A Land of Every Possible and Impossible Colour
English artist Nora Cundell (1889-1948), along with her sister Violet and brother-in-law Charles Eaton, traveled to Arizona to see the Grand Canyon in 1934. Nora had read descriptions of the canyon and northern Arizona written by her friend J. B. Priestley, the English author and playwright. Priestley and his family made several visits to the Grand Canyon, the Vermillion Cliffs, Painted Desert, and Navajo country. His writings intrigued Nora enough to plan a trip to America to see those places for herself.
Nora’s plan was to first visit the Grand Canyon, but the canyon, unfortunately, was shrouded with what Nora described as a “thick sea fog.” Although disappointed, they decided to go down to the Painted Desert. At Cameron on the Little Colorado River, it was suggested that they should not miss Marble Canyon, about seventy-five miles to the north. Driving through the desert, Nora marveled at the array of colors. The hills were “rounded and fluted into the most fantastic shapes and of every possible and impossible colour—grey, brown, red, green, purple.” The cliffs were “tall, jagged and scarlet, and the hills were dotted with cedars, junipers, and an occasional hogan.” They drove through a sandstorm, with blowing sand rattling the outside of the car. Nora described the sand as being coarse and red, and noted that it stained water and clothing to the color of “weak tomato soup.”
Nora, Violet, and Charles crossed Navajo Bridge over the Colorado River and arrived at Vermillion Cliffs Lodge (today known as Mable Canyon Lodge) set in the barren desert and sheltered by a few cottonwood trees, along with a gas station and several cabins. Inside the lodge the main room had a huge fireplace and polished floors covered with skins and Navajo rugs. Comfortable chairs and books everywhere created a place that “looked more home-like than anywhere I’d seen for a long time.”
Nora was born in London and spent her early years at her beautiful home Further Dimmings in Dorney Village, Windsor, but after her first visit to the Vermillion Cliffs, she felt that she had finally found the place that was always meant to be her home. Nora had fallen in love.
Nora's and her sister Violet's houses were on the same block with Violet's house, Hither Dimmings, being in the front on the road, and Nora's house, Further Dimmings, at the back of the block. Thus, Hither and Further.
Nora returned to Marble Canyon the following year, in August 1935, sailing on the Red Star Line’s passenger ship Pennland. In planning for her extended trip to the states, she learned to ride a horse, rented out her house for the winter, and purchased great quantities of painting supplies. Upon her arrival in New York City, she purchased a seven-year-old model A Ford coupé which she drove across the country to Arizona. There she spent the winter at Marble Canyon with Buck and Florence Lowrey and their children David, Mamie, and Virginia. Nora painted the dramatic landscape as well as local Navajo people, often dealing with uncooperative weather conditions. One day she went out sketching and looked up to see a cloud of red sand advancing toward her. She quickly packed her canvas and oils in the car, aware that staying outside in the wind was not an option, unless she wished to compete with a Navajo sand painter.
On another occasion she climbed a narrow trail to the top of the mesa to do some watercolors, and found that her paints were frozen. When the snows blocked the road, she would drive her car the few cleared miles from the lodge and sit in the frozen plain to paint, or simply to absorb the wild and silent stillness of the land under a blanket of snow.
Nora also made extended pack trips with David Lowrey and guide Ed Fisher. On one trip Ed and David captured a wild colt with a white star on his nose. They presented the horse to Nora, and she named him Windsor after her home in England. They rode through Last Chance Canyon and down into Rock Creek, a narrow tributary of the Colorado River where they made camp. Before leaving the next morning they carved their names on the cliff, although Nora admitted that it was “an unworthy piece of touristry.”
David Lowrey took Nora north to Kaibeto where they observed a rare Navajo Fire Dance—she later painted the unforgettable scene—and also recorded that they got terribly lost on the way back to Marble Canyon due to a snowstorm that obliterated the traces of the dirt shortcut they were following. Another time David took Nora to a rodeo in Phoenix. Nora also accompanied David as “acting assistant deputy sheriff” when they escorted two robbers (following them in the Lowrey’s DeSoto) to the jail in Flagstaff. Nora noted that David had his six-shooter, handcuffs, and a rifle in the back seat. She never did figure out her role if the robbers tried to get away, but she marveled that it was an unusual job for a “respectable British spinster.”
