Sunday, 1 January 2017

February (1937-38)

February 1937-38 Oil on canvas Photo: P van der Wal © Liss Llewellyn Fine Art. Private collection.

This striking and subtle image of February started life as a pen-and-ink drawing in Gardener's Diary for 1938. At the time the magazine Country Life produced occasional satellite booklets, among them diaries and cookbooks, under the supervision of Noël Carrington, a publisher who went on to found Puffin Books. Dunbar knew Carrington, his wife Catherine and their daughter Jane very well through having lodged with them for a while during her student days in their home in South End Road, Hampstead. She and her former tutor and later lover Charles Mahoney also rented a top-floor studio from Carrington in the mid-30s. The 1937 Gardener's Diary was designed and illustrated by Edward Bawden, whom Evelyn knew well through her visits with Mahoney to Brick House, Bawden's home in Great Bardfield, the Essex village that was to some extent the spiritual - and sometimes actual - home of a group of English artists including Eric Ravilious, Charles Mahoney and John Aldridge. To entrust the Country Life 1938 Gardener's Diary to Evelyn meant, at the least, keeping it in the family, so to speak.

February from Country Life 1938 Gardener's Diary. Author's photo.

Here is February sloshing furtively through the rain in her oilskin and wellies to magic into life what looks like a cyclamen under her cloche. Clearly the image pleased her, and when, a month or two after she had finished her Gardener's Diary images, Evelyn decided to work some of them up into oils, she chose three: February, April and August

April and August carry quite disturbing autobiographical messages, and we'll postpone looking at them until we've enjoyed February in her innocent complicity. I don't think February tells us anything much about her personal life at the time, but I can imagine Evelyn's delight in returning to her Gardener's Diary drawing to develop further her personification of this secret and secretive month. Her oil version has the same furtiveness, the same reluctance to be observed, in the same way as the first growth of the year appears almost imperceptibly. In the drawing she's secreting a cyclamen under a cloche. In the oil version we aren't told what she is touching into growth: maybe bulbs like the ones from which grew the new, tight-budded daffodils in her extraordinary hat.

Copies of Country Life 1938 Gardener's Diary are extremely rare. I'm very grateful to the Royal Horticultural Society's Lindley Library for making its copy available to me, and for allowing me to take photographs.

(Text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2017)

Further reading...

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

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