Thursday, 15 November 2018

Joseph in Prison (1949-50)

Joseph in Prison 1949-50 Oil on canvas 46 x 36cm (18" x 14") Photograph reproduced by kind permission of Woolley and Wallis

 It's always a very special moment when a long-lost painting of Evelyn's appears out of the blue. The moment becomes more special when the painting in question is one of a set or group, and the event takes on a yet greater significance when the painting hasn't been seen publicly for the best part of 70 years.

Evelyn, a committed Christian Scientist, knew the Bible well, especially the Old Testament. Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, consists largely of narratives, some would say foundation legends, rich in truths if not in truth, of the origins of the Jewish people. Indeed, Joseph's father Jacob had the alternative name Israel, indicating fatherhood of his people.

Joseph had a particular appeal to Evelyn. Last-born but one, he was his father's favourite, to the annoyance of his many brothers. He's probably best known for his famous coat of many colours, a present from his father, a gift translated into popular 20th century musical idiom by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber as his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Joseph had a propensity for the interpretation of dreams. Two youthful dreams suggested his superiority over the rest of his family, something hardly likely to endear him to his siblings.

There were echoes of this to some extent in Evelyn's family situation. At certain times in her career she felt something of a cuckoo in the nest of a family of Kentish shopkeepers. (She refers to herself as such in her 1937/38 allegory April.) Kindly and welcoming people though her Dunbar siblings were, they sometimes found it difficult to come to terms with an artist sister who, despite several years of professional training, earned next to nothing, received very few commissions, lived at home and subsisted on handouts from her father's and her wealthy uncle Stead Cowling's estates. Her mother Florence, an amateur artist, defended her stoutly at home, and it may well be that Evelyn felt her own situation just as sharply as her siblings.

Evelyn later referred to 1938/9 as her crisis years. Towards the end of 1937 she separated from Charles Mahoney, her former Royal College of Art tutor and later colleague and lover. A miscarriage deepened her depression and her future as an artist looked very bleak indeed. It was at this time that the idea of a series of paintings illustrative of the career of Joseph came into her head.

Joseph's Dream 1938-43 Oil on canvas 46 x 76cm (18" x 30") Photograph: Cambridgeshire County Council. Private collection

The first of what eventually became a trilogy was Joseph's Dream, a diptych or two-panel painting showing the adolescent Joseph in some perplexity confronted by his twin dreams of his brothers and parents bowing in homage before him, firstly in the form of sheaves of corn and then as the sun, moon and stars. Joseph's Dream was unfinished at the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939, by which time Evelyn had all but forsaken painting and was working behind the counter in her sisters' shop on Rochester High Street.

Everything changed for her in 1940. Through the intercession of friends in the art world she was gazetted as an official war artist. Then, during an early posting to paint Land Girls at Sparsholt Farm Institute, near Winchester, she met Roger Folley, formerly an agricultural economist but then an RAF officer. They married two years later. With Roger's encouragement and - by his own account - help in modelling Joseph's figure but not his face, Evelyn completed Joseph's Dream in time for exhibition with the New English Art Club in 1943, where it attracted a favourable press reception but remained unsold.

After the war Evelyn and Roger settled down to their first taste of extended married life, firstly in Warwickshire and later in Oxfordshire when Roger obtained a post at Oxford University Agricultural Research Institute. So began the most productive and inventive period of Evelyn's career. Away from her family (Florence had died in 1944) the tensions that underlay Joseph's Dream disappeared, giving place to wider and maybe nobler visions of reconciliation, among them the conviction, given the biblical Joseph's later history, that one day she would be worthy of them.

In the Genesis story, Joseph's brothers had been extraordinarily hostile to him and would have murdered him if Reuben, the eldest brother, had not intervened. He proposed instead that they should rob Joseph of his many-coloured coat, smear it with goat's blood to suggest to their father Jacob that he had been killed by a wild beast, and then push him into a deep pit, where he would certainly die. I hasten to add that this is not in any way to imply, of course, that the Dunbar siblings harboured murderous designs on their youngest sister.

Where did the image of Joseph's pit come from? One of the more unexpected of Evelyn's pastimes was rock-climbing, something she learnt from Roger, himself an experienced cragsman and fell-walker. One of their many rucksack-and-climbing-boot expeditions took them to Gordale Scar, a deep and forbidding ravine near Malham in North Yorkshire. The immediate visionary trigger that fused Joseph's pit with Gordale Scar isn't known, but the result was Joseph in the Pit, painted in 1947.

 Joseph in the Pit 1947 Oil on canvas 46 x 26cm (18" x 10") Photograph Petra van der Wal ©Christopher Campbell-Howes Private collection

Back to Genesis: in fact Joseph survived. Some of his brothers hauled him out and sold him to a band of passing nomads, who took him to Egypt, where they sold him as a slave. He was bought by Pharaoh's captain of the guard, a man called Potiphar. Attracted by Joseph's manly bearing, Potiphar's wife attempted to seduce him. When Joseph refused her advances, her lust turned to anