Provenance: given by the artist to Charles Mahoney; thence by descent
Literature: Alan Powers, ‘Labour of Love’, Country Life, April 30 1987; Annabel Freyberg, ‘The Heroine of Hilly Fields’, The World of Interiors, January 2004
The murals at Brockley County School in South London (now Prendergast School for girls) were first started in 1933 and unveiled in 1936. The scheme was supervised by Charles Mahoney, who at the time was tutor in painting at the Royal College of Art, and undertaken by him and Evelyn Dunbar, who was a senior student. As well as contributing a large mural entitled The country girl and the pail of milk, Dunbar was responsible for decorating the 39-foot balcony. For this she devised a panoramic view of the school, in the setting of the nearby Hilly Fields. In an account to appear in the forthcoming book on Dunbar, Dr. Gill Clarke writes:
‘In order to complete her preliminary sketches, which took 3-4 months, and to get the best view of the extensive buildings, Dunbar had to ascend the water tower of Lady Well Institution. In the Kent Messenger (January 1935), she described how she had to squeeze through a small trap-door and climb on to the top of an extremely narrow shaft, which led on to a tiny railed platform on the edge of the lead roof of the water tower, more than 100 feet above the ground. ‘It was like being on a gas stove’, Miss Dunbar told a Kent Messenger representative, ‘and it was so hot with the sun beating down mercilessly that the water in my paint nearly boiled’. These sketches and the ten-foot long cartoon were purchased by Rothenstein (for five guineas and ¬£25 respectively) for the Carlisle City Art Gallery (now Tullie House).’
It is probable that the oil sketch reproduced here, one of two that she gave to Mahoney, was worked up rapidly to give an outline of the colour and overall composition. Working on the Brockley murals together, Mahoney and Dunbar developed an extremely close relationship, sharing, as Rothenstein noted in his Studio article of 1936, ‘ a clear affinity of vision’. In 1937 they collaborated together on the book Gardener’s Choice. Alan Powers points out that the Brockley Murals belong to a pastoral romantic tradition in English art, which flourished in the 1930s and is often too quickly dismissed as being merely imitative of Stanley Spencer (Country Life 30 April 1987).