Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Portrait (1954)

Evelyn Dunbar Christopher Campbell-Howes at 12 1954 (14" x 12": 35.5 x 30.5) Private collection

Evelyn painted this portrait in 1954, when I was 12. Only the head was finished, the rest was merely sketched in for later completion. The setting was a small conservatory Roger and Evelyn had on the western side of The Elms, the pleasant Edwardian house they rented about half a mile from the hamlet of Hinxhill, some three miles south of Wye. They called this the 'vigne', or sometimes the 'vinery'. It featured in their 1951 Christmas card.

I remember sitting for it, but not much else. Six years later, when Evelyn died, it was found among the 40-50 canvases stacked up on shelves in the store next to her studio in the last house she and Roger lived in, a place called Staple Farm, up on the North Downs not far from Wye. After Evelyn's death this portrait passed to my mother, who inscribed the frame 'Evelyn Dunbar RA 1954'. This is curious, because Evelyn was never a Royal Academician and was known not to agree with what the Royal Academy stood for, at the time.

In the 1950s Evelyn painted or drew an unknown quantity of portraits, maybe a dozen, sometimes as commissions and sometimes as gifts. Naturally very few have circulated outside the families they were intended for. An exquisite crayon portrait appeared recently, which I think shows a very subtle and sensitive mastery:

Evelyn Dunbar Edward listening to the wireless 1953 Crayon Private collection

Here the subject is a boy called Edward Hankey, then also about 12, son of some friends of Evelyn who lived in Wye.

Evelyn Dunbar Boy Reading 1960 Oil on wood Private collection

Boy Reading was the last portrait Evelyn painted. The subject is Evelyn's nephew by marriage (and my half-brother) Richard Campbell-Howes. Richard had gone, as he sometimes did, to stay with Roger and Evelyn in the winter of 1959-60, when he was 11.

He's wearing Evelyn's sheepskin slippers, of the type we have also seen in Land Army Girls Going to Bed. I couldn't say if it's the same pair, but clearly nephews may wear their aunts' slippers. He's sitting on a bentwood chair, a bound 19th Century volume of Punch open on his lap. The setting is one end of Evelyn's studio in Staple Farm. The colours of the slippers and of an Indian numdah rug, then fairly newly fashionable, pick up and complement the hanging drape behind, which itself reveals, in the top left hand corner, one of the roof timbers, a deft harmonisation of colours and textures for which Evelyn had such an acumen.

According to Richard it was fairly quickly executed, within three days, which isn't surprising: that pose can't have been very comfortable to hold for long periods. It's painted on wood, which is unusual for Evelyn, and close examination shows one or two worm-holes. Less than two months after painting it, Evelyn was dead. The portrait was labelled Boy Reading by Roger -

Evelyn Dunbar Boy Reading 1960 verso

- and some time after Evelyn's death Roger gave it to his sister.

For a non-specialist portrait painter, the quantity and range of Evelyn's portraits is not to be underestimated. Some we've seen in these essays already. Their quality is uneven: some may find the rather vacant Portrait of an Airwoman (scroll well down the link to find this) as unrewarding as Section Officer Austen is a convincing and attractive study of a young woman concentrating. There's a similar disparity between the two portraits of her husband, the uncharacteristically peevish and vinegary Roger Folley of 1945 and Roger Folley (The Cerebrant) of 1948, in which Roger is transformed into a bronzed and visionary intellectual, which is much nearer the mark.

In the 50s, with Roger and Evelyn settled in Kent and integrating themselves socially, chiefly with Wye College staff and Ashford-based Christian Scientists, portraits began to flow a little more freely. Known but inaccessible portraits, all female, include that of Anne Skilbeck, the daughter of the then Principal of Wye College, Dunstan Skilbeck; Dora Cohen, Principal of Bletchley Park Training College, and of Dora Cohen's mother; Alice Robinson, daughter of one of Evelyn's cleaners, the portrait that pleased Evelyn most; Ann and Jill Mursell, daughters of Sir Peter Mursell, a prominent Sussex agriculturalist. Evelyn died before she could complete Jill Mursell's portrait. For the Misses Mursell portraits Evelyn went to stay at the family farm at Wisborough Green, Sussex, but mostly her subjects came to her studio at The Elms. Evelyn's invariable practice was to cover up portraits in progress at the end of each session, and not to show them to the sitters until they were finished. (Mine was never finished: I never saw it until after Evelyn's death.)

