Sunday, 1 September 2019

'Peeling Apples', c.1922

'Peeling Apples': Pen and wash, c.1922. Photograph: Anton Liss ©Modern British Art Gallery

Equal portions of chagrin and delight for the Evelyn Dunbar enthusiast: chagrin that such an interesting and revealing image should appear too late for inclusion in available biographies of Evelyn, and delight at the discovery of something new from her juvenilia, especially when it foreshadows, as this pen and wash drawing does, some of the important themes of her mature work.

In 1908, when Evelyn was rising two, the Dunbar family moved from Reading to Kent, renting a short succession of properties in lower Medway riverside villages before moving in 1913 into 244 High Street, Rochester. This was a three-storey weatherboarded house with street-level shop premises and a modest garden behind. From here Evelyn's Scottish father William (seen wearing his hat in the drawing above) carried on his drapery, bespoke tailoring and dressmaking business. Evelyn's mother Florence, seen here peeling apples taken from the cloth at her feet, was an enthusiastic amateur artist - hinted at by the easel behind her - specialising in floral still-lifes who gave her youngest daughter much encouragement.

When Evelyn was 11 she won a Kent County Council scholarship to Rochester Grammar School for Girls, which later counted her among its most celebrated alumnae and named buildings and facilities after her. Her art teacher was George Ward, a gifted teacher who was also closely connected with the Rochester (later Medway) School of Art. Ward's practical teaching can perhaps be seen in Evelyn's sectioning of her image with vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines in the approved manner, preparatory to making a larger image, maybe in a different medium.

Evelyn's scene, drawn when she was 14 or 15, is the only known interior of the Dunbars' house at 244 High Street, Rochester. (The house is still there, or was when I explored the area in 2014, on a raised pavement called The Banks, opposite Rochester station forecourt. No blue plaque, however.) We can assume that we're in the kitchen, and that the fire, or more probably the range, has been lit, partly to dry the washing hanging on the clothes horse on the left.

Following Evelyn's left-to-right travel, a constructional device very common in narrative painting probably deriving from the way we read, we see her self-image squatting on a low footstool with her hair wrapped in a towel; it's hair-wash time, and barely visible and loosely defined in the background are her older sisters Jessie and Marjorie washing each other's hair, although which is which is uncertain.

Evelyn's father is just to her left. An intriguing photograph of William Dunbar, possibly contemporary with Evelyn's drawing, shows him as a portly, tallish man of about 60. He has removed his hat for the camera and is holding it in his right hand. Someone, probably Florence, has written 'Lord de Dunbar and his charming daughters' on the back.

William Dunbar flanked by two of his daughters, c.1922: Evelyn (L) and Jessie (R). Dunbar family archive.

He appears via Evelyn's brush a few years later in a family group set in the garden of The Cedars, the house in Strood (the trans-Medway part of Rochester) which William bought in 1924.

  'The Dunbar Family in the Garden at The Cedars' Oil on paper, c.1928. Photograph ©Liss Llewellyn Fine Art. Private collection.

Evelyn has included the whole family in this quasi-Impressionist study. Central pride of place is given to William and Florence, with their sons Ronald and Alec in the left hand middle ground, balanced by Jessie and Evelyn knocking a badminton shuttlecock about in front of the summer-house and Marjorie, with a bunch of narcissi, playing with the cat in the right foreground. (The features are too indeterminate for positive identification, but as Marjorie was the most fashion-conscious of the sisters and as to my knowledge Evelyn never owned a striped blazer I have made the most appropriate assumption.) Florence is identified with the mulberry tree behind her, not yet in full leaf, as though the branches represent the expanding family of which she might in time become the grand progenetrix. (In fact all but Alec died childless.)

William, who kept hens whenever his circumstances allowed, is offering Florence a handful of eggs. Evelyn has thus shown him as a provider, a sort of enabling middleman between Nature and Humanity. It's not hard to equate the status she has given him with his stance in 'Peeling Apples' above, where he is pointing at the apples he has provided. In both his left hand occupies an almost exactly central position. Is this accidental or deliberate?

