Friday, 9 October 2020

Two late portraits: Jill and Ann Mursell (1959/60)

                     Jill Mursell 1960 Oil on canvas Signed 'ED60' Private collection

It's always a red-letter day when previously unseen work by Evelyn makes an appearance, especially when it dates from her most mature years. Recently two late portraits appeared, studies of two sisters, Jill and Ann Mursell, both painted when they were in their teens. Few of Evelyn's portraits approach these late images in their concept, execution and finish, to say nothing of that subtle ability to suggest character. Both these studies rank highly in Evelyn's portraiture canon. 

Evelyn came late to portraiture as a mainstream activity, although her portfolios as a student at the Royal College of Art (1929-33) abound with pencil sketches and studies of her fellow students and - deliciously - the occasional caricature of RCA lecturers. In her late teens and early twenties she produced serious accounts of family members in her studio at The Cedars, the Dunbar family home in Rochester. From leaving the RCA in 1933, when she was 26, until the end of her employment as a war artist in 1945 the only formal portraits are of WAAF personnel. The period 1945-1950, when she lived near and taught in Oxford, is rich in allegorical paintings but not in portraits. In 1950 she and her husband Roger Folley moved to Wye, in east Kent: after 4 years working with Oxford University Agricultural Research Institute, Roger was appointed to the teaching staff of King's College, London at their agricultural campus at Wye College. His time in Oxford was marked by the 1951 publication of his Economics of a Fruit Farm, which became - and still is to some extent - a standard work.

In rural Kent the focus of Evelyn's work changed, moving gradually from allegory to landscape and then to portraiture. One of the catalysts for her renewed interest in portraiture was the arrival in Wye of the portraitist and former RCA student - although several years after Evelyn - John Stanton Ward. Ward and his wife Alison became friendly with Roger and Evelyn, to the extent that the two artists used to enjoy the rather Victorian pastime of going out sketching together in Wye and the surrounding area. It's my unsubstantiated belief that Ward, known nowadays for his endless establishment and royal portraits, taught Evelyn the rudiments of professional portraiture, something that was quite foreign to the deeply un-commercial Evelyn: not the execution, not the actual brush-on-canvas work (I don't think she had much to learn), but the nuts and bolts of commissions, contracts, conditions of work, scaling of charges, delivery dates and so on. 

Meanwhile, a certain Peter Mursell, after a first in agriculture at Cambridge, showed a strong interest in flying but was disqualified from taking the controls because of his poor eyesight. World War 2 found him associated with, and eventually running the Air Transport Auxiliary, a body employing civilian pilots to deliver new and repaired aircraft to RAF units, thus freeing active service pilots. At the end of the war he devoted himself to the expansion of Dounhurst, the family fruit farm in West Sussex. He was faced with a considerable learning curve. While careful to respect local knowledge, he also tapped other sources of professional advice, among them the East Malling Research Institute (coincidentally the setting for Evelyn's A 1944 Pastoral: Land Girls Pruning at East Malling) and Wye College. The students he occasionally received on work experience and placement were supervised by Roger, whose Economics of a Fruit Farm, which emphasised apple growing, had recently been published.

Roger and Peter Mursell got on very well - but perhaps that should read 'Folley and Mursell got on very well', because in the fashion of the time they addressed each other by their surnames. Almost exact contemporaries, they shared a love of fast machines - in Roger's case, his Norton motor bicycle - and some common experiences in World War 2: Roger served in the RAF, firstly (somewhat to his disappointment: he wanted to fly) in Balloon Command and, after training, as a night-fighter navigator with Fighter Command. By the mid-1950s Mursell, a man with a great gift for friendship, and Roger had become close enough for Evelyn to be introduced to Dounhurst and the rest of the family. 

Evelyn also had the gift of friendship, perhaps in greater measure than the more retiring and self-effacing Roger, but there was something else that drew her to Dounhurst. A devout Christian Scientist, she gave a sharp prominence to the concept that the earth and all that is in it is a permanently guaranteed gift from the creator (with or without a capital C) to mankind, on condition that mankind, from the humblest gardener to the loftiest agronomist, look after it with love, industry and intelligence in return. Among her biblical exemplars, both taken from Judaic foundation legends in Genesis, were Adam, to whom the garden of Eden was given 'to dress it and keep it', and Joseph, whose political control of agriculture in ancient Egypt marked him as a great provider for and saviour of his people. This theme, this promotion of the synergy between nature and mankind, permeates Evelyn's work and makes her one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, whose message is never more needed than today. There's hardly a post in this blog without some mention of it. To some extent in her mind Roger, through his work, inherited the mantle of Joseph. And now here was Peter Mursell, fulfilling the creator's conditions not just in his orchards, but through his growing regional and (later) national involvement in the apple industry. (For his many contributions to regional life, including a spell as Chairman of West Sussex County Council, Peter Mursell was knighted in 1969.)

