Charles Mahoney

Charles Mahoney at Pevensey 1958

If it had not been for Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious working on the Morley Murals 1928-1930 I would never have heard of the artist Charles Mahoney, the third man at Morley College who fully deserves to come out of the shadows into the spotlight.

Charles Mahoney was born Cyril Mahoney in Lambeth, South London on November 18th, 1903. Charles was the eldest surviving child of a family of seven boys, three of whom died in infancy. His father was William Mahoney, a self-employed mechanical engineer who married Bessie Rich who came from Exeter.

Charles and his brothers attended Oakfield Road School, Anerley, London, where his gift for drawing and painting was encouraged by the art teacher.

Charles’s daughter Elizabeth relates that: ‘Two early events cast their shadow over the rest of my father’s life. The first was the loss of an eye in a tussle with one of his brothers over the possession of some scissors.  The second was a near fatal attack of diphtheria, which left him less robust than formerly. In later life his habit of smoking did not help an already weak chest, and his life was to be disrupted by bouts of poor health, particularly chest problems.’

View from rear window at Mahoney‘s family home, Anerley, c.1922

Steely determination, however, set in, after leaving school he worked for a few months in a city advertising agency before entering Beckenham Art School, overcoming his parent’s resistance to their preferred career in banking!

In a letter Charles recalls:’ I gained a Royal Exhibition in Drawing to the Royal College of Art in 1922. In September of that year, I entered the school of painting which was then under the active professorship of Sir William Rothenstein who was also principal of the College. I took my diploma in painting in my second year and was placed second on the list. I stayed on in the School of Painting for a further two years and was given a fourth-year scholarship.’

At the RCA a life-long friendship developed between the then Cyril and the talented Barnett Freedman who renamed him Charlie. The name stuck !

William Rothenstein in his memoir ‘Since 50, Men & Memories 1922-1938’ (published 1939) lists the first two names that appear in a roll of top Royal College of Art students which are Henry Moore and Charles Mahoney – the list continues with the names of luminaries such as Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman Edward Le Bas, and Evelyn Dunbar.

Eric Ravilious: Cartoon sketch of Charles Mahoney at his easel

Charles left the RCA in 1926 after which he collaborated with Barnett Freedman designing theatre sets, some of his designs were bought for the print room at the V & A. An unhappy year followed as Senior Assistant at Thanet School of Art, mercenary landladies were the cause of frequent changes of lodgings while the school and its Principal were described as ‘uninspiring’.  This unsettled period led to bouts of illness.

1928 brought a welcome turn of fortunes with Charles being offered the post of Visiting Painting Tutor at the RCA albeit, tempered by the news of his father’s death in the April. Charles commenced his RCA duties in the autumn.

The decorations in the Tate Gallery restaurant by Rex Whistler had been a success and Sir Joseph Duveen, later Lord Duveen, who had paid for the work was persuaded by RCA Principal Sir William Rothenstein to give money for decorations to be done at Morley College. Rothenstein recommended Charles to work on the murals assigned to the Concert Hall while Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious worked in the Student Refreshment Room.

The Morley Murals were unveiled in 1930 by the Prime Minister of the day, Stanley Baldwin. There was a final rush to complete them and Charles was helped by friend, Slade student, Geoffrey Rhoades. The murals were such a sensation that an imperious Queen Mary commanded a private view with the three artists in attendance. Each artist and the other people involved in the project was given a presentation album, containing a beautifully lettered frontispiece, copies of images from The Studio and The Graphic and other photographs.

Tragically on 15 October 1940 a bomb hit the Georgian building, which Morley’s Elaine Andrews tells us, ‘folded like a pack of cards. 57 men, women and children who were sheltering in Morley from the Blitz perished.

Charles sketches for the Morley Murals. ‘The Pleasures of Life in Work and Play (Scenes of London Life)’ in the Prince of Wales’ Hall, Morley College, Lambeth

In 1932 Charles was invited to organise a mural scheme for Brockley County School for Boys, the work commencing in 1933 with the help of three of his senior students from the RCA. 

In 1934-6 Charles Mahoney along with senior students Evelyn Dunbar, Mildred Eldridge and Violet Martin (all from RCA) worked on paintings in the hall of a school in Brockley, creating modern-life equivalents of Aesops Fables

                                                                                                                                                                             During the winter of 1932/33 Charles was at Brick House, Great Bardfield. Edward Bawden’s father had purchased Brick House as a wedding present for Edward and Charlotte and Charles and Geoffrey Rhoades helped to re-decorate the building. Keen gardener Charles also helped with the garden.Tirzah Garwood (Ravilious) relates: ‘Charlie Mahoney, with Geoffrey Rhoades stayed for a long time and helped Edward with the garden. During the winter the four men (Ravilious too) had cleared the yard which was feet deep in years of rubbish. They unearthed all kinds of relics from the trade of past owners: it had been a girls’ school, and a saddler’s and coffin maker’s and there were pieces of old coffin and piles of old harness which they had buried in a huge pit  which they had dug in the garden.’

