Evelyn Dunbar Dorset 1946-7 (1' 7" x 1' 11": 48 x 58cm) Photograph Ben Taylor ©The present owner. Private collection
Writing towards the end of his life in his unpublished 2007 pamphlet Evelyn Dunbar: The Husband's Narrative, Evelyn's husband Roger Folley states: 'My sister offered us the use of a vacant cottage adjoining her house at Long Compton. With more pull than push, we leaped at the chance. The Dunbars gave us some furniture, and we moved there, [..] our married life began. 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 and [..] Dorset was sold to a patron.'
The patron was Mary Landale, a student at the Ruskin School of Drawing and of Fine Art in Oxford, where Evelyn taught part-time as a Visitor. In March 1951 Mary Landale's niece, then 15, wrote to her parents from her aunt's house -
Auntie Maydie [the family name for Mary Landale] has bought a picture by a well known artist. It is an allegorical figure of a woman symbolising Dorset (I think it is Dorset) sitting in a background of (presumably) Dorset countryside. It is a lovely picture, very graceful & done in a colour scheme [of] dullish greens.
- which if nothing else suggests that its purchaser bought it for its own sake and not out of any great familiarity with or special fondness for the county of Dorset. Nor is it certain that Evelyn ever went there, apart from one occasion in the mid-1930s when she spent a few days near Wimborne child-minding for some friends. Why did she paint it?
Dorset was lent back by Mary Landale for showing in Evelyn's only solo exhibition, at Wye College, Kent in 1953. I went to this exhibition. Rising 12, I was very much struck by this image, I think falling in love a little with this lovely but slightly troubled woman, unique in Evelyn's work, but apprehensive of raising with her the boyish conundrum that if you asked Dorset to stand up she would be so monstrously tall that the breeze evident in the painting would blow her over. But who was she?
A year or two later, in the course of a conversation about what I was doing at school, I told Evelyn that in English we were reading Thomas Hardy's Far From The Madding Crowd. She was pleased. For her, Hardy was an important writer, the most elemental of English novelists and one she often mentioned. She told me his The Trumpet Major lay behind Dorset. After a teenage failure to persevere with it, I didn't read The Trumpet Major fully until very much later, many years after Evelyn's death in 1960. There was a sudden, eye-blinking epiphany: Evelyn's hint from so many years before was very loaded indeed. She had done the same with Dorset as she had with so many of the Brockley mural spandrels, where the image shifts from mere decoration to something much more lively and meaningful once the viewer penetrates to the underlying narrative, which may be obscure, not to say hermetic. But why The Trumpet Major? Clearly Dorset - the woman - is a personification: if for Evelyn the spirit of Dorset - the county - was best expressed by Hardy, the choice of suitable Hardy heroines on which to base such a personification is not wide. Tess Durbeyfield? Bathsheba Everdene? Susan Henchard? Hardy is not kind to his women. There is one exception: Evelyn's choice of Anne Garland in The Trumpet Major becomes clearer.
Towards the end of The Trumpet Major Anne Garland trudges from Weymouth to a high point towards the extremity of Portland Bill, which she reaches at about midday. From here there are wide views of the English Channel. Anne Garland settles herself and gazes out to sea. Presently what she has climbed the hill to see comes into sight to the south-east: HMS Victory, outward bound on the voyage that will culminate in Trafalgar. On board HMS Victory is one of Anne Garland's suitors, Bob Loveday, whom she eventually marries.
Hardy is quite specific about the season ('...at this time of mist and level sunlight...') and the weather ('...the wind is to the south-west...'). HMS Victory passes her and begins to disappear, and as the topmost masthead disappears over the south-western horizon she murmurs to herself a line from Psalm 107: 'They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters…' In a typical Hardy coup de théâtre, someone who has come up behind her unnoticed carries on: 'These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.' The voice is that of Bob's brother John Loveday, the trumpet major of the title. (In fact, according to the ship's log, HMS Victory passed Portland Bill in the early afternoon of 16th September 1805.) Dorset herself is looking out of the frame, to the south-west, the direction from which a watery sun is shining and from which the wind is blowing her hair back, billowing out her robe like a man-o'-war's sail behind her left shoulder. Resting her forearms on her upraised knees, she is holding her fingertips together in an attitude of deep thought, of prayer, and forming her hands and fingers into a symbolic roof of protection. What is she concentrating her worried gaze on? What is she seeing that we cannot see, and whom is she protecting, framed between her fingers and thumbs, at an angle a little below the horizontal, gradually receding from her view and eventually dipping below the horizon, far out to sea? And of course Bob Loveday, unlike his Admiral, survives Trafalgar and eventually comes home safe, and England is saved from the threat of invasion by Napoleon's armies. Whatever echoes of The Trumpet Major there may have been, Dorset stands for protection, emphasised in her figure, in her watchful pose and in the form of her hands.
(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2019. All rights reserved.)