Wednesday, April 11, 2012

History Corner: the Prendergast Murals

In the main hall at Prendergast girls school on Hilly Fields SE4 there is a set of striking pastoral murals dating from the 1930s.  At that time the school was called Brockley County and was a boys school (if you go into the Brockley Mess cafe today they have a large photo of boys eating at the school).

The painting was undertaken by a group of students from the Royal College of Arts - Evelyn Dunbar, Mildred Elsie Eldridge and Violet Martin - along with their tutor Charles Mahoney (aka Cyril Mahoney, 1903-1968). They started the work in 1933, with the finished results being officially opened in February 1936. Dunbar (1906-1960) went on to be the only official female war artist in the Second World War, noted for her paintings of Land Girls and nurses (including at St Thomas' Hospital).

The five panels were loosely based on the fables of Aesop and other writers, in addition to s 39-foot panoramic view of the school and Hilly Fields. It was Dunbar who painted 'The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk (above)', with her sister Midge as the model. M.Elsie Eldridge painted 'Birdcatcher and the Skylark', and Mahoney 'Joy and Sorrow'. They were painted directly on to the plaster in wax.

Mahoney's sketch for Joy and Sorrow panel, painted on paper in 1933
(from Liss Fine Art)

Dunbar was chiefly responsible for the balcony panorama. According to Dr Gill Clarke, Dunbar's biographer:  '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'' (Clarke's biography is entitled 'Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country').

Panorama of Hilly Fields and School

The murals gained national recognition at the time, and more recent appreciation led to them being listed in the 1990s. They were unveiled on February 21 1936 by the then education minister, Oliver Stanley. The Times reported: 'An example that might well be followed has been set by the Headmaster of the Brockley County School, Hilly Fields, SE4 [Dr G.I. Sinclair], who some time ago offered to Sir William Rothenstein, then Principal of the Royal College of Art, an opportunity for some of his students to execute a series of mural paintings in the school hall... The work has taken about three years to execute, the expenses of the artists being paid out of a small fund created from the profits on meals at the County School'.
Detail of panorama of Hilly Fields and School (photo from Decorated School blog)
- note schoolboy reaching over fence

In his speech, Stanley talked of painting on walls as 'the oldest form of artistic expression' and joked that 'in no other school in the country had the boys the opportunity of  using that form of expression in any other way than in the caricature of the headmaster on the wall' (Times, 22 February 1936).

Detail of panorama of Hilly Fields and School (photo from Decorated School blog)
The murals are quite hard to get decent photographs of - I tried and failed, and found some online. So if you get the chance to see them in situ, take it.

Further appreciation of Dunbar at Paint Drops Keep Falling and of the murals at the Decorated School.

Dunbar at work in the School,
(from St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery)

Ladywell water tower, Dressington Ave SE4, from where Dunbar sketched Hilly Fields.
Built 1898-1900 for St Olave's Union, home to 'aged and infirm'
designed  by Ernest Newman, the founder of the Art Workers Guild

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Many thanx 4 this 'additional addition' to the Evelyn Dunbar story. Living in the area I have viewed the murals and, separately, strolled by the quoted water tower (now private flats) and had not known the tower's relevance to the murals.