Two or three years before her death in 1960 Evelyn donated some of her early drawings to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. One of them, to which she gave the title Martha, Mary and Lazarus, is contemporary with 'Peeling Apples'.

Martha, Mary and Lazarus: Pen and wash, 1922. Image ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

This drawing relates to a story in St Luke's gospel, chapter 10, verses 38-42:

While they [the disciples] were on their way Jesus came to a village where a woman named Martha made him welcome in her home. She had a sister, Mary, who seated herself at the Lord's feet and stayed there listening to his words. Now Martha was distracted by her many tasks, so she came to him and said, 'Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to get on with the work by myself? Tell her to come and lend a hand.' But the Lord answered, 'Martha, Martha, you are fretting and fussing about about so many things; but one thing is necessary. The part that Mary has chosen is best; and it shall not be taken away from her.' (NEB)

Despite the title, Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, does not appear in this story. The man in the foreground is Jesus. Evelyn has turned the story into an early expression of the convictions she has assembled partly from Florence and partly from a subset of the Christian Science into which the whole family except William moved in the early years of the 20th century. We do not know what or who encouraged Evelyn to dress a Bible story in a contemporary setting, a powerful vector later particularly associated with Stanley Spencer.

Evelyn's thesis, which permeates her work, is based on the notion of the Garden of Eden. Her conviction was that Creation, symbolised in Genesis as the Garden of Eden and visible and evident everywhere about her, came with duties and obligations: as it was given to Adam 'to dress it and keep it' in the words of Genesis, so it was promised to mankind in return for our undertaking to look after it and cherish it with devotion, intelligence and hard work. (It's not hard to see what happens when mankind reneges on this undertaking.)

In Evelyn's pantheon a special place is reserved for devoted, intelligent and industrious people who look after creation, with or without a capital C: gardeners and farmers and agricultural workers in particular, with a favoured smile for the Women's Land Army during World War 2. Also included were artists in any medium who interpret and celebrate creation (we have already noted the easel behind Florence in 'Peeling Apples') and those whose academic work facilitates the maintaining of creation. In fact in 1942 she married Roger Folley, then an RAF officer but in peacetime a leading horticultural economist who occasionally wrote poetry in his spare time.  

In Martha, Mary and Lazarus we're in the garden at 244 High Street, Rochester, with William's apple trees on the right. Evelyn has equated Jesus, his spade laid aside, with the good husbandman of her convictions. He has taken his boots off - a standard practice in Islam, one which the Koran shares with the Old Testament - denoting that the place where he is and the context of his discourse is sacred. The starry-eyed Mary, a willing student, has laid aside her school books as irrelevant and is listening enraptured. (Mary was Evelyn's middle name.) The Martha figure in the middle ground, maybe peeling potatoes, is comparable to the figure of Florence in 'Peeling Apples', perhaps grumbling about household tasks that keep her from her easel. There may be a self-deprecatory comparison here between the reluctance of Mary to do anything useful about the house and Evelyn's position in the Dunbar household, although I doubt if she pulled divine exoneration when told to peel potatoes.

Evelyn's image of her father in the kitchen was clearly an abiding one. She kept it all her life. Whether she intended at one point, as the squaring up may suggest, to work the drawing up into something of greater consequence will probably never be known, but the basic concept and design reached its fullest fruition at the end of her life in possibly her greatest work, Autumn and the Poet (1960).

 Autumn and the Poet Oil on canvas 1960. Photograph ©The author. Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery.

Here a commanding and imposing figure offers the fruits of the earth on a cloth to the poet, identifiable as Roger Folley, the horticultural economist exponent of good husbandry both through his work and through his poetry. The teenage Evelyn's vision has stood her in excellent stead. 

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2019

Further reading...
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25



Thursday, 15 November 2018

Joseph in Prison (1949-50)

Joseph in Prison 1949-50 Oil on canvas 46 x 36cm (18" x 14") Photograph reproduced by kind permission of Woolley and Wallis

 It's always a very special moment when a long-lost painting of Evelyn's appears out of the blue. The moment becomes more special when the painting in question is one of a set or group, and the event takes on a yet greater significance when the painting hasn't been seen publicly for the best part of 70 years.

