Provenance: Private collection courtesy England & Co Gallery, London
Exhibited: Evelyn Dunbar - The Lost Works, Pallant House Gallery, October 2015 - February 2016, cat 116.
Literature: Evelyn Dunbar - The Lost Works, Sacha Llewellyn & Paul Liss, July 2015, cat 116, page 164-165.
Dunbar’s last painting, on her easel when she died. The image is taken from Genesis, chapter 28, in which Jacob, asleep on the ground, dreams of a ladder to heaven, with angels ascending and descending. The ‘angels’ represent one of Dunbar’s very few forays into the abstract. The background landscape is identifiable as the countryside near Wye, Kent, and where she finished this painting a few days before she died in May 1960. Some see in this painting a meditation on her own end.
"At the end of the war, Dunbar was still only 38 years old. Married in 1942 to Roger Folley, she was able to spend time with him at last, setting up home firstly in Warwickshire, thenin Oxfordshire, finally in Kent. In a manner similar to Stanley Spencer, to whose work her Joseph’s Dream (FIG 21) was not unexpectedly compared, she had worked in a personal and mystical mode as well as in a more objective observational one. Dunbar’s Portrait of a Retired Schoolmistress (CAT 110) is compelling in its directness, with the sitter’s determined gaze, solid figure and floral patterned overall. The black line between the shoulders forms the base for an equilateral triangle to the crown of the head. Her self-portrait (CAT 113) has the quality found in some of Spencer’s of being caught off guard in the act of painting, as the awkward positioning of the legs seems to suggest.
In Flying Applepickers (CAT 107), the theme of levitation, used at Brockley in the
soffits of the balcony, returns. Is it a metaphor of liberation after the years of pre-war
unhappiness in love, followed by the privations and war? No doubt this theme of
weightless bodies emanates from the spiritual seeking of a Christian Scientist, but it
is also delightfully comic, with more tenderness than is found in most of Spencer’s
comparable works of supernatural events in Cookham High Street. Such compositions
were falling out of fashion in the post-war world, but this did not prevent Dunbar from
working on a series of allegorical and deliberately mysterious paintings that continue
the pastoral romantic tradition in which she was trained, as her companion painter at
Brockley, Mildred Eldridge, was to do with her cycle, The Dance of Life, painted for
the Orthopaedic Hospital at Gobowen in the Welsh Marches. They shared a belief that
humans are most complete when close to the rhythms of the natural world, to which
Eldridge brought a more mistrustful view of ‘civilisation’. These are themes of urgent
contemporary relevance and far from sentimental.
Several of Dunbar’s major late works remain to be relocated and revealed. Autumn
and the Poet (CAT 114) has the look of a post-war painting in its brushwork and slightly
distorted drawing (with a hint of John Minton, perhaps), which pulls away from the more
purely classical pre-war works. The iconography of poet and his fecund pin-headed
muse, characterized as a season but more representative of nature as a whole, continues
the celebratory quality of Dunbar’s painting of the numinous landscape as shaped by
man, very different from Minton’s more sinister evocations. Lines in the composition tie
the surface together in a root two rectangle, while leading the eye into the distance by
a double perspective.
Dunbar’s last mural commission, Alpha and Omega (CAT 111), painted for the library
at Bletchley Park Training College, fortunately survives, although not in situ. The many
studies that came with the two paintings to Oxford Brookes University show Dunbar’s
range of experiment in finding an appropriate iconography for a modern dress allegory.
Both panels have the unforced otherworldly quality that Dunbar found early on and
which stayed with her to the sadly early end."
Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960)
The importance of Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960) in the history of British 20th century art is continually being reassessed and belatedly recognised. A gifted draughtswoman: youthful prodigy; brilliant student at the Royal College of Art under Sir William Rothenstein and a galaxy of teaching staff including Allan Gwynne-Jones, Alan Sorrell and Charles Mahoney; principal muralist at Brockley School; book illustrator; devout Christian Scientist; official World War 2 artist, the only woman artist to be salaried throughout the war; post-war allegorist and much-loved teacher; subtly insistent feminist; devoted plantswoman, gardener and inspired advocate of 'green' values; warm and witty but self-effacing personality with many accomplishments including, unexpectedly, rock-climbing and playing the banjo; but above all a very individual artist of spirited imagination and consummate technique, whose work, which hangs in all major UK galleries and several overseas, defies ready classification.
Born in Reading, Berkshire, into a merchant family, Evelyn Dunbar moved in childhood to Kent, where she lived for most of her life. A close post-RCA relationship with Charles Mahoney, with whom she shared the painting of the Brockley Murals, also led to the jointly written and illustrated Gardeners' Choice (1937). Her Christian Scientist background helped her to develop firm ideas about the interaction of mankind and nature. Initially limited to the context of the family garden in Rochester, Kent, her ideas found a wider field of expression when, having been appointed Official War Artist in 1940, Evelyn Dunbar quickly became particularly associated with the Women's Land Army. Her remit to record women's home front activities also allowed her to promote a gentle and unaggressive feminism.
Evelyn Dunbar's relationship with Mahoney ended in 1937. In 1940 she met and married Roger Folley, then an RAF officer but later to become a leading horticultural economist. Their common interests and convictions encouraged Dunbar, after the war, to concentrate on a series of allegorical paintings and drawings which reflected her beliefs, and also her debt to Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaëlites, whose ideas about the function of art and the place of narrative in painting she acknowledged as strongly influential.
Evelyn Dunbar divided her postwar years between allegories, teaching as a Visitor at the Ruskin School, exhibiting - as she had done before the war - in a rather dilatory and self-effacing way, and, towards the end of her life, recording her beloved Kent in landscapes again expressive of the synergy between man and nature. Evelyn Dunbar died suddenly at the age of 53, leaving behind a studio collection of some 800 works, major and minor, which only came to light in 2013 and for the public presentation of which Liss Llewellyn Fine Art has been responsible. Among them was a wealth of paintings and drawings bespeaking, as does her entire œuvre, a warm and cheerful personality working in the best humanist tradition of English art, and a modest and imaginative woman of deep convictions, richly gifted in her means and techniques of expressing them.
We are grateful to Christopher Campbell Howes for his assistance.
See all works by Evelyn Dunbar