Mankind-nature synergy may not have dominated conversation round the Dounhurst dinner table in the late 1950s, where the talk maybe concentrated more on Evelyn's preparedness to paint the two Mursell daughters. By chance part of a letter survives from Evelyn to Cecily Mursell (their mother):


     Extract of letter (p1/2) from Evelyn to Cecily Mursell, October 1958. Private  ownership

What I am able to respect is your wish about size and your preferences, and Peter's, with regard to the treatment - ie the amount of finesse and incisiveness (am not sure of the spelling of this....) and its suitability for the setting of your house when it becomes a finished object.

As to price - I think I did quote before, but without referring to actual sizes. The scale would be as follows:

approx 12" x 16" - 30gns [guineas]

            14" x 18" - 40  "

            18  x 22   - 55  "

            20  x  24  - 70 "

            22  x  30  - 80 "

(Evelyn's emphasis - 'What I am able to respect' - probably refers to her initial reluctance to accept payment.)

It's not certain when Evelyn started the portraits. The main thrust of Ann Mursell's portrait was probably complete by the summer of 1959, although it may have been started several months before. Ann Mursell, who was then 14, is sitting reading, or reflecting on what she has read, beside a window in a light and airy room. On the window-sill is a ceramic cockerel, a present from her godfather. She recalls not being the most communicative sitter, and not really wanting to have her portrait painted at all. Evelyn worked hard to put her at her ease, and it may be that her apparently pensive expression as she ponders what she has read or has seen out of the window masks a feeling that she would rather be elsewhere doing something else. The skin tones are rendered to perfection, as are the lights in her hair - which, incidentally, she cut herself in between sittings; not easy for a portraitist to deal with. 

Ann's portrait was delivered at the end of September 1959, framed in a James Bourlet frame, at that time Evelyn's preferred framer. The invoice was included. Evelyn's fee was £52.10.0, ie 50 guineas.


      Ann Mursell (slightly cropped) 1959 Oil on canvas Signed 'ED59' Private collection

Jill Mursell, then 18, followed, completion of her portrait possibly  delayed through absence abroad. It appears to have been ready in the first months of 1960. Was it a winter painting? Unlike her sister's portrait, there's no obvious source for the light, which suggests artificial lighting. The skin tones and the hair are very skilfully rendered, the texture and subtle shading of her jumper also. The half-smile may be just slightly reminiscent of a certain famous portrait that hangs in the Louvre. 

Jill's portrait, similarly framed, was delivered to Dounhurst in the spring of 1960. The exact date is not known. There was a problem: Peter and Cecily Mursell thought it was incomplete. The lower half of the portrait resonated with unrelieved browns. They asked Evelyn if she could add something to enliven it. She agreed to add a brooch or a necklace, and took the canvas back home with her to Staple Farm. However on May 12th she died, suddenly and unexpectedly, before she could make any alterations. Jill Mursell is among the last, if not the last, of Evelyn's portraits.

The second page of the letter quoted above continues with details of costing:

   Extract of letter (p2/2) from Evelyn to Cecily Mursell, October 1958. Private ownership

"Mary Garland" was 18" x [illegible] 

If the finish was greater & took me a lot longer it might be a bit more, but not excessively.

Our house-purchase is going forward smoothly and the removal date is now fixed for 29th or 30th of this month! So I am beginning to pack already.

It will be wonderful to have a studio again. We shall so look forward to your visiting us when we're settled.

Again thanks for the day. How are the art-classes?? Why not do the portraits yourself?!

Longing to see results

Love to all of you from both, Evelyn


Letters like this are pure gold to the biographer. Apart from revealing insights into Evelyn's working practices, her mention of moving house gives the exact dates of removing from Tan House, a very ordinary modernish house in Wye without a dedicated studio, to Staple Farm, a capacious farmhouse on the Downs two or three miles to the south of Wye. Evelyn converted part of the first floor into a studio (with a north light, vital to artists because of the regularity of the daylight) and an adjoining store. Roger and Evelyn spent less than a year not very happily in Tan House. 'It was our one mistake', Roger wrote many years later.

But...who was Mary Garland? Was she a member of the Garland family who lived in Wye in the 1950s? Is her portrait still extant? If any reader knows anything about this, it would be wonderful to discover yet another image from Evelyn's heyday of portraiture.

Warmest thanks to the Mursell family for their help with this essay.