Tirzah records several amusing anecdotes about Charles recounted in her autobiography ‘Long Live Great Bardfield.’

‘Charlie had a glass eye but I thought that on the whole it improved his appearance, giving an interesting and piratical look to a face that as nature intended it, might have belonged to a Sunday School superintendent or a postman’

Charles Mahoney: ‘Willow Grove at Great Bardfield’ ‘Still Life With Landscape’ – the willow grove to the right. Charles Mahoney: ‘Portrait of Geoffrey Rhoades’ 1930.

The most talented pupil working alongside Charles on the Brockley Murals was Evelyn Dunbar. Evelyn and Charles spent some three years, from 1933 to 1936, completing the Brockley murals. During this time, they formed a close relationship, which eventually ended in 1937. A collection of Dunbar’s often lavishly illustrated letters to Mahoney covering their relationship between 1933 and 1937, are held in the Tate Gallery archive.  

Commenting on the completion of the Brockley School Murals Rothenstein stated: ‘….through a further sum from school concerts, augmented by contributions from the governors and staff, £100 was given to Evelyn Dunbar….to enable her to study at the Royal College of Art.’

Mahoney, for his three years’ work, was given £25 and a silver cigarette case.’

In 1937 Charles wrote and illustrated ‘Gardener’s Choice’ in partnership with Evelyn, published by Routledge. Charles and Evelyn made many visits to Brick House and helped to marble the hall.

Charles Mahoney and Evelyn Dunbar. Letter from Evelyn to Charles.

In 1937 Charles bought Oak Cottage, Wrotham a 16th century cottage for himself and his mother. His relationship with Evelyn was now over but they remained friends. Charles enjoyed sketching trips around the North Downs sometimes accompanied by friend Thomas Hennell who lived nearby in Ash.

Evelyn Dunbar: ‘Charles Mahoney Sketching’.

Friend Bernard Dunstan later reflected on Charles’ garden: ‘A village back garden of Eden, in which sunflowers, sheds, weeds, cabbages and brick walls were treated with love and equal respect and took their places naturally in his mural designs.’

The first pic is ‘A View From the Artist’s House (Oak Cottage). The remainder are views of Oak Cottage plus two studies of the kitchen. The final pic is Oak Cottage from the front. Charles and Dorothy at Oak Cottage circa 1955.

In late 1940 the RCA was evacuated to Ambleside with Charles, deemed unfit for military service, amongst the first to teach there alongside friend Percy Horton. Charles joined the Home Guard in Ambleside. Also evacuated to the Lake District was calligraphy tutor Dorothy Bishop working in the Design School.  Charles and Dorothy were married in n September 1941 and enjoyed a brief honeymoon in Edinburgh.

Two hotels were requisitioned in Ambleside: The Queens Hotel and the Salutation. The Queens Hotel was used to house male students and most of the staff, and also provided most of the classrooms; while the Salutation Hotel housed female students, a few of the staff, and teaching accommodation for engraving and dress design.

Charles Mahoney: ‘Ambleside’. ‘Rooms at the Queens Hotel’.

Dorothy had entered the RCA School of Design in 1924 with Book Illustration as her principal subject.  From 1926-28 she took lettering and illumination under Edward Johnston, to whom, during this period, she became student-assistant.  Her subsidiary subjects were wood engraving, pottery, bookbinding and embroidery.  It is likely that fabric design dates to this period. In 1929 Dorothy was appointed Deputy Assistant to Edward Johnston, giving lectures, demonstrations, and classes in his absence

Charles Mahoney: ‘Portrait of Dorothy’. Dorothy Mahoney: ‘Design For a screen-print’. ‘Oak Cottage, Front Garden’. ‘Oak Cottage’. ‘Walled Garden’.

Charles was commissioned to produce a mural scheme for the Lady Chapel at Campion Hall, Oxford in 1941. Electing to paint directly onto canvas fixed to the walls and by daylight hours only, the project inevitably became drawn out and Mahoney could only work in situ during the Easter and summer vacations when he was not teaching. The project continued into the following decade and the physically exhausting work brought about a serious decline in the artist’s physical health. The work on the murals concluded in 1952.

The mural scheme for the Lady Chapel at Campion Hall in 1941. The scheme was to be made up primarily of three large panels: the Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds, the Coronation of the Virgin, and Our Lady of Mercy. Charles Mahoney pictured at work at Campion Hall.

