Andrew Lambirth

A well-kept secret

Andrew Lambirth visits the little-known murals of Charles Mahoney in Oxford

A well-kept secret
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One of the great things about having an area of specialism is the discovery of a new aspect to it. Since my teens, I have developed a particular interest in 20th-century British art, encouraged initially by a brilliant art teacher and by the writings of Sir John Rothenstein, quondam director of the Tate Gallery. Well, it’s a big area to cover, so for me new things are emerging all the time as my knowledge extends and my tastes change and develop. Charles Mahoney (1903–68) is one of those artists who had somehow slipped through the net of connections and cross-references I have gradually built up over 30 years of reading and research. Looking back, I realised I had come across his name from time to time but without the artist coming into focus. And this was principally because I hadn’t seen his work anywhere.

It’s impossible to see all the exhibitions that are on in London (never mind the provinces) at any one time, and write articles and books as well. So I had managed to miss the Charles Mahoney exhibition staged by the enterprising dealer Paul Liss at the Fine Art Society in 2000. (In these infuriating days of postal strikes I am still awaiting the delivery of the catalogue from that show, which is the principal source of information about Mahoney.) What really alerted me to his presence was a not very good book about the artist Evelyn Dunbar (1906–60), best known now as an official war artist, who’d been a close friend and colleague of Mahoney, and with whom she’d written and illustrated the delightful volume Gardeners’ Choice, published by Routledge in 1937.

From being an unknown quantity, Mahoney suddenly began to register as an artist and assert his continuing existence through his drawings and paintings. First I began to see reproductions of his work in catalogues, then the real thing at an art fair. I rather liked what I saw: a precise and quirky delineation of the real world (Mahoney was not only a passionate gardener but also a knowledgeable botanist), and a quiet but compelling way of looking at things. I heard stories about him — how his baptismal name was Cyril, but the irrepressible Barnett Freedman (1901–58), a fellow-student at the Royal College, rechristened him Charlie and the name stuck; how he had lost his teaching job at the Royal College of Art because he insisted on giving the then impoverished student John Bratby extra supplies of paint; how he was himself a perfectionist who often found it difficult to complete his work. And that he had painted the finest cycle of mural paintings in England since Stanley Spencer’s Burghclere masterpiece.

Really? I hear the gentle reader murmur. Then why has no one heard of them? As Sir John Rothenstein wrote in his 1975 tribute, Mahoney is perhaps best remembered as a teacher because one of his most ambitious works was destroyed by bombing during the war, and the other was left incomplete. The first was a mural for Morley College in London, lost to enemy action at the same time as adjacent murals by Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden. The second is a mural cycle for the Lady Chapel of Campion Hall, the Jesuit College in Oxford. It was this unfinished group of paintings that had earnt such high praise and yet was so little known. My curiosity aroused, I contacted Campion Hall and made an appointment to visit.

The comparison with Stanley Spencer’s masterly murals at Burghclere, near Newbury, is not a helpful one. I had been down to visit them in August and been deeply impressed by the breadth and invention of their imagery. Spencer was a very odd man but he was a remarkable painter, and his powers of pictorial organisation are breathtaking. The Oratory of All Souls (the Sandham Memorial Chapel) is now administered by the National Trust and contains an intense cycle of paintings which flood the walls with movement; not only a movement of the senses, but also of the spirit. Here humanity is depicted with singular generosity: the subject is the first world war, and Spencer conceived the design of the murals while on active service. He managed to marry ordinary everyday activities like scrubbing the floor and sorting the laundry with war-specific events like the arrival of a convoy of the wounded or ‘Stand-to’ in a dugout on the Salonika front. The end wall of this surprisingly small building (though it has height) is dominated by a great ‘Resurrection of the Soldiers’. Other subjects include a marvellous ‘Reveille’ full of mosquito nets and ‘Tea in the Hospital Ward’, which features one of Spencer’s most favourite things: bread and jam.

Spencer’s achievement at Burghclere is stupendous. The ordinary becomes sacramental and the resurrection is presented as a natural part of life’s pattern. The painting is of the highest quality, in terms of conveying a story (or series of events) in the most effective and economical way, and as a decorative scheme with a distinctive emotional and spiritual resonance. It is a mural cycle of great power, and there is nothing like it in England. When the Master of Campion Hall, Father Martin D’Arcy, decided in 1939 that his Lady Chapel should be decorated with murals, it’s hardly surprising that Stanley Spencer was proposed for the job. Spencer visited the Hall and stayed for a month, but refused to submit cartoons for his proposal. This was deemed a serious drawback with the somewhat unpredictable Spencer, and the matter was let drop.

Two years later, John Rothenstein suggested that Charles Mahoney be approached, and in December 1941 he accepted the commission. Mahoney was a meticulous craftsman, making many preliminary drawings for his paintings on the life of the Virgin, most of which were destroyed in the act of tracing them on to the plastered walls of the chapel. For Mahoney had decided to paint directly on to the walls in the approved Italian manner, undeterred by the dampness of our climate. (Spencer, for instance, had painted on canvas, which was later affixed to the walls at Burghclere.) Mahoney also made a number of colour studies for his compositions. He worked slowly, only painting in the long summer vacation and part of the Easter holiday (when he was not teaching), and insisting on natural light. He continued thus for ten years, his last regular summer session being in 1952.

Then something went wrong. Apparently, Mahoney didn’t feel that his efforts were sufficiently appreciated, the funding ran out and work ceased. Although he visited the chapel again about a year before he died, he was too ill to do more than a little retouching. As a result, a panel to the left of the Sacristy door and two other panels, on either side of the altar, are unfinished. Drawn in grey underpaint, they look surprisingly graceful: spiritual and unaffected, they do not detract from the completed murals. From a technical point-of-view it’s interesting to see how he constructed his images, and the lack of colour does not impede response. In fact, the grisaille effect is not inappropriate for the subject of ‘The Dormition’, which depicts Mary’s death.

Campion Hall was designed and built by Lutyens. The chapel proper contains a marvellous wooden baldacchino and Stations of the Cross by Frank Brangwyn lithographed on to sycamore panels, and the prevalence of wood continues into the Lady Chapel. Mahoney’s paintings had to compete with the Sacristy door, and he was ingenious in his solution to this problem. He painted the ‘Flight into Egypt’ above the door (Rothenstein relates that he spent two weekends drawing a donkey borrowed specially) and framed the scene with a big spreading oak tree which also cleverly encompasses the door beneath it. This theme is continued in the scene depicting the ‘Coming of the Shepherds’, who find the Baby Jesus in the open air embowered by trees rather than in a stable, and given another twist in the  216;Betrothal’, where two male figures are seen breaking branches over their knees.

The paintings develop a magnificent interplay between red and blue, and derive a great deal of their effectiveness from the exquisite patterning of fabrics and garments and the detailing of flowers and plants. Mahoney the botanist comes into his own here, illustrating his belief that the flowers and trees were as important in the great scheme of things as the figures. His designs have a classical dignity enhanced by the beauties of the natural world — the springing vines and ivy, the hyacinths, primroses, poppies, the lily and the Christmas rose. ‘Our Lady of Mercy’ is shown with the most wonderful array of roses and an affectionate frieze of cherubs. ‘God is in the details,’ as another architect, Mies van der Rohe, said.

Charles Mahoney’s murals were never officially unveiled or publicly launched simply because they were never finished. They’ve remained something of a well-kept secret ever since. Although not open to the general public, they can be seen by appointment, and well repay a visit.