Thursday, 27 July 2017

Mystery Blue Man (c.1938)

Unidentified man holding a bowl c.1938 Blue pencil 6 x 5½ in.: 15.2 x 13.4 Photograph: Petra van der Wal ©Liss Llewellyn Fine Art

This appealing little drawing was one of the hundreds of one-off sketches and studies that made up the bulk of Evelyn's 'lost works', the contents of her studio at her death in 1960. It's unlikely that you'll need reminding that this huge collection was rediscovered in 2013, stored in the cone of a Kentish oast house.

Who is he? What is he holding in that bowl, clasped to his chest? Why did Evelyn draw him? To the best of my knowledge, no one knows, but I think that with the aid of one or two clues we might be able to build up a plausible conjecture.

Ten years or so before 1938, in the late 1920s, Evelyn painted a series of Dunbar family studies, mostly individual portraits of her parents and siblings. Among these family paintings is an unusual group portrait of the family:

The Dunbar Family in the Garden at The Cedars 1928 Pencil and oil on paper 14½ x 19½ in.: 37 x 50 cm. Photograph: Petra van der Wal © Liss Llewellyn Fine Art

I shall leave a fuller commentary on the painting until another time. For the moment perhaps we can notice that the bulky figure just left of centre, Evelyn's father William Dunbar, is showing something in his hand to his wife Florence. Let's look at it in greater detail: 

Detail of The Dunbar Family in the Garden at the Cedars

In fact William is holding out a clutch of eggs, and we can imagine that he has just been to his henhouse (he kept hens whenever possible) with a basin or bowl to collect to day's laying.

We move forward ten years or so, to the late 1930s. Evelyn's career is in the doldrums and she is very short of money. Someone, possibly Allan Gwynne-Jones (her first year tutor at the Royal College of Art who became a lifelong friend), has suggested that she should try her hand at commercial art. This goes against Evelyn's grain; in 1936 she had written to Charles Mahoney expressing the hope that he would never need to supplement his living by turning to commercial design, like his colleague Barnett Freedman. Nevertheless Evelyn overcomes her distaste and begins a series of designs for Shell petrol. Shell was already known for its patronage of artists, and indeed some remarkable advertising work came out of this policy.

Evelyn produced at least three designs, two of them punning on the word 'shell'.

Studies for designs for advertisements for Shell petrol c.1938 Water colour on paper. Photographs: Liss Llewellyn Fine Art

I'm left wondering if Evelyn intended to conjugate the verb 'shell' in its antique form -

I shell
Thou shellest
He/she shelleth, etc., etc.

...with appropriate illustration for each? And - a final conjecture - was the mystery man, echoing Evelyn's study of her father with the day's eggs, originally intended for 'he shelleth'? Whatever the truth, it was all too archaic and homespun and not nearly modern and forward-thrusting enough for a company like Shell. It didn't work out, no commission arrived from Shell and Evelyn dropped the project, probably with much relief. All the same, she was attached enough to this work to keep it for the rest of her life, and indeed all the artwork in this post was found intact among her residual studio in 2013.

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2017


If you'd like to
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £30

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Mice (1938)

Decorative panel, recto-verso, for The Children's Shop 1938 Oil on wood (18½ x 23¾ in.: 47 x 60cm)

This curious artefact appeared among Evelyn's so-called Lost Works in 2013. The story is probably familiar by now: after her death in 1960 Evelyn's husband Roger Folley gathered up the contents of her studio, consisting of some 900 pieces of artwork, major and minor, and passed it all on to her family. The collection, swollen further by paintings by Evelyn's mother Florence Dunbar and her aunt Clara Cowling, lay forgotten in the cone of an oast house for some 50 years before it saw the light of day again. I took these photos in their unredeemed state, before the panel passed into the care of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art to be cleaned - it certainly needed it - and presented to the public.

Evelyn had two older sisters, Jessie and Marjorie, born close enough together in the late 1890s as almost to be twins. In due course they followed in the family commercial tradition by opening The Children's Shop in Rochester High Street. By 1938 the Dunbar presence along Rochester High Street had grown to a mini-empire of shops, an expansion in disturbing contrast to the deeply uncommercial Evelyn's career, which had fallen into the doldrums, not without causing a little inter-sibling tension. 

