Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Senior Sister, Princess Mary's RAF Nursing Service 1944

   Senior Sister, Princess Mary's RAF Nursing Service 1944 Photo ©Christopher Campbell-Howes




Gazetted by the War Artists' Advisory Committee (WAAC) as an official war artist in 1940, Evelyn was first assigned to record the activities of the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS). She had hardly started on this when she was re-assigned at short notice to the Women's Land Army, and her images in this field are among her best known war paintings. In 1941 she was asked to portray hospital services in their wartime guise, and in due course a quartet of nursing paintings made their way to the WAAC. On completion she returned to the Womens' Land Army. 

At the end of 1942 Evelyn had an interview with Sir Kenneth Clark, chairman of the WAAC, who asked her to extend her coverage of the wartime activities of  women's organisations to include two women's branches of the armed services, the army (ATS) and the Royal Air Force (WAAF). The Royal Navy had made its own arrangements. Evelyn felt this was foreign territory to her. She baulked and procrastinated and it wasn't until July 1944, after a patient reminder from E.C.Gregory, the WAAC secretary, that she finally opened her WAAF portfolio, probably after discussion with her husband Roger Folley, then a serving RAF officer. Gregory had suggested that to speed her production up she might try water-colour instead of her usual oils.

The RAF station to which Evelyn was assigned for her WAAF portfolio was RAF South Cerney, in Gloucestershire, which she knew already through Roger's posting there some two years before. She took lodgings a few miles away in Malmesbury for the weeks she spent observing what everyone called 'Waffs' at work and occasionally at leisure. Nothing very much came from her time at RAF South Cerney. The WAAFs were quite unlike the Land Girls Evelyn had come to know and admire. Their occupations were very different, and mostly took place indoors. Interiors rarely inspired her. She found WAAFs neither easy nor rewarding to record in paint. The entire Women's Auxiliary Air Force, a non-combatant back-up echelon to male-dominated aircrew and ground crew units, expressed its ethos in uniforms, drill, parades and the usual military hierarchy of commissioned and non-commissioned officers, all adopted from their male counterparts. All this was new to her. She was not allowed into the more sensitive Operations buildings, where WAAF telegraphists, cryptographers, clerks, messengers, radar operators, air traffic controllers and administrative officers might be found at work. Further senses of distance came from the WAAFs having no occupational involvement with the soil, whereas through her convictions about the synergy between mankind and nature Evelyn could identify with the Women's Land Army very readily. WAAFs had no existence outside the context of the RAF, in which they were totally subservient to their male counterparts, whereas the Land Girls had forged a sturdy independence for themselves, to an unknown extent through Evelyn's and her female colleagues' championing of them, and in doing so had raised large question marks about the role and status of women in both wartime and in post-war society. She may well have been apprehensive of her role, wondering uneasily what Sir Kenneth Clark and the WAAC expected of her. In the event she managed to produce a modest group of paintings to fulfil her commission.

It wasn't a very happy time for her. In later letters to Gregory she wrote 'I must own that the aesthetic mood didn't flourish very vigorously on the Raf station I was at' and '...they wouldn't let me stay on and complete the job at Cerney'. For lack of much else, half her Services portfolio is made up of portraits, some of which were never submitted. One of these was Senior Sister, Princess Mary's RAF Nursing Service, a rare water-colour in which Evelyn has maybe borne Gregory's recommendation in mind. We don't know who she is - maybe a reader does? - and it may be at RAF South Cerney that Evelyn was forbidden to name her subjects. All that we know is that she's wearing a white ward dress underneath an RAF blue tippet decorated at the points with the Rod of Aesculapius, the classical healing wand emblem of medical services, and shoulder boards showing her rank and status. There's an air of calm, confidence and competence about her, so consoling to sick or wounded RAF personnel, or indeed to anyone in need of nursing.

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2018


Would you like to read more?
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
http://www.casematepublishing.co.uk/index.php/evelyn-dunbar-10523.html
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25

Monday, 19 March 2018

Sacking Potatoes, c.1949

Sacking Potatoes c.1949 Oil on canvas Private collection


Now, what's this? At the outset I ought perhaps to put up a conjecture alert. Not much of what follows can be proved, and I may be entirely wrong. The main ingredient in my scenario is more-or-less intelligent guesswork. I hope that at the very least it's logical.

