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

Friday, 26 May 2017

Some Learned Scholars from VIa 1925

Some Learned Scholars from VIa 1925 Water-colour (7 x 12in: 17.7 x 30cm) Signed 'Evelyn M. Dunbar'. Photograph: Michael Shaw ©Christopher Campbell-Howes. Private collection.

Evelyn was 18 and in her last year at Rochester Grammar School for Girls when she painted Some Learned Scholars from VIa, a farewell memento of some of the friends with whom she had come through school, here maybe looking back on their shared experiences. Despite depriving herself - and us - of her friends' faces, she has contrived through an artful combination of clothes, stances, hair styles and accessories to assign a personality to each, even the girl on the extreme right, who looks hardly out of primary school. It's encouraging to see Evelyn looking beyond her home environment for her subjects, although maybe not very far.

Almost, if not exactly contemporary with Some Learned Scholars is this impenetrable photograph:

Hockey? Drama? Social history? A photograph from Evelyn's sixth form days at Rochester Grammar School for Girls. (Dunbar family archive)

Evelyn (4th from the left), who won her school hockey colours, has her eyes down for bullying off while being framed by two acolytes holding placards saying 'Georgian'. Why? Is this part of some pageant? I'm afraid we shall never know. Nor will we know, except by guesswork, whether any of the girls here also feature in Some Learned Scholars from VIa.

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

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Still-life: the complete œuvre (1920-1946)

Pansies and Violas 1946 (approx. 9½" x 13": 24 x 33cm) Photograph: Petra van der Wal © Liss Llewellyn Fine Art. Private collection.

Still-life was never really Evelyn's genre. To my knowledge there are only six in her entire canon, and I've reproduced them all here. The genre didn't appeal to her because for Evelyn life was never still, never unproductive: life had to move, to seethe, to regenerate, to be vital and compelling. In almost the totality of her work people are present, people moving, working, playing, fulfilling her calling to express creation, and mankind's relationship with it, in all its energy and power, actual and spiritual.

What Evelyn did produce in this form owes almost everything to her mother Florence, a doughty and indefatigable painter of still-lifes, almost always floral. Pansies and Violas, above, can perhaps be taken as Evelyn's tribute to her mother, who died in 1944. It's the first of Evelyn's post-war paintings, and the first to come from Vyners, the cottage in Long Compton, Warwickshire, where she and her husband Roger Folley set up their first married home. It's as though, having put her war painting behind her, the first item on her to-paint list was an in memoriam to the mother to whom she owed so much. I don't think she painted another still-life thereafter, unless the undated 'Bramley Apples in a Colander' is an exception.

'Bramley Apples in a Colander' nd (14 x 16in: 36 x 40cm) Photograph: Bert Janssen ©Christopher Campbell-Howes. Private collection.

I suggest - although I'm not convinced that it matters very much - that 'Bramley Apples in a Colander' may come later in Evelyn's career for no better reason that in the period 1938-47 apples appear quite often as a sub-theme in her work. They even stray into her war painting: A 1944 Pastoral: Land Girls Pruning at East Malling is all about apples, and a Bramley, similar in tone and texture, appears in a bowl of apples at the top of the painting. (It has to be said, however, that Bramleys, which used to be the preferred English cooking apple before being supplanted by European varieties, were very common indeed.)


It's likely that a study of a cineraria in a pot comes from Evelyn's late teenage years, when she shared a tower studio with Florence at The Cedars, the Dunbar family home in Strood, Rochester, Kent. 

'Cineraria with Letter' nd (20 x 14in: 51 x 36cm) Photograph: Bert Janssen ©Christopher Campbell-Howes. Private collection.

It's difficult to identify this particularly with Evelyn, or to distinguish it from Florence's work, other than by an un-Florentine sense of depth, some deft handling of shadow and by the inclusion of something extraneous, in this case a letter and envelope. However, the family provenance is immaculate, so no one needs doubt Evelyn's authorship.

The most surprising, indeed enigmatic, of Evelyn's still-lifes is perhaps the earliest. She's trying her hand at impasto, and certainly the roses below have a tactile quality, almost 3D feeling to them: 

 'Floribunda Roses' 1920 (18 x 16in: 45 x 40cm) Inscribed on verso 'Evelyn Mary Dunbar 1920 aged 14'. Photograph Michael Shaw ©Christopher Campbell-Howes. Private collection.

14! But there's just a little uneasy niggle: most floribunda roses flower in late spring and summer, so that if Evelyn is painting from the life and not from a copy, these roses must have been painted in the spring or summer of 1920, when she was 13; her 14th birthday wouldn't have fallen until December 18th, 1920. The inscription suggests that it may have been entered for an exhibition, perhaps one organised by the Rochester and West Kent Art Society, of which Florence was a member. Whether or not the inscription is strictly accurate, Floribunda Roses is an extraordinarily assured and competent piece of work and, like Cineraria with Letter above, maybe a rite of passage.

Pink Felt Hat nd Water colour on paper. Signed 'EMD' Photograph: Petra van der Wal ©Liss Llewellyn Fine Art. Private collection.

Pink Felt Hat was discovered among Evelyn's residual studio, one of the hundreds of artworks rediscovered in a Kentish oast house in 2013, having lain undisturbed since a few months after her death in 1960. I'm not aware of any context for it, nor whose hat it was to be immortalised like this, nor what fancy took Evelyn to stand it on top of a brass jug and back it with a bed-sheet. But I'm glad she did.

Finally, 'Kippers':

'Kippers' Oil on canvas nd (10 x 15in: 26 x 38cm) Photograph Bert Janssen ©Christopher Campbell-Howes. Private collection.

Nothing to say, except maybe to wish the viewer bon appetit. If you like kippers, that is.

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