Much might be - and has been - written about the relationship between portraitist and portraitee. Evelyn did admit to me once, when I was in my teens, that she had problems with faces in portraiture. She said, in a rare moment of self-revelation, that it wasn't so much a question of draughtmanship (which seemed to me to pose no problem) as of the relationship with the person portrayed. Portraiture implied a capture, a possession, at the least an intimacy, that neither subject nor artist always felt comfortable with. In retrospect it was a pity she didn't go further, but to have done so would have opened up areas of the unknown Evelyn, periods and circumstances of her life about which she never spoke.

It seems curious to me, for instance, that although she used her Dunbar siblings, especially her older sisters Jessie and Marjorie, as models, the nearest approach to portraits of them, that we know of, is the merest sketch of her sisters, with Ronald, the older of her two brothers, reduced to a marginal profile: 

Evelyn Dunbar Marjorie and Jessie Dunbar on a Louis Philippe Canapé c.1930 Pen, ink and colour wash Image by courtesy of, and with thanks to, Paul Liss of Liss Fine Art

 Apart from her husband Roger and a crayon sketch of her father-in-law 'Eb' Folley, none of her known subjects are men. There are one or two women, but the majority are children. Although she wasn't drawn to babies or young children, Evelyn had a natural affinity with pre-pubertal children, with whom she was very good company indeed.

And, I think, with whom she felt particularly at her ease. There were certain events in her life that didn't encourage her to regard portraiture as a primary means of expression. Several incidents and circumstances, to which I never heard her refer directly, had marked her and had left her wary of opening a naturally generous and outgoing nature too widely. In 1928, when Evelyn was rising 22, she spent some months in Germany, travelling via Holland. Her level of German culture, especially in music, was quite high, and she had a greater natural sympathy for the language than for her other foreign language, French. (At 16 she had been awarded a special credit in spoken German in the London General School Examination, a precursor of O Level.) Something untoward happened on this trip. We don't know what. She never spoke German again. Her only possible reference to it was that, in her own words, 'she first knew real depression at Dover'. I can only conjecture a five or six month internship or situation as a paying guest or au pair which went wrong. The Dover comment refers to her feelings on returning across the Channel to Germany after a Christmas or Easter break at home. But this is pure supposition.

In 1937-38 her relationship with Charles Mahoney came to an end, and with it the love of plants and gardening she had shared with him, as though, as she had done 10 years earlier with all things German, she wished the dead past to bury its dead. The intensity of her relationship with Mahoney, and the final agonies of splitting up, can be judged from a fascinating series of letters from her to him (none exists from him to her). Latterly there are many cris de coeur, begging Mahoney to re-examine their relationship in depth and to try to revive it, topics that most men instinctively show a clean pair of heels to. In these letters there are the first signs, too, of tensions in the Dunbar household, particularly between Evelyn and her mother and of Evelyn feeling fettered by the round of domestic tasks: in turn the other Dunbars, Ronald, Jessie and Marjorie (little is known about Alec) found it difficult to come to terms with the demands Evelyn's priorities made on them.

The threatened breach with her family widened progressively after her marriage to Roger in 1942 and her mother Florence's death two years later. Roger had been accepted by the Dunbars well and easily, but when at the end of his RAF service in 1945 he and Evelyn went to live in Warwickshire and then Oxfordshire, there were no visits from Rochester. Similarly when they moved to mid-Kent in 1950. Only Alec, the younger of her two brothers, and his wife Jill attended Evelyn's funeral in 1960. I should perhaps add that the older Dunbars had no car.

Portraiture was never the main thrust of Evelyn's work. It was undertaken as a sideline, occasionally as a commission, as a means of thanking someone or giving pleasure. After the difficulties and traumas outlined above, Evelyn was most psychologically suited to sitters with whom she felt most comfortable. (It would be interesting, but outside the scope of this essay, to analyse her representation of faces in general.) The kind of artist-sitter relationship she felt necessary for a good portrait flourished best with lively and intelligent 10-13 year olds. While I pass on the question of my liveliness and intelligence when I was 12, I'm proud to have sat for Evelyn.

(Text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2013. All rights reserved.)

Would you like to read more?

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

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, old friend. Yes, this is what I would like to do in due course, when the series is finished in about 6 weeks' time, and if anyone is interested in publishing it.

    Good luck with your venture - I'm entirely in support of your aspirations.