Evelyn, a committed Christian Scientist, knew the Bible well, especially the Old Testament. Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, consists largely of narratives, some would say foundation legends, rich in truths if not in truth, of the origins of the Jewish people. Indeed, Joseph's father Jacob had the alternative name Israel, indicating fatherhood of his people.

Joseph had a particular appeal to Evelyn. Last-born but one, he was his father's favourite, to the annoyance of his many brothers. He's probably best known for his famous coat of many colours, a present from his father, a gift translated into popular 20th century musical idiom by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber as his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Joseph had a propensity for the interpretation of dreams. Two youthful dreams suggested his superiority over the rest of his family, something hardly likely to endear him to his siblings.

There were echoes of this to some extent in Evelyn's family situation. At certain times in her career she felt something of a cuckoo in the nest of a family of Kentish shopkeepers. (She refers to herself as such in her 1937/38 allegory April.) Kindly and welcoming people though her Dunbar siblings were, they sometimes found it difficult to come to terms with an artist sister who, despite several years of professional training, earned next to nothing, received very few commissions, lived at home and subsisted on handouts from her father's and her wealthy uncle Stead Cowling's estates. Her mother Florence, an amateur artist, defended her stoutly at home, and it may well be that Evelyn felt her own situation just as sharply as her siblings.

Evelyn later referred to 1938/9 as her crisis years. Towards the end of 1937 she separated from Charles Mahoney, her former Royal College of Art tutor and later colleague and lover. A miscarriage deepened her depression and her future as an artist looked very bleak indeed. It was at this time that the idea of a series of paintings illustrative of the career of Joseph came into her head.

Joseph's Dream 1938-43 Oil on canvas 46 x 76cm (18" x 30") Photograph: Cambridgeshire County Council. Private collection

The first of what eventually became a trilogy was Joseph's Dream, a diptych or two-panel painting showing the adolescent Joseph in some perplexity confronted by his twin dreams of his brothers and parents bowing in homage before him, firstly in the form of sheaves of corn and then as the sun, moon and stars. Joseph's Dream was unfinished at the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939, by which time Evelyn had all but forsaken painting and was working behind the counter in her sisters' shop on Rochester High Street.

Everything changed for her in 1940. Through the intercession of friends in the art world she was gazetted as an official war artist. Then, during an early posting to paint Land Girls at Sparsholt Farm Institute, near Winchester, she met Roger Folley, formerly an agricultural economist but then an RAF officer. They married two years later. With Roger's encouragement and - by his own account - help in modelling Joseph's figure but not his face, Evelyn completed Joseph's Dream in time for exhibition with the New English Art Club in 1943, where it attracted a favourable press reception but remained unsold.

After the war Evelyn and Roger settled down to their first taste of extended married life, firstly in Warwickshire and later in Oxfordshire when Roger obtained a post at Oxford University Agricultural Research Institute. So began the most productive and inventive period of Evelyn's career. Away from her family (Florence had died in 1944) the tensions that underlay Joseph's Dream disappeared, giving place to wider and maybe nobler visions of reconciliation, among them the conviction, given the biblical Joseph's later history, that one day she would be worthy of them.

In the Genesis story, Joseph's brothers had been extraordinarily hostile to him and would have murdered him if Reuben, the eldest brother, had not intervened. He proposed instead that they should rob Joseph of his many-coloured coat, smear it with goat's blood to suggest to their father Jacob that he had been killed by a wild beast, and then push him into a deep pit, where he would certainly die. I hasten to add that this is not in any way to imply, of course, that the Dunbar siblings harboured murderous designs on their youngest sister.

Where did the image of Joseph's pit come from? One of the more unexpected of Evelyn's pastimes was rock-climbing, something she learnt from Roger, himself an experienced cragsman and fell-walker. One of their many rucksack-and-climbing-boot expeditions took them to Gordale Scar, a deep and forbidding ravine near Malham in North Yorkshire. The immediate visionary trigger that fused Joseph's pit with Gordale Scar isn't known, but the result was Joseph in the Pit, painted in 1947.