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2020


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EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
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Monday, 16 March 2020

Evelyn Dunbar: Her husband Roger Folley as subject and symbol

 Roger Folley, the 'first portrait', 1945-46. Private collection. Forty years on, here is Roger holding his portrait for the camera of art specialist Jane England.

The husband as subject

Evelyn Dunbar became engaged to Roger Folley in February 1942. They married the following August. Evelyn had been employed since April 1940 as a war artist working for the Ministry of Information, Roger was serving with the Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve, with which he had signed up in 1938. Throughout the war years it had been Evelyn's intention to paint her husband's portrait, but as with many marriages in wartime their union was more marked by separation than by being together. 

The first known portrait of Roger is a touching and intimate study of him in the very early years of their association. In the late summer of 1940 he and Evelyn went for a few days under canvas to Kettlewell in Yorkshire, a favourite place of Roger's with its ready access to the great northern hills he loved. The summer of 1940, marked by the fall of France, the Battle of Britain and the daily threat of Nazi invasion, was marked with fear, uncertainty and impermanence, and I think there may be an element of capture of the man she loved as a sort of talisman for the future in Evelyn's mind. Maybe it has to be said that at the time Roger was in a fairly low-risk posting, looking after a barrage balloon unit on the Thames estuary, but he had applied for flying training. Anyway, here is Roger asleep, mostly naked but still wearing his RAF dog tag.

'Roger Folley asleep' 1940 Private collection
Four wartime years later, by which time Roger had transferred from the Voluntary Reserve become Flight Lieutenant Roger Folley RAF and was serving as a navigator with 488 (NZ) Squadron, she produced a more formal portrait of him in his flying kit, but still in pencil; oils would have to wait.

 'Flt. Lt. Roger Folley RAF in flying kit'. 1944. Private collection. Roger served with 488 (NZ) Squadron, a night-fighter unit mostly but not entirely staffed by New Zealand volunteers. Evelyn used the head of this drawing as their 1944 Christmas card.

Contemporary with this pencil portrait of Roger was another by a different hand, that of Sir William Rothenstein. By now long retired - he died in 1945 - he had been Principal of the Royal College of Art during Evelyn's studentship there in the early 1930s. He had long admired Evelyn's work, describing her once in 1936 as having 'real genius', he got on with her very well, remaining in touch with her until the end of his life. Her appointment as a war artist was to some extent due to him. In 1944 he drew Roger in crayon heightened with white:

Sir William Rothenstein Flt. Lt. Roger Folley 1944 Private collection. Inscribed 'To my dear Evelyn  William Rothenstein 4.3.44' How honoured Roger felt to have his portrait drawn by one of the great men of English art is not known, but it should maybe be remembered that the 74 year-old Rothenstein, by arrangement with the Air Ministry, made similar drawings of some 150 RAF officers. Many of these now hang in the RAF Museum at Hendon, North London. 

When the European war ended in May 1945 Evelyn's employment came to an abrupt end, although she continued working to complete some unfinished war paintings. Roger was demobilised in December 1945, but took advantage of some accrued leave to hand in his uniform some weeks earlier. In those weeks they moved at Roger's sister Joan's suggestion to their first married home together, a small cottage in the Warwickshire village of Long Compton. It was a big adventure for them both. Roger, then 33, had survived the war as a night-fighter navigator. Although unharmed physically, his wartime experiences had left other scars, among them a fear of flying. After the war he flew very seldom, first mastering his aversion in crossing the Atlantic and back with Evelyn by Boeing Stratocruiser on Ministry of Agriculture business in 1952.

Evelyn and Roger called their cottage Vyner's, after the earliest owner they could find on the title deeds. Roger wrote of their initial experiences at Vyner's: 'Evelyn had her first experience of housekeeping, but her painting was handicapped. The cottage had few rooms, low ceilings and low windows. Nevertheless she made her first portrait here...'

'Her first portrait', i.e. of Roger - a second followed a year or two later - was the one shown at the top of this post. I think Evelyn's portrait of her husband reflects the uncertainties and anxieties of those early post-war days. Roger looks at the worst  a little peevish, at the best thoughtful.

 The author with Roger Folley, aged 95, with his thumbstick 'Matey', a few weeks before his death. Evelyn's 'first' portrait is on the wall behind him, with Sir William Rothenstein's 1944 crayon portrait on the right.

* * *

The husband as symbol

 In 1937 Roger Folley graduated from Leeds University with two degrees, B.Sc. and B.Comm., the second awarded by special dispensation of the Senate. A man who as a young adult counted time spent indoors as time frittered away, Roger spent his vacations and his immediate postgraduate year working on a variety of farms. Any time left over from part-time farming was devoted to rock-climbing and fell-walking in the Pennines and especially in the Lake District. His farming experience plus his degrees qualified him amply for his chosen career as an agricultural economist. His first appointment was as Costings Officer at Sparsholt Farm Institute, near Winchester, where he subsequently met Evelyn, who had been posted there in 1940 to paint Women's Land Army recruits.

