Offbeat ‘30s gardening book celebrates botanical artists Evelyn Dunbar and Charles Mahoney

self portrait

self portrait - Credit: Archant

Alison Oldham looks at the re-release of this illustrated book, which was first published in 1937.

Gardeners’ Choice, an unconventional illustrated gardening book first published in 1937 and now in a revised edition by Persephone Books (£12), can be seen as a swan song for the love affair of its co-authors, artists Evelyn Dunbar and Charles Mahoney.

She was his student at the Royal College of Art and their relationship developed when working together on an important commission, the Brockley School murals, from 1933 to 1936.

As a star student she was invited to the Hampstead Sunday soirées of RCA principal, Sir William Rothenstein.

There she met Noel Carrington, brother of the Bloomsbury-ish Dora. When he enlarged his house near the Heath, at No 95 South End Road, to create a top floor studio, Dunbar became the first tenant, occasionally sharing it with Mahoney.

The rent was £1 a week and her tenancy lasted from Autumn 1933 to Summer 1935.

The following year an editor for publishers Routledge & Sons wanted a “really new” book about gardening.

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She took up the challenge with Mahoney. Their approach was novel because some of the 40 plants featured are not far removed from what more conservative gardeners of the period would have considered weeds.

The delights from looking at gardens with an artist’s eye become evident in the first chapter, Community of Plants, where readers are urged to appreciate colours in all seasons: “The self-clinging Virginia creeper forms in Spring little islands of leaves as vivid as any in its Autumn glory.” The text continually reveals the authors’ knowledge and sometimes their subtle humour, as in this parable from Punch: “What’s good for slugs, old man?” “Well, I’ve reared some beauties on young Delphiniums.”

Many of the botanical drawings were made at Dunbar’s family home in Kent, including the study for Phytolacca decandra, sometimes called the Red Ink Plant for the bright juice of its berries. She wrote most of the text.

Mahoney and Dunbar parted in 1937. She later won acclaim as a war artist, celebrated for depictions of the Women’s Land Army. In 1942 she married horticultural economist Roger Folley and his nephew, Christopher Campbell-Howes, has written an informative afterword for Persephone’s book. Also included is a preface by artist Edward Bawden which was written in 1937 but arrived after the book had gone to the printers.

Persephone Books, based in Bloomsbury, was founded in 1999 by Hampstead resident Nicola Beauman and specialises in neglected books by mid-20th century women writers. The current edition of its magazine The Persephone Biannually features the last self-portrait of Dunbar, painted in 1958, on its cover.