Sitting and staring at Sacking Potatoes, a necessary process for any picture for any art commentator, doesn't reveal all that much. It's in the same vein as several of Evelyn's agricultural war paintings, and might be mistaken as such: groups of women in pairs (I can't identify any men) are trailing sacks between them, traversing a field in line abreast picking up potatoes previously unearthed by a tractor and potato spinner. The women are not Land Girls, or they would be wearing some sort of Women's Land Army uniform. They presumably belong to a field labour group hired for the occasion by the farmer. It's hard to determine any logical progression; the middle group appears to be covering the same ground as the more distant group. I'm led to think that whatever the purpose of Evelyn's design, it wasn't necessarily to record a maybe not-very-interesting potato harvesting scene. She had something else in mind. 

Enter Glynn Burton, a former Leeds University fellow-student of Roger Folley, Evelyn's husband, who became a lifelong friend. As it happens, we've met him before, not as an agricultural scientist but as a rock-climbing mouse. Glynn Burton had found his post-war feet working as a researcher and advisor at East Malling Research Station, near Maidstone. In 1948 he completed a book called The Potato: A Survey of its History and of Factors Influencing its Yield, Nutritive Value and Storage. It became the standard work on potato cultivation and is still in print today. He asked Evelyn if she would design the cover. She agreed readily, but I wonder if Burton's request was made before or after he had composed the title. In the event The Potato etc. appeared with an unexciting and quite un-Evelynish drawing of a potato on the cover.

We move forward 11 or 12 years. Evelyn died in May 1960. Within two years the house she and Roger had lived in was sold and her entire residual studio of some 800 pieces of artwork was boxed and bundled up and consigned to Evelyn's family. Or almost her entire residual studio: Roger kept back a small quantity of her work, paintings and drawings of which he was fond or which had a particular meaning or importance to him or those about him. Among them was Sacking Potatoes. He kept it until about 1985, when he gave it to an art specialist with a deep interest in Evelyn's work. Why did he keep it? What special meaning did it have for him?

I think Sacking Potatoes was Evelyn's design for Glynn Burton's book. I once printed out the image above and folded it with four proportionate vertical folds so as to make a book cover of it, one fold for the front flap, two for the spine, one for the back flap. It worked almost perfectly. Evelyn's wrap-around design allowed for a central spine and back and front fold-in flaps, with blank space for the publisher's blurb inside the back flap. But...oh dear, that title: 'The Potato' would have worked brilliantly, arranged between the upper and central groups of sack-women, with the author's name below. But not Burton's full 17-word title. Did the publisher cavil at the expense, indeed the impossibility, of threading the title and author's name among Evelyn's deliberately arranged teams of women? Was the project abandoned, living on only as a modest canvas in Evelyn's store and in Roger's memory as a regretted might-have-been? The questions remain unanswered and we shall never know, merely acknowledging the possibility.

Grateful thanks to England & Co. for their help with this commentary.

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2018



Would you like to read more?
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
http://www.casematepublishing.co.uk/index.php/evelyn-dunbar-10523.html
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Flying Applepickers (1946)

Flying Applepickers 1946 Oil on paper Photograph: Petra van der Wal ©Liss Llewellyn Fine Art. Private collection.

In late 1945 Evelyn and her husband Roger Folley, now demobilised from the RAF, moved from Kent to Warwickshire, setting up their first married home, a cottage simply called No. 8, in the village of Long Compton. They'd been told about the availability of this cottage by Roger Folley's sister, Joan Duckworth, who lived next door at The Old Orchard. (This is the house in the picture with chimneys at each gable end. No.8, which Evelyn and Roger later called Vyner's after the earliest owner they could identify in the title deeds, has the lower roofline to the right.)

The 1945 apple crop was immense. Some light-hearted banter between the sisters-in-law about how it should be harvested led to this little fantasy. Roger Folley on the extreme left looks up disbelievingly, as well he might, at this flock of flying applepickers appearing out of the sky. Evelyn - or it might be Joan Duckworth - looks on from the lower right.

Evelyn's easy mastery of figures and drapes perhaps harks back to a similar, although more studied, exercise from some ten years previously. In 1935 she was finishing the ceiling roundels at Brockley County School for Boys, now Prendergast - Hilly Fields 6th Form Centre, in Lewisham, south-east London. You can find them here. Her Brockley subjects, Olympian goddesses, abstract figures like Industry or Virtue, are much grander than her homely Long Compton applepickers.