Catalogue cover for the Dunbar Home Comfort Exhibition, December 1938. (Strood is that part of Rochester on the west bank of the Medway.)

Evelyn was roped in to take part in a grand Dunbar festival of commerce entitled The Home Comfort Exhibition, held in December 1938. She contributed several pieces of artwork, including this panel, designed to be suspended from above like an inn-sign, with birds on one side and mice on the other. Evelyn was fond of mice, or at least acceptably anthropomorphised versions of them. For many years she had a mascot, a carved wooden mouse dressed in a bouffant dress something like the mousette above, which sat on a bookshelf in the kitchen. Her early letters to Charles Mahoney (former Royal College of Art tutor, later colleague and lover) were sometimes decorated with mice, until the sometimes impatient Mahoney put his foot down.

Mouse morning break: detail from a letter to Charles Mahoney, 25th June 1933. The black-gowned figure is Dr Sinclair, Headmaster of Brockley County School for Boys, where Evelyn was painting.The other mouse, stretching out a paw, is presumably Mahoney, as at the time only he and Evelyn were working on the Brockley Murals.

At some time during the later war years Evelyn illustrated two journals of climbing holidays in the Lake District written by Roger Folley, with all the protagonists featured as mice. The one below shows Roger Folley leading, Evelyn roped up to follow, and, bringing up the rear, their friend Glynn Burton. There's more about one of these expeditions here.

Pen and ink illustration from Roger Folley's An Episode in the History of the Lake District, 1941. The only original copy is in the Tate Archive.

Hardly great art, maybe not even the crumbs from the table of a greater banquet, but there's a certain charm and captivation in Evelyn's playfulness and sense of fun, mice or no mice.

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2017



If you'd like to
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £30

Monday, 5 June 2017

Gothic horror Cha-cha-cha

The Haunted c.1927 Pen and ink Photograph ©Christopher Campbell-Howes. Private collection.

Perhaps as an antidote to the goody-goody Goldilocks images of children (see the previous post) which preoccupied her in the years immediately after leaving Rochester Grammar School for Girls (which she sold to various publishers of children's books and stories), she began to show another, darker, side to her vision, equally short-lived.

Goodness knows what's going on in The Haunted. A man in modern dress appears to have got up out of an ornate antique chair in some agitation. He has dropped, or has seen on the floor, a playing card, maybe the ace of clubs. He's surrounded by four ghostly men in Tudor costume, the figure on the left ominously clutching a dagger. Overlooking the scene, from a picture frame brilliantly lit by candles, is an enigmatic figure. Man or woman? I don't know. Is there a cruel smile playing about his/her lips? Is a terrible revenge for some historic crime about to be wreaked?

This is not typical Evelyn. In a sense it's refreshing to see her widening her horizons, even with forays into the Gothic, as well as exploring new media, in this case pen and Indian ink. The answer to what The Haunted is about may be that, like her early children's drawings, it's an illustration for a novel or serial story in a magazine and not a stand-alone work. To me it has the feel of a frontispiece. If this is so, The Haunted isn't the only example of Gothic/horror illustration she ever undertook, although my second example comes from almost ten years later.

Study for an illustration for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights 1936 Pencil, pen & ink and wash on paper (22 x 15in: 57.5 x 38.5 cm) Signed 'E.Dunbar 1936'. Photograph: Petra van der Wal ©Liss Llewellyn Fine Art. Private collection.

In 1936 Evelyn submitted an entry for a competition organised by Signature, an ephemeral art magazine. The subject was to be an illustration of a passage from Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, and indeed here we have Catherine and Heathcliff in the context of a freshly-dug grave; in the upper left-hand middle ground there's a spade leaning against a pile of what Emily Brontë calls 'mools', an old Yorkshire word meaning earth dug out to make a grave. Rather than showing an actual episode from Wuthering Heights, Evelyn's drawing is more likely to be illustrative of Catherine's Chapter 12 raving: We've braved its [Gimmerton Kirk] ghosts often together, dared each other to stand among the graves and ask them to come...But Heathcliff, if I dare you now, will you venture? If you do, I'll keep you. I'll not lie there by myself: they may bury me twelve feet deep, and throw the church down over me; but I won't rest till you are with me...I never will!

