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. £25

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