In 2016, in the course of research for the book mentioned below, my wife Josephine and I went to Long Compton to explore for ourselves the background of Flying Applepickers and other paintings of this period. We were very warmly received (it doesn't always happen) by the present owner of The Old Orchard, who showed us round inside and out. And 'Blow me down' - to use one of Evelyn's expressions - one of the apple trees in Flying Applepickers was still there, 70 years on. A very ancient and feeble specimen, it's true, but an extraordinary witness to the actuality of Evelyn's fantasy.

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2018

 


If you'd like to read more...
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
http://www.casematepublishing.co.uk/index.php/evelyn-dunbar-10523.html
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25

Friday, 23 February 2018

Mercatora (1946)

Mercatora (1946?) Originally oil on canvas. Size and location unknown. Photograph: Dunbar family archive.


At the end of World War 2 in 1945 Evelyn's appointment as a war artist came to an end. Her mother Florence had died the year before, and The Cedars, the family home in Strood, Rochester, had become too large for the remaining Dunbar siblings, who decided to sell it. Evelyn had married Roger Folley, an RAF Navigator, during the war. Both were anxious to set up a married home. At the suggestion of Roger's sister Joan they bought a cottage next door to her in the Warwickshire village of Long Compton.

In the eighteen months or so that she spent at Long Compton, Evelyn began to re-explore her pre-war delight in allegorical figures and personifications. Mercatora, probably painted in the summer of 1946, was the first of these. Unfortunately it has disappeared from public view. 50 years and more after its completion Roger remembered, maybe rather vaguely, that the origin of this unusual personification of cartography lay in his wartime experiences.

It isn't easy to unscramble fully the symbolic content of this rich counterpoint of curved and straight lines from a monochrome photograph, for which I apologise, but it appears to be the only image in existence of this very remarkable painting. Colour would have played such a vital role in Evelyn's realisation of this fantasy and of our deeper understanding of it.

Mercatora, named after the Flemish map-maker Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594), he of the famous projection, is lying on her side, leaning on her left elbow, with her left knee drawn up. Her face is almost invisible, hidden in the shadow of a bonnet fastened by a ribbon tied under her chin. Her right arm is extended over a long rectangle, and she is marking an outline, a coastline, maybe, with a stylus. The rectangle, of paper or vellum, is liable to roll back on itself, and to prevent this it has been weighted down by an abstract conical form on the left and a cylinder on the right, marked with Evelyn's initials.

Mercatora's problem is how to project the image of the planet Earth, a three-dimensional sphere, on to a two-dimensional rectangle to make a map. The cone and the cylinder represent partial solutions to the problem, which is also symbolised by the scrolls in the left foreground. They are nothing more than a stylisation of an apple being peeled, the idea being that if you peel a more or less spherical apple carefully you can begin to arrange, extremely crudely, the strips of peel into something like a rectangle. This is a practical example sometimes used in schools to illustrate the problem of projection. Perhaps Roger used it to show Evelyn.

(The problem is actually insoluble, other than by the distortion of land masses progressively distant from the Equator, so that Greenland, in reality about the surface area of Algeria, appears larger than the entire continent of Africa. Eurocentric people have been happy to accept Mercator's compromise map of the world, and probably will for ever.)

Other map-makers have attempted projections based on the cone and the cylinder, both alluded to in Mercatora. The principal allusion lies however in Mercatora's magnificent skirt, where lines like meridians of longitude originating from a single point are swirled and regathered.

One or two preliminary sketches for Mercatora survive. They were found in 2013 in Evelyn's residual studio, now known as the Hammer Mill Oast Collection. It seems that Evelyn had some doubts about Mercatora's posture and position before finally deciding to show her lying on the ground:




The final Mercatora sketch above is currently on sale by Liss Llewellyn Fine Art (www.llfa.uk/9013.htm

Mercatora was exhibited at the Ruskin, Oxford, in November 1950, where it sold for 25 guineas (about £750 at 2018 values). It was probably sold to someone fairly local, because it next appeared at Evelyn's only solo exhibition, held at Wye College, Kent, in December 1953, so it might be assumed that she was able to 'borrow' it back. Since then nothing has been heard of it. I don't suppose anyone reading this has ever come across it?

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2018



If you'd like to read more...
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
http://www.casematepublishing.co.uk/index.php/evelyn-dunbar-10523.html
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25