 Joseph in the Pit 1947 Oil on canvas 46 x 26cm (18" x 10") Photograph Petra van der Wal ©Liss Llewellyn Fine Art. Private collection

Back to Genesis: in fact Joseph survived. Some of his brothers hauled him out and sold him to a band of passing nomads, who took him to Egypt, where they sold him as a slave. He was bought by Pharaoh's captain of the guard, a man called Potiphar. Attracted by Joseph's manly bearing, Potiphar's wife attempted to seduce him. When Joseph refused her advances, her lust turned to anger. She accused him of attempted rape and Joseph was thrown into prison.

So the third of Evelyn's Joseph trilogy is Joseph in Prison. Joseph has proved himself an able and trustworthy man to the prison governor, who gives him certain responsibilities. Among them is care of his fellow-prisoners, who include two of Pharaoh's close servants, his chief butler and chief baker. We aren't told why they were in prison, simply that Pharaoh was 'wroth' against them.

(Image as above, reproduced for ease of reference)

Sharing the same cell, each had a disturbing dream. The Genesis account goes on (Chapter 40, verse 6) 'And Joseph came into them in the morning, and looked upon them, and, behold, they were sad'. Here we are plunged into the actuality of Evelyn's Joseph in Prison. Joseph, the central figure in red, has opened the cell from the outside - evidence of his trustworthiness - to give breakfast of sheep's milk or something similar to the two inmates. Through the window dawn is breaking. Joseph, seen from above and in quarter profile, has a strong resemblance to Roger Folley. What is happening?

Later they recount their dreams. Joseph interprets them: for the butler it means release and a return to his former royal duties, but for the baker it means death. And so it turns out. Eventually Joseph's dream-prowess reaches Pharaoh's ears: he too has had a dream, which Joseph interprets as meaning that seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of bad harvests and famine. And so it comes to pass. Joseph becomes Pharoah's right hand man, in charge of agricultural management and the storage of corn in years of plenty and of its distribution in time of famine. The predicted famine is universal. The now aged Jacob and his sons come from their land of Canaan to find corn. They apply to Joseph: they do not recognise him in his Pharaonic grandeur, even less - perhaps hardly surprisingly - from his new name, Zaphnath-Paaneah, supposedly meaning 'the god speaks: man lives'. (He is known as Aziz in the Koranic version of this story.) But Joseph recognises them, and after some vetting he allows them corn in plenty. He has become the provider for his people, reconciliation is complete, and maybe Evelyn has proved herself worthy of her family.

A strong and constant thread running through Evelyn's work is the contract, or covenant, or promise, that the Creator will provide the means for mankind to survive and flourish in exchange for mankind's undertaking to look after creation with intelligence, industry and love. The notion is most simply expressed in the early Genesis creation legend of the Garden of Eden, given to Adam and Eve 'to dress it and keep it'. When Evelyn was painting Joseph in Prison, Roger - in any case a keen gardener - was working at the Oxford University Agricultural Research Institute. In 1950 he was appointed to the Economics Department of Imperial College, London, at its agricultural campus in Wye, Kent, where he became a leading horticultural economist with a worldwide reputation in certain areas. It would be over-fanciful to equate the biblical Joseph with Roger, but it is true that in other images (e.g. Autumn and the Poet)  Evelyn vested him with the mantle of one who, through his intellectual work, kept his side of the Creator's bargain and its promise of provision. An extraordinary tribute.

Joseph in Prison was exhibited in Oxford in 1949 or 1950, where it was sold to Lionel Herbert, a prominent Oxford solicitor. Lionel Herbert lent it back to Evelyn for her solo exhibition at Wye in 1953, since when it has not been seen in public. For me it is privilege to be in a position to show for the first time since 1953 all three paintings in Evelyn's Joseph trilogy.

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2018

Further reading...
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25