Provenance: Roger Folley; Alasdair Dunbar; Hammer Mill Oast Collection
Exhibited: Evelyn Dunbar - The Lost Works, Pallant House Gallery, October 2015 - February 2016, cat 126. WW2 - War Pictures by British Artists, Morley College London, 28 October -23 November 2016, cat 110.
Literature: Evelyn Dunbar - The Lost Works, Sacha Llewellyn & Paul Liss, July 2015, cat 126, page 177. WW2 - War Pictures by British Artists, Edited by Sacha Llewellyn & Paul Liss, July 2016, cat 110, page 153.
During WW2 private companies were encouraged by the WAAC to reproduce images as postcards, bookmarks, and calendars as a means of raising funds. Such initiatives were unsuccessful partly because with rationing it was impossible to create high quality prints in colour. Dunbar’s A Knitting Party, (1940) reproduced here as a greetings card with space for a calandar below, shows sixteen women (among them Florence Dunbar, the artist’s mother, surreptitiously looking at her watch in the window) from the WVS knitting balaclavas, socks, etc. for the troops.
For Dunbar the Second World War offered new opportunities to explore the relationship between people and the natural world. In pictures examining how the war effort affected the home front, we see Dunbar move out of the realm of the domestic garden and into the productive world of farming. Her principle subject,the Women’s Land Army, gave rise to compositions such as ‘Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook’ (1940) and ‘Milking Practice With Artificial Udders’ (1940), closely related to her illustrations for A Book of Farmcraft. As well as demonstrating Dunbar’s experimentation with new painting techniques, these pictures served a didactic purpose in showing the correct ways of undertaking manual tasks.
Sketchbooks & Ephemera
"When Evelyn Dunbar enrolled at the Royal College of Art in 1929 it was a toss-up as to whether she would apply for the Design School or the Painting School and although Painting won she maintained a strong interest in design and included many designerdraughtsmen among her friends, particularly Edward Bawden and Barnett Freedman. Like them she enjoyed free-hand pattern-making and filled many sketchbooks with pictorial jottings of people, places and incidents which could be worked up later when required into vignettes to decorate such publications as The Scots Week-End (page 170) and Gardeners’ Choice (pages 82-95). Equally, they could be incorporated into subject paintings like The Days of the Week, or used in any one of her other decorative projects. Whether working in sketchbooks or on loose scraps of paper she was happy drawing in line either with pen or pencil, or with clean strokes of a well-charged brush, using the latter particularly to create decorative patterns often reminiscent of Vanessa Bell’s designs for Hogarth Press bookjackets for her sister’s – Virginia Woolf’s – novels. Through Mahoney and other Royal College contacts she would also have been familiar with the work of the Curwen Press, particularly the pattern papers inspired by the recently deceased Claud Lovat Fraser and produced by Paul Nash, Edward Bawden, Enid Marx and others. In her early days she had a natural playfulness which is reflected in her illustrated letters to Jane Carrington and Edward Bawden; those to Charles Mahoney – who she addressed variously as ‘Dear Chas’, ‘Dear Matey Cock’ or ‘My dear old potting shed’ – stand out particularly. By the late 1930s this natural gaiety and joie de vivre gave way to a less light-hearted mood as the disparity between her Christian Science upbringing and Mahoney’s atheistic socialism increasingly drove a wedge between them. Apart from the rift with Mahoney this mood of greater seriousness chimed with that of the country as a whole as the clouds of impending war grew ever darker. Her Shell poster designs (CAT 82-84) probably date from this time and it is probable that Barnett Freedman encouraged her to produce some possible ideas as, in the late 1930s, he was commissioned by his friend Jack Beddington, who ran the Shell publicity department, to create ‘puzzle’ advertisements for use in various technical journals. Dunbar may have thought that with their simple kitchen imagery of shelling peas combined with semihumourous captions – ‘I Shell’, ‘Thou Shellest’ – they might appeal to various ladies’ journals. (see Ruth Artmonsky, Jack Beddington, The Footnote Man, London, 2006, p.54). It is not surprising that they were not developed further, but they were the precursors to Dunbar’s Mother Hubbard (CAT 81) commissioned by I C I, and used for publication in a variety of different publications in much the same manner as Beddington’s ‘puzzle’ advertisements. Scrapbooks and artists’ Christmas cards were a particular feature of the interwar period and beyond. Edward Bawden’s and Eric Ravilious’s scrapbooks in the collection of the Fry Gallery, Saffron Walden, contain many examples of cards from John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Geoffrey Rhoades and other artist friends, including Dunbar and Mahoney. After her marriage to Roger Folley Evelyn continued to produce her annual card usually accompanied by some verse by her husband: that for Christmas 1947 – one of the bleakest of postwar winters – depicts a particularly jolly figure of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees, gardens and orchards (FIG 23), reminding us once again of Evelyn’s delight in animating the spirits of the months and seasons, virtues and ancient gods. Christian Science could not erase these pagan deities from her pantheon."
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