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