Evelyn took some of her burial ground images from the graveyard of St Nicholas' church in Strood, the parish church in which in 1942 she would be married to Roger Folley. Her drawing didn't win the competition, and indeed drew some fairly savage censure from the adjudicator, Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery, later to become Lord Clark, who thought Evelyn's drawing inexpressive and lacking in significance. Maybe he had a point: Heathcliff, and Catherine particularly, do appear less intense than might be expected and not really touched by the dreadful eventuality of her dying rant. The Gothic really wasn't Evelyn's forte.

A more appealing pen-and-ink drawing in a completely different vein comes from about 1926, when Evelyn attempted a series of cartoons for illustrated magazines like the now-defunct Punch:

Should e'er the Charleston be forgot inscribed verso. Pen and ink, c.1926. (11" x 15": 28 x 38cm) Photograph: ©Christopher Campbell-Howes. Private collection.

Evelyn's skit is metamorphosing the Charleston, then at the height of its popularity, into hands-across Auld Lang Syne, as sung traditionally at New Year. It's not known whether she sold it, but I hope she did. For a lot of money. 

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2017

If you'd like to
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £30

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Children 1924-1950

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

There's a certain touching poignancy about this detail in one of the greatest of Evelyn's war paintings. She started painting The Queue at the Fish Shop in February 1942, almost immediately on her engagement to Roger Folley, then a Pilot Officer in the Royal Air Force. The Queue at the Fish Shop wasn't a commission from the War Artists' Advisory Committee, nor did it illustrate those women's official activities that Evelyn was supposed to record; it was something Evelyn dreamed up for herself, as much an engagement gift to Roger Folley as anything. All the same it was accepted with open arms on completion three years later, and quickly became one of the abiding images of wartime Britain.

The children in the detail are so spaced in age that theoretically they could be siblings. In the complete painting they're arranged between the RAF officer (actually Roger Folley) and the woman looking out at us from the foreground (actually Evelyn), and I wouldn't be the first to wonder if these children weren't some kind of wish-fulfilment, some projection of the family Evelyn and Roger would like to have. Evelyn and Roger would hardly have been an exception among engaged couples if they hadn't talked excitedly about the children they were going to have.

But this is unknown and unknowable territory. In fact Evelyn discovered subsequently that she couldn't have children, perhaps as a result of the miscarriage she'd had five years earlier, at the end of her relationship with Charles Mahoney. So Evelyn's children remain those she drew and painted, something she did throughout her career. Indeed, images of children could be said to be the start of her career, because on leaving Rochester Grammar School for Girls in 1925 she set herself eagerly at once to earn her living as an artist; her enthusiasm eclipsed - for the moment - any idea of art college.

Small amounts, maybe enough to earn her keep at The Cedars, came her way through writing and illustrating children's stories, among them a collection published by Dean & Son with titles like 'At the Beach' and 'Washing Day'.

Starting with an undated sheet of sketches, here is a small gallery of the meticulously drawn and sometimes coloured images Evelyn lavished on her immediate post-school work. Very few have titles.

 (Note that somehow, surely with no connection to the main subject, in the lower left-hand corner a child standing on a chair the better to attack a knickerbocker glory has crept into this image.)

(Signed 'EMD 1924')

Waiting c.1926 Watercolour (14 x 10in: 36 x 25.4cm) Photograph: Michael Shaw ©Christopher Campbell-Howes. Private collection.

Evelyn's post-school Goldilocks phase, winsome children maybe owing something to Mabel Lucie Atwell had a limited lifetime. By the end of the 1920s she had moved on to a more developed style, involving older children, although still without titles:

Evelyn's children-based artwork for her sisters' The Children's Shop in Rochester High Street needs a post to itself. By the time she was supplying shop-window work for them in the late 1930s she had evolved a very much more robust and less sentimental style when drawing children. Here are a couple of examples:

'Children Dancing': Pen and ink drawing, unconnected with anything in the text, of a letter to Charles Mahoney of March 10th, 1936. Original in Tate Archive ©Estate of Evelyn Dunbar.

