Belatedly recognised, Evelyn Dunbar’s importance in British 20th century art is continually being reassessed. Gifted draughtswoman: brilliant RCA student under Sir William Rothenstein; principal muralist at Brockley School, Lewisham; book illustrator; devout Christian Scientist; official World War 2 artist, sole woman artist to be salaried throughout the war; subtly insistent feminist; devoted gardener; Evelyn Dunbar was an individual artist of lively imagination and consummate technique, whose work defies easy classification, although a Pre-Raphaélite influence is often evident.
Of Scottish and Yorkshire descent, Evelyn Dunbar lived mainly in Kent. A close but uneven relationship with her former tutor Charles Mahoney led to Gardeners’ Choice (1937), written and illustrated jointly. Evelyn Dunbar’s convictions about the synergy of mankind and nature, first expressed through images based on the family garden, later found wider scope in her war paintings, particularly those of the Women’s Land Army.
Having separated from Mahoney, in 1942 Evelyn Dunbar married horticultural economist Roger Folley, then an RAF officer. Their shared ecological convictions further encouraged her to present her ideas through allegory. Evelyn Dunbar divided her later postwar years between her visions, teaching and recording her beloved Kent in landscape. She died aged 53, leaving an œuvre bespeaking a warm, positive personality working in the best humanist tradition of English art.
We are grateful to Christopher Campbell-Howes for his assistance.
Pallant House Gallery Press Release
Evelyn Dunbar: The Lost Works
3 October 2015 – 14 February 2016
This autumn at Pallant House Gallery a remarkable collection of lost works by war artist Evelyn Dunbar will go on show for the first time. Highlights from the artist’s ‘lost studio’, discovered in a Kent attic in 2013, will feature alongside other important rediscovered works, reaffirming Dunbar’s position as one of the most significant British figurative artists of the 20th century. The exhibition, a collaboration between Pallant House Gallery and Liss Llewellyn Fine Art, takes place from 3 October 2015 – 14 February 2016.
In 2012, Dunbar’s painting ‘Autumn and the Poet’ (1949) appeared on the BBC Antiques Roadshow, leading Ro Dunbar, a relative of the artist, to explore the extraordinary hoard of over 500 paintings, drawings and studies hidden in the attic of her Kent home. The unrecorded works were identified with the help of Christopher Campbell-Howes who had been tracking contents of the ‘lost studio’ - dismantled in its entirety after Dunbar’s death in 1960 - for over 20 years. The discovery doubled the known body of Dunbar’s work overnight.
The contents of the ‘lost studio’ includes preliminary drawings and oil studies for some of Dunbar’s best known compositions, reunited with major paintings from private and public collections in the exhibition of over 80 works. As the only salaried female Official War Artist during WW2, Dunbar is celebrated for her wartime paintings, and also for public commissions including the mural scheme at Brockley School and illustrations for The Gardener’s Diary. She created a large body of family portraits, which will be on display alongside illustrations, commercial advertisements and shop signs, and ephemeral materials such as sketch books, photographs and letters.
At the Royal College of Art, where Dunbar enrolled from 1929, she was taught a blend of observational drawing and traditional painting techniques. Her pictures at this time reflect a growing interest amongst contemporary painters and illustrators in the art of the Renaissance, in particular the figurative paintings of Leon Battista Alberti. Portraits of Dunbar and her family in the garden of their home, The Cedars, in Strood, Kent, show her use of classical compositions knitting together a casual family group. These works also reveal how easily she managed the transition between drawing and painting, with a mixture of detail and broad handling that later informed her work in illustration.
Between 1933 and 1936 Dunbar was amongst a team of students and recent graduates from the RCA who were selected by their tutor Cyril (Charles) Mahoney to create a mural design for the hall of Brockley County Schools for Boys in Lewisham. United by their dislike for London and yearning for the country, the chosen theme, Aesop’s Fables, gave the group scope for narrative subjects in landscape settings. The exhibition includes two newly discovered oil sketches by Dunbar for a large arched panel, entitled ‘The Woodcutter and the Bees’ (1933) and ‘Hercules and the Waggoner’ (1933), which are similar in composition to her final realised design, ‘The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk’ (1933). In the exhibition they are shown alongside ambitious designs for the spandrels and balcony frieze, including a detailed watercolour measuring over a metre and half in length.
Working closely together at Brockley, Dunbar and Mahoney fell in love, brought together particularly by their mutual love of plants and gardening, which was reinforced by their friendship with artist colleagues such as Edward Bawden. In 1936 Dunbar invited Mahoney to share a commission to write and illustrate the Routledge periodical Gardeners’ Choice. Although it has previously been assumed that Dunbar was responsible for the vignettes and Mahoney the main plates, the new works presented in this exhibition reveal that Dunbar also produced many of the principle illustrations. A series of black pen and ink drawings of Gladiolus tristis demonstrates Dunbar’s obsessive examination of her subjects in order to achieve an incisive style of illustration, which was reminiscent of early herbals or eighteenth century chapbooks. The exhibition also includes small drawings of Mahoney sketching in the garden of the Cedars, before the eventual break-up of their relationship.
In 1938 Dunbar’s work for Gardeners’ Choice led to a further commission from the editor Noel Carrington to illustrate another periodical, Gardener’s Diary. A previous edition designed by Edward Bawden had focused on the characteristics of individual plants, but in this later issue the physical task of gardening was emphasised, leading Dunbar to design a dozen vignettes representing characters toiling in their gardens. Dunbar further developed her concept for the personification of the months in a series of oil sketches, which will be presented in the exhibition alongside her painting, ‘An English Calendar’ (1938) frequently interpreted as the final culmination of this theme.
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.
At the end of the war Dunbar was aged 38 and married to Roger Folley, a horticultural economist who she met at Sparsholt Farm Institute. Her work at this time has been compared to Stanley Spencer due to its personal and mystic qualities, although Dunbar’s paintings are arguably more objective. In Autumn and the Poet (1949), lent to the exhibition by Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery, the iconography of the poet and his muse, characterised as a season but more representative of nature as a whole, continues the celebratory quality of Dunbar’s paintings of the landscape shaped by man. Her last mural commission ‘Alpha and Omega’ (1957), painted for the library at Bletchley Park Training College is represented in the exhibition by two studies for the large panels, which demonstrate the same otherworldly quality that persisted in her work until her early death in 1960.
This exhibition, in association with Liss Llewellyn Fine Art, is a rare chance to encounter such a large quantity of previously unseen work by an important 20th century artist. It is also in line with the Gallery’s continuing commitment to the reappraisal of overlooked Modern British artists.
The exhibition runs at Pallant House Gallery from 3 October 2015 – 14 February 2016.
Notes to Editors
The exhibition is accompanied by the publication of an illustrated book published by Liss Llewellyn Fine Art, with contributions by Gill Clarke, Andrew Lambirth, Alan Powers, Peyton Skipwith and Christopher Campbell-Howes. The publication is available in the Pallant House Gallery Bookshop.
About Pallant House Gallery
Pallant House Gallery is a unique combination of an historic Queen Anne townhouse and contemporary extension, housing one of the best collections of Modern British art in the country. Widely acclaimed for its innovative temporary exhibitions and exemplary Learning and Community Programme which has inclusion at its heart, the Gallery has won numerous awards since re-opening in 2006, including the Gulbenkian Prize, the largest for arts and cultural organisations in the country. www.pallant.org.uk