The Royal College of Art returned to London for the Autumn term, 1945. Following the appointment of Robin Darwin as Principal of the RCA in 1948 Charles and Professor of Painting Gilbert Spencer left the college.

A memorandum from Darwin stated: ‘The Royal College of Art must be reorganised root and branch. The courses provided must be revised and recruitment for them reconsidered. Many changes of staff will be necessary.’

Darwin placed no importance on the value of crafts such as calligraphy so consequently Dorothy left the RCA too.

quest 1952

Rodrigo Moynihan’s ‘Portrait Group (The Teaching Staff of the Painting School at the Royal College of Art, 1949-50) 1951. From left to right: John MInton, Colin Hayes, Carel Weight, Rodney Burn, Robert Buhler, Charles Mahoney, Kenneth Rowntree, Ruskin Spear, Rodrigo Moynihan

Charles was asked to contribute to the 1951 Festival of Britain.  An initial shortlist of 145 artists was narrowed down to 60.  Percy Jowett and John Rothenstein, members of the selection panel, undoubtedly would have recommended him. Charles contribution was entitled The Garden. Although not specifically related to the Festival of Britain commission, ‘Autumn’ was produced during the same period as The Garden and but for a slight difference in height could be described as its pair, Dorothy, posed for the main figure. 

Charles Mahoney: ‘The Garden’. The setting of the Garden, seen through a red brick arch, was almost definitely inspired by the gardens at Sissinghurst where many such vistas can be found. Mahoney visited Sissinghurst many times. ‘Autumn’ photographed from the original in a private collection.

On 1953 Charles obtained a teaching post at the Bromley School of art and then in 154 at the Byam Shaw School of Painting and Drawing, an independent art school in London. During this period Charles produced a large number of  large drawings of plants, including sunflowers, his mural days were behind him.

Charles Mahoney: Flower Studies.

Charles health problems worsened developing emphysema forcing him to give up smoking. In 1966 and 1968 he underwent two lung operations at the Brompton Hospital. Following the second operation cancer of the colon was discovered. Charles died following a third operation at the Royal Marsden hospital in 1968.

Charles’s daughter, Elizabeth Bulkeley, recalls that to enter his garden was to enter one of his pictures, and it ‘provided him with more subject matter than he could ever use’.

Of his teaching she states: ‘As many letters testify, his students and friends appreciated his genuine interest ad encouragement. He was a dedicated teacher, with a genuine sympathy fo the problems of young artists.

A selection of Charles’ work some of which I was privileged to see and photograph first-hand

The process of reassuring Charles’ place in 20th century British Art has had several important milestones including the 1975 Ashmolean exhibition, the Liss Fine Art/Fine Art Society touring show (2000) and Mahoney’s predominant feature in Tate Britain’s The Art of the Garden, (2005) – but the process of reassessment still has a long way to go. Charles standing as a major 20th century artist, like his flowers, deserves to bloom and grow and plant seeds in the hearts and minds of aspiring future artists!

Donald Towner: ‘Portrait of Charles Mahoney’ 1926. Mahoney and Towner were fellow students at the RCA. Towner shows the 23 year old Mahoney seated in his studio. Perhaps deliberately, perhaps by chance, Mahoney’s eye defect seems emphasised in this portrait sketch.

After leaving the Royal College of Art Dorothy taught calligraphy at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and Ravensthorpe School of Art.  After ‘retirement’ at the age of 65 she taught  2 evening classes a week at the Stanhope Institute, Queen’s Square, London until she was in her late 70s. Dorothy died following a stroke in 1984.

Poster for the 2000 Exhibition. Brick Fields near Burough 1940. Greenhouse-Interior. High Street, Great Bardfield.

References: Bulkeley, Elizabeth et al. Charles Mahoney 1903-1968, the Fine Art Society PLC in association with Paul Liss, London, 1999.

Campbell-Howes, Christopher. Evelyn Dunbar – A Life in Painting. Published by Romarin 2016.

Frayling, Christopher. The Royal College of Art – One Hundred and Fifty Years of Art and Design, Barrie & Jenkins 1987.

Garwood, Tirzah and Ullmann, Anne. Long Live Great Bardfield. Published by Persephone Books 2016

Rothenstein, William Since Fifty – Recollections of William Rothenstein. Faber & Faber 1939.

Graham Bennison June 2021

3 thoughts on “Charles Mahoney

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this very informative post. Thank you. I love the work of that period and , apart from recognition at the Festival of Britain , feel that they have gone un or not fully recognised for too long. There seems to be a small renaissance taking place , centered largrly on Ravilous , Bawden and Great Bardfield , And Charleston too has had more than it’s fair share of glory , thanks to sexual scandals !


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