'Toddler with Drum': extract from letter to Alec Dunbar, 1940. Photograph: Petra van der Wal ©Christopher Campbell-Howes. Private collection.

Finally, from Evelyn's joyous maturity, and at a vast remove from Mabel Lucie Attwell:

'Girls sheltering from the wind behind rhubarb leaves' 1950 Pencil (14 x 18in: 36 x 46cm) Signed 'Evelyn Dunbar - 50' ©Estate of Evelyn Dunbar. Private collection.

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2017

If you'd like to
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £30

Monday, 29 May 2017

Rochester from Strood 1938

Rochester from Strood 1938 Oil on canvas (8 x 12in: 20.3 x 30.5cm) Signed 'ED'. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London

Rochester from Strood is (ostensibly) the view looking south-east from Strood, the Kentish town in which Evelyn and her family lived from 1924-1945, towards Rochester, the nearby city identified by its castle and cathedral, both dating from the Norman Conquest. The river Medway, here hidden by the lie of the the land and intervening buildings, flows between the two towns. As almost always in Evelyn's landscapes, the real picture is about something else, something deeper and more significant. But what?

On a dull spring day in 2013 my wife and I spent a whole morning wandering about upper Strood trying to find the exact elevation, and more or less the same distance, from which Evelyn looked across the Medway valley towards Rochester and its castle and cathedral on the other side, a little over a mile, or two kilometres away. We knew her exact viewpoint, of course: she'd set up her easel near the foot of The Cedars garden, down by the shed, but that wasn't much help because after 75 years the locality has changed. What was once The Cedars garden and an important source of Evelyn's inspiration is no longer there: where once it flourished there's now a cramped housing estate. The best we could do was this:

- and if you look very carefully you can just see Rochester Castle and Cathedral in the centre of the photo, minuscule silhouettes against the grey February horizon. They're tiny, even though the photo was taken from almost exactly the same elevation and distance as Evelyn's view. Why has she made these ancient buildings so much bigger in her painting?

It's likely that a little earlier, a few weeks, maybe, but in the same spring as Rochester from Strood, Evelyn painted something similar:

'The Shed' 1938 Oil on canvas. Private collection.

I had no idea of the existence of this painting until 2014, when, on hearing that I was writing Evelyn's biography, someone with a family interest in her work sent me this photo of 'The Shed'. Enormously grateful and thrilled as always to see something new of Evelyn's, I found the connection with Rochester from Strood and its evolution immediately and excitingly apparent. (The appearance of Florence Dunbar, Evelyn's mother, in typical garden pose on the extreme right was an unexpected bonus.) I think that in the process of painting this it occurred to Evelyn that she could paint it more or less all over again and give her image a much deeper meaning.

Back to Rochester from Strood. This is the far end of The Cedars garden, the garden service area. Evelyn had a strong affection and feeling for garden sheds, toolsheds and potting sheds with their 'rich and heady' - her own expression - scents of earth, tar, compost, twine and sacking, strings of onions, wintering corms and tubers and bunches of dried herbs. If the Covenant (the contract between the Creator and Mankind) was at the cheerful heart of her beliefs, the garden shed represented a horticultural holy of holies, a literally down-to-earth temple consecrated to the day-to-day husbandry needed to keep mankind's side of the bargain.

It's a warmish day in February or March. The shed door is open, what looks like a plum tree is in leaf, and a few yellow crocuses are flowering at its foot. The cold frame has been opened to bring on seedlings in direct early spring sunshine. The last courses of the south-facing wall shelter a few over-wintered artichokes. In the distance, relegated to the background but clearly exaggerated, are Rochester Castle and Cathedral. Rochester Castle is a ruined witness to past ages of strife and disharmony, while the nearby Cathedral stands as a monument to values that Evelyn only perceived as marginally touching the daily life and interaction of her friends and family and the world in general.

As temples go, the garden shed is more significant, standing for something at once mundane and spiritual, where its relevance lies in its in its humility and its re-definition of notions of worship. Can we exclude the possibility of a typical Dunbar subversion here?

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2017

Further reading...
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £30