop, a thirsty crow came across a pitcher, or jug, containing a little water. Despite pushing his beak and head into the jug as far as possible, he was unable to reach the water. He solved the problem by collecting pebbles in his beak and dropping them one by one into the jug. By thus displacing the water he brought it within his reach and drank his fill, proving that necessity is the mother of invention.

Evelyn's intelligent crow is a bit more explicit than the spandrel next to it, The Spider and the Swallows. According to Aesop, the spider resented the swallows for catching the flies she judged to be hers, and in revenge span a web large enough to catch the swallows. The swallows burst effortlessly through the delicate gossamer, leaving the spider ruefully to accept her place in the great scheme of things. H'm.

In many of these spandrels Evelyn makes the protagonists the least significant element. Above the flower-pots on the left and the broad-leaved, white-flowered hostas (could this variety possibly be Golden Spider?) is a flock of swallows flying way from the web they've torn to shreds. It isn't very clear, but it's a beautiful composition. In the neck of the spandrel is one of Evelyn's trade marks, a ploughed field, one of her most frequent symbols of promise.


Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Ant and the Caterpillar and The Bees, the Wasps and the Hornet

The next spandrel is worth exploring to find the Ant and the Caterpillar. I leave Dr Croxall in decent oblivion and turn instead to Robert Dodsley, an 18th Century man of letters, whose 1764 version of this fable runs as follows:

As a caterpillar was advancing along one of the alleys of a beautiful garden, he was met by a pert lively Ant, who toffing up her head with a fcornful air, cried, Prithee get out of the way, thou poor creeping animal, and do not prefume to obftruct the paths of thy fuperiors, by wriggling along the road, and befmearing the walks appropriated to their footfteps. Poor creature! Thou lookeft like a thing half made, which nature not liking, threw by unfinifhed. I could almoft pity thee, methinks; but it is beneath one of my quality to talk to fuch mean creatures as thou art: and fo, poor crawling wretch, Adieu.
    The humble caterpillar, ftruck dumb with this difdainful language, retired, went to work, wound himfelf up in filken cell, and at the appointed time came out a beautiful Butterfly. Juft as he was fallying forth, he obferved the fcornful Ant paffing by: Proud infect, faid he, ftop a moment, and learn from the circumftances in which you now fee me. never to defpife any one for that condition in which Providence has thought fit to place him; as there is none fo mean, but may one day, either in this ftate or in a better, be exalted above thofe who looked down upon him with unmerited contempt.


Evelyn's fat white caterpillar is taking its eafe on a marrow or courgette leaf, growing from a runner probably planted with that very long-handled fork and trowel we see stuck in the soil, and which we will see again as vignettes in the book Evelyn and Mahoney produced together in 1937, Gardeners' Choice. A large black ant sits a little further to the left, unaware of its forthcoming comeuppance. In the background is one of the sheds that Evelyn was so fond of, some rows of neatly planted potatoes - the season is spring - and further along to the left there are human figures reduced in size to the scale of the insects, as if to remind us that Aesop's morals, although assigned to insects, are directed at us.

On the right, and at right angles to The Ant and the Caterpillar, is The Bees, the Wasps and the Hornet. In Aesop's fable both bees and wasps claim exclusive rights to make honey. Outraged by the wasps' presumption, the bees lay the matter before the hornet. In a judgement worthy of Solomon, the hornet instructs both to start making combs. So, naturally, the bees have it . . . and by this time, and with the possibility of more to come, I begin to wish Aesop had chosen rather larger moral exemplars than insects, if only because Evelyn would thereby have had more to get her teeth into. Otherwise we see more flowers, a garden that is a continuation of its next door neighbour's, a beehive with a hornet hovering above it, giving judgement to small swarms of wasps and bees (and no doubt their lawyers) below.


Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Butterfly, the Snail and the Bee (left) and The Jackdaw and the Doves (right)

I return to the elegant and amiable Mr Dodsley: A butterfly, proudly perched on the gaudy leaves of a French marygold, was boafting the vaft extent and variety of his travels. I have ranged, faid he, over the graceful and majeftic fcenes of Hagley, and have feasted my eyes with elegance and variety at The Leasowes. I have wandered through regions of eglantine and honeyfuckle, I have revelled in kiffes on beds of violets and cowflips, and have enjoyed the delicious fragrance of rofes and carnations. In fhort, my fancy is unbounded, and my flight unreftrained, I have vifited with perfect freedom all the flowers of the field or garden, and muft be allowed to know the world in a fuperlative degree.
    A Snail who hung attentive to his wonders on a cabbage leaf, was ftruck with admiration; and concluded him, from all his experience, to be the wifeft of animal creatures.
    It happened that a Bee purfued her occupation on a neighbouring bed of marjoram, and having heard our oftentatious vagrant, reprimanded him in this manner: Vain, empty flutterer, faid fhe, whom inftruction cannot improve, nor experience itfelf enlighten! Thou haft rambled over the world; wherein does thy knowledge of it confift? Thou haft feen variety of objects; what conclufions haft thou drawn from them? Thou hast tafted of every amufement; haft thou extracted any thing for ufe? I too am a traveller: go and look into my hive; and let my treafures intimate to thee that the end of travelling is to collect materials either for the ufe and emolument of private life, or for the advantage of the community.


(Hagley and The Leasowes were estates belonging respectively to a patron and a colleague of Dodsley.)

Evelyn has endorsed the Bee's condemnation by making her Butterfly a cabbage white, whose larvae are among the most destructive garden pests. The Snail, a bit part if ever there was one, is stolidly making its way to taste the delights of Hagley (or maybe The Leasowes) from the foot of the spandrel, and as for the Bee, it needs a sharper focus to see her at all, because she has flown up into Mahoney's ceiling.

The viewer is probably more struck by the drama of the neighbouring (right-hand) spandrel, from which a jackdaw is flying out of the frame over our heads, like a low-flying aircraft, while human figures on the garden walk below appear to be oblivious of what's going on. In fact this is the final part of a 3-spandrel fable.


Evelyn Dunbar: The Brockley Murals The Jackdaw and the Pigeons

The first of the three Jackdaw-and-doves spandrels, immediately to the left of The Cock and the Jewel lunette, is an extension of the garden into which the Jackdaw is looking. There's another snail, some hyacinths and jonquils (which helps to convince me that Evelyn painted this in early spring) and a greenhouse. The Jackdaw, according to Aesop, has seen how well fed the Pigeons are, and wonders if by disguising himself as a pigeon he can ensure a similar meal-ticket. 'Borrowed feathers' are mentioned in Aesop, but Evelyn (along with several of Aesop's editors) has taken the notion a step or two further. It is clearly spring, and this is a very well cared-for garden, with several similarities to the Dunbar garden in Rochester as it appears in Winter Garden, on which Evelyn was working at the same time: the brick-edged beds, for one thing.

The Jackdaw is perched on a bucket of otherwise colourless horticultural oil, here dyed white to show the extent of coverage. A gardener is applying it to the trunks of the fruit trees, apple, plum or pear, to protect them from the various insect pests that will have lodged in the crevices of the trunk over the winter. The Jackdaw is contemplating the possibility of painting himself white and insinuating himself into the pigeon-cote. We don't see how exactly this comes to pass, but according to Aesop the Jackdaw was accepted into the pigeon-cote until he began to chatter. The croak of the Jackdaw being very different from the cooing of the Pigeons, his cover was blown and he was driven out, as we see in the third part, so compellingly that we're almost led to duck our heads. And Aesop tells us in conclusion that on attempting to return to his own kind, the Jackdaw was chased out as a white interloper: 'so desiring two ends, he obtained neither.'

These mises-en-scène in the Dunbar garden in Rochester (alas, no longer there: the site is now occupied by about 40 houses) with gravelled walks, pergolas, fruit trees, sheds, greenhouses, vegetable plots, the gardeners Alf and Bert and all the riches of a large and much-loved garden conclude the first cycle of eight spandrels. The second instalment of this mini-series will consider the next eight.

¹ Quoted in Gill Clarke Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country p25

(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2013. All rights reserved.) 




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