Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Cedars (1938-1940)

Evelyn Dunbar:  Rochester from Strood c.1938: 8" x 12" (20.3 x 30.5cm) Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre

Rochester from Strood and The Garden, below, are almost contemporary. Evelyn loved sheds, toolsheds and potting sheds with all their rich and heady - a combination of adjectives she sometimes used - earthy fragrances, creosote, compost, twine and sacking, strings of onions and bunches of dried herbs and other garden sheddery scents. If the Covenant - the contract between Man and Nature - was at the cheerful heart of her beliefs, the garden shed represented a basic, domestic holy of holies, a literally down-to-earth temple consecrated to the day-to-day husbandry needed to keep Man's side of the bargain. 
You may have noticed that sheds feature in almost everything from Evelyn's hand that we've had a look at so far - Winter Garden, The Brockley Murals (where there is almost an encylopedia of garden sheds, especially in Evelyn's sub-gallery lunette and spandrels), the Gardeners' Choice illustrations: everything except perhaps in Joseph's Dream, and even there a shed tucked away somewhere in the background wouldn't be too out of place.

Again everything is neat and trim in the Dunbar garden, cold frames, herb beds, pruned fruit trees. Even in the very modest and unshowy garden area just outside the kitchen door the Covenant is kept, harmony maintained. And then, in the distance, relegated to the background on the far side of the river Medway, are Rochester Castle and Cathedral. Rochester Castle, a ruined witness to an age of strife and disharmony, and the nearby Cathedral, a monument to values that I think Evelyn only perceived dimly as touching the day-to-day life and interaction of her friends and family and the world in general.

In 1939 Evelyn was at a crossroads. She had had one or two triumphs, notably in association with Charles Mahoney, but she and Mahoney had now separated, apparently amicably. Evelyn, 33 in 1939, and the youngest of the five Dunbar children, still lived at home. There may have been some tensions, possibly aggravated by her successes of the preceding years, between her and her three firmly celibate siblings Ronald, Jessie and Marjorie, and the very different worlds they inhabited. (Alec, the fourth of the five Dunbar children, married a year or two before World War 2)

Evelyn's father, William, died in 1932, leaving a mini-empire of High Street shops for his older offspring to manage. Ronald, the oldest, ran shops selling bicycles and electrical goods. Next in age, Jessie and Marjorie, ran haberdashery and children's clothes shops. Alec ran a road haulage business before volunteering for the Royal Navy. (He commanded a minesweeper and saw action at Dunkirk. After the war he ran a hotel near Maidstone.) There was some attempt to include Evelyn in the family businesses. Having in a sense nowhere else to go, Evelyn took over the first floor of a rented premises at 168, High Street, Rochester, above Jessie's and Marjorie's 'The Fancy Shop'.

Here Evelyn created The Blue Gallery. It consisted of a single room running the length of the shop below, a panelled Georgian room painted in duck-egg blue with a curious bas-relief tondo over the fireplace, in the style of, if not by, John Flaxman, showing Aeneas fleeing the flames of Troy carrying his old father Anchises on his shoulder. (This has very little to do with Evelyn, but I lived over the shop at 168 High Street, Rochester, from 1951-59, and would like this tiny grain of memory to be recorded somewhere, if only here.)

Evelyn hoped to sell her own and her friends' work in The Blue Gallery. She invited several friends to exhibit, a constellation including Charles Mahoney, Edward Bawden, Allan Gwynne-Jones, Barnett Freedman and Kenneth Rowntree. Florence Dunbar's floral still-lifes were included, and her Cyclamens from the first post (Winter Garden) in this series of essays dates from The Blue Gallery experience. The Blue Gallery opened in the winter of 1938/39. It didn't succeed, and its closure more or less coincided with the outbreak of war in 1939.

In April 1940 Evelyn was appointed an Official War Artist, employed by the Ministry of Information to paint scenes illustrating the civilian war support activities undertaken by women and women's organisations. New worlds opened up for Evelyn. There will be much more to say about this later, and many more paintings to look at. For now A Knitting Party shows Evelyn at the unlikely start of her war painting.

Evelyn Dunbar: A Knitting Party 1940: (1' 6" x 1' 8": 46 x 51cm) Imperial War Museum, London

The room is the family sitting room at The Cedars. Florence Dunbar is sitting in the bay window, hatless because she alone is in her own home. She's blatantly looking at her watch, perhaps wondering when all these women will go away. They're all knitting away, maybe with recovered wool, to make blankets or comforters or whatever for British troops. A Knitting Party was submitted in November 1940, so winter was coming on. There's a pile of completed knitting on the central table, in service colours, navy blue, khaki, Royal Air Force blue. No one seems to be speaking much. If you stare at it long enough you can almost hear the click and clack of knitting needles. Apart from Florence Dunbar, I don't know who the women were. Perhaps they belonged to some organisation like the Women's Voluntary Service.

(Text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2012. All rights reserved.)

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

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