Studies of Gladiolus tristis for page 103 of Gardeners’ Choice, c.1936 [HMO 36, cat 51]
Unmounted (ref: 6764)
Pen & ink on paper
Variously 10 x 8 in. ( 25.4 x 20.3 cm) and 12¾ x 8 in. (32.4 x 20.3 cm)
Provenance: Roger Folley; Alasdair Dunbar; Hammer Mill Oast Collection
Exhibited: Evelyn Dunbar - The Lost Works, Pallant House Gallery, October 2015 - February 2016, cat 51.
Literature: Evelyn Dunbar - The Lost Works, Sacha Llewellyn & Paul Liss, July 2015, cat. 51, page 92-93.
"Following the completion of the Brockley murals Evelyn Dunbar looked for ways to earn some money, and was fortunate to be asked by Catherine Carswell, a Hampstead neighbour, to illustrate her and her husband’s book The Scots Week-End and Caledonian Vade-Mecum for Host, Guest and Wayfarer, inspired by Francis Meynell’s The Week-End Book. Following its publication by Routledge in the summer of 1936 she asked one of the partners, Mr Ragg, whether the firm had anything horticultural she could illustrate: his reply was negative unless ‘you can suggest someone who could write something really new on gardening.’ She passed this on to Charles Mahoney with the comment ‘Now mate what about it.’ (quoted Gill Clarke, p.54) Thus the seeds of Gardeners’ Choice were sown.
Although her earlier children’s book illustrations tended to be soapily pretty in a
Margaret Tarrantish manner, for The Scots Week-End Book she honed a more incisive style of black pen and ink drawing, refining this further for Gardeners’ Choice to create illustrations reminiscent of those in early herbals or eighteenth century chapbooks.
That up to this stage she did not have a clearly defined style is born out by her wash illustration for Wuthering Heights (CAT 129) commissioned for an article by Kenneth Clark in the November 1936 issue of Signature, which, like some of Paul Nash’s early work, is in a distinctly pre-raphaelite manner. However for Gardeners’ Choice she reverted exclusively to pen and ink.
The division of labour between Dunbar and Mahoney in Gardeners’ Choice is to all intents and purpose indistinguishable. The introductory chapter, ‘Community of Plants’, demonstrates their close collaboration: ‘In this book we present a small selection of plants which our practical knowledge of gardening and our personal outlook have led us to make. In addition to our natural pleasure in beautiful plants and our experience in raising and cultivating them, we have gained a close intimacy through drawing and painting them.
We have observed them as artists as well as gardeners, and have necessarily been
made aware not only of the garden value of a plant and the intrinsic beauty of its flower, but of proportions, forms and contrasts, of the subtle relations of the leaf to the bloom, or the plant to its neighbour. These observations have bred in us an animate point of view which is the inspiration of our experimental gardening and the basis of our writing.’
This fusion of authorship applies as much to drawings as to text. Gill Clarke in her 2006 book, Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country, suggested that Dunbar did the vignettes with Mahoney ‘drawing the main large plates’, (GC p.58) but with the evidence before us in this exhibition of Dunbar’s drawings of the cyclamen, eryngiums and snake’s head fritillary (CAT 45, 42, 43) – respectively reproduced on pages 55, 81 and 89 in Gardeners’ Choice – such a distinction no longer holds good.
Looking at the ten studies of Gladiolus tristis presented here (CAT 46-55) it is instructive to note how obsessively Dunbar drew and redrew each plate to achieve the clarity and precision she and Mahoney were seeking. It is also interesting to realise that, despite such claims in ‘Community of Plants’ (p.7) as: With one of us Hieraceum aurantiacum... has behaved most meekly for years... With the other it has shown signs of becoming a menace to a small garden’, Mahoney did not have a garden of his own until he and his brother bought Oak Cottage at Wrotham in 1937, the year Gardeners’ Choice was published. It is possible that he grew some plants in his mother’s small back garden at Anerley on the Kentish-London border but most of the plants discussed were probably grown at The Cedars, and in the sheet of sketches (CAT 56-58) we get several vignettes of Mahoney seated in the garden there drawing diligently.."
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