After three more extended trips to Arizona, Nora wrote Unsentimental Journey, published in 1940. This volume is a journal of her time visiting and exploring the wild country in northern Arizona. Author P. T. Reilly who wrote extensively about the Arizona Strip described it as being “probably the least known and most remote part of the United States up to the time she was there.” Nora’s paintings and writings do give a sense of the vast beauty of the mesas and rugged canyons north of the Colorado River.
Nora's last stay with the Lowrey's was in 1938. Due to the Depression, Buck and Florence could not keep up the payments and, consequently, had to move away. Ramon Hubbell took over the lodge and store. Nora did not wish to stay with the new managers, and she left Marble Canyon Lodge following along behind the Lowrey's automobile, a sad parting from the people and the land she had come to love.
The second World War interrupted Nora's plans to return to Arizona. During the war years in London, Nora drove an ambulance at night. And there were changes at Marble Canyon. Young David Lowrey, Nora's companion on many camping and exploring trips was killed in action in 1945 when his ship was hit by a Japanese mine. Even though there was a substantial difference in their ages (Nora was the same age as David’s parents), it was apparent that Nora had a deep, and possibly romantic, affection for the handsome westerner.
As a Dream That is Past: Nora’s Last Stay at Marble Canyon
In late February 1947, Nora returned to the states, sailing from Southampton on the passenger ship America. It was an unusually cold winter and on the ship Nora suffered from chillbains. Her hands and feet were swollen and black and she could not wear shoes for several weeks after she arrived in America.
Nora made arrangements to stay at Lee’s Ferry, near Marble Canyon. She visited with her old friends the Lowreys, and they took her to Lee’s Ferry in April where she stayed until summer.
Jim Klohr was employed by the government to monitor Colorado River water levels near the old ferry crossing. Nora rented a little stone cabin, built in 1910, above the rock house where Jim and his wife Christina lived. She paid one dollar a day for board and meals. She had to be frugal with her money because at that time England had post-war currency restrictions and she could not take much money out of the country.
Nora’s cabin was one-half mile from Paria River, and a half-mile from Lee’s Ferry, the historic crossing at the Colorado River, and the only crossing in the area until the completion of Navajo Bridge in 1929. Nora painted every morning and took long walks in the evenings. Sometimes Christina hiked with Nora; Christina collected petrified wood while Nora sketched and painted, and occasionally, Nora gave Christina painting lessons.
When Nora left for England that summer, she planned on returning to stay at Lee’s Ferry later that winter. Sadly, she was diagnosed with cancer. After undergoing surgery, she spent time recovering with the J. B. Priestley family at their home on the Isle of Wight. Priestley recalled that “always, gleaming somewhere in the background, like the amethyst cliffs and diamond air of the Arizona Desert,” was their wistful longing and remembrance of the American Southwest.
But Nora was not to recover, she passed away on August 3, 1948.
When Nora went to Marble Canyon the first time, she thought she would stay for a few month’s painting and enjoy new experiences, “a very unsentimental journey.” But as more time went on, she grew to love everything about the wide, lonely desert: standing on the high, narrow bridge in the darkness and hearing the sound of the river far below, and the night sky of “deep, fathomless sapphire.” She wrote, “the night skies of Arizona are something to keep in the heart for ever,” and of sunsets with the whole sky “one vast circle of fire.” She would remember the scent of cedar wood fires, and the far-off song of a Navajo horseman riding along in the darkness. Recalling her thoughts as she left Marble Canyon for the last time, Nora wrote, “Behind me, I felt that the whole, vast Vermillion Cliffs, and all that they had stood for, were crumbling and dissolving, as a dream that is past.”
According to Nora's wish to return to the Vermillion Cliffs that were so close to her heart, her ashes were returned to Arizona and scattered at Marble Canyon. Her friends gathered in May 1949 for a memorial service conducted by Preacher Shine Smith. Nora’s ashes were scattered at the base of the cliffs. A brass plaque was attached to a massive boulder where her ashes were scattered.