Apart from other mutually attractive elements, Evelyn found in Roger a man strongly committed to the land and the intelligent management of its productivity. Evelyn's Christian Science encompassed a covenant, frequently mentioned in the Old Testament, between the Creator and mankind, whereby the creator guaranteed the means of subsistence to mankind in return for mankind's undertaking to cherish the land with love, intelligence and industry. The Garden of Eden, given to Adam (which simply means 'man') 'to dress it and keep it' as the Old Testament book of Genesis expresses it, is a symbol of that covenant. Whatever we may think about that, for Evelyn the notion was something very powerful and indeed of great happiness for her, and it became the backdrop in one or another guise of almost all her work. It developed from her mother Florence through the medium of the garden of The Cedars, the Dunbar family house in Strood (the trans-Medway part of Rochester, Kent) and was then enormously magnified through the British wartime agricultural organisation.

A biblical personage who appealed strongly to Evelyn was Joseph,  perhaps best-known to non-Bible readers for his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat given him by his father Jacob. In 1938, when her personal life and career were at a low ebb, Evelyn started a trilogy on the life of Joseph, whom she saw as a man destined to greatness in the observance and implementation of the covenant. The trilogy started with Joseph's Dream:

Joseph's Dream 1938-42. Photo: Cambridgeshire County Council. Private collection

A full account of Joseph's Dream can be found here. The painting was unfinished when war broke out in 1939, and Evelyn laid it aside. When the immediate risk of invasion and the Blitz had receded to some extent, she took it up again with a view to showing it in the New English Art Club's 1943 exhibition.

By this time she had been married to Roger for over a year. On and off during this time she had been painting The Queue at the Fish Shop, in which Roger is shown in RAF uniform cycling down Strood High Street, and in which he is cast by extension of his service role as a guarantor of the availability of fish and thereby the sustenance of the people in the queue. Is the mantle of Joseph falling on his shoulders?

 The Queue at the Fish Shop 1942-45. Imperial War Museum, London

The Queue at the Fish Shop (detail)

After the war, when Roger and Evelyn had settled (temporarily, as it turned out) in Long Compton, she took up the Joseph trilogy again in Joseph in the Pit. The background, the pit into which Joseph's jealous brothers threw him to die, is strongly reminiscent of Gordale Scar, a dramatic gorge not very far from Kettlewell, the area first visited with Roger in the very early days of their relationship. There is something about the set of Joseph's eyes, nose and hair which is reminiscent of Roger:

 Joseph in the Pit 1947 Photograph: Petra van der Wal  © The author. Private collection.

Joseph in the Pit (detail)
What we might suspect was a gradual metamorphosis of Joseph into Roger becomes confirmed with the final painting of the trilogy, Joseph in Prison:

Joseph in Prison 1947-8. Private collection. Joseph, having been rescued from the pit by passing nomads, has been sold into slavery in Egypt. Bought by Potiphar, the captain of Pharoah's guard, he is accused falsely by Potiphar's wife of attempted rape, and thrown into jail. He becomes a trusty, and is here seen doling out breakfast to his fellow prisoners.

Joseph in Prison (detail). Because of his prowess in the interpretation of dreams, Joseph is released from prison and becomes Pharaoh's right-hand man, responsible for the measures enabling the Egyptian people to be fed in time of famine. He has become a powerful agent of the covenant.

By now the Joseph-Roger metamorphosis seems to be confirmed. At the time of painting Roger had become a demonstrator with Oxford University Agricultural Research Institute; he was shortly to become a lecturer in horticultural economy at Wye College, the agricultural campus of King's College, London, a post in which he rose to obscure but global eminence in the fields of cultivation of apples and tomatoes. He too has become a powerful agent of the covenant.

Another, non-Biblical, painting which had been gestating since Evelyn's post-war move was Autumn and the Poet, almost her last major painting and one in which she attempted to express a sort of testament.

Autumn and the Poet 1960 Photograph St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington © The author. Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery, Maidstone, Kent

The figure of Autumn, wrapped in a winding-sheet, offers the Poet the fruits of the earth, some of which will have come from the fields in the background, even now ploughed and ready for sowing for next year's and subsequent years' crops. In a kind of Annunciation she is telling the Poet to explain and interpret the covenant through his writing. The Poet is very clearly Roger: Joseph's mantle has fallen on his shoulders.

Autumn and the Poet (detail)

With thanks to Jane England for her help

(Text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2020. All rights reserved.)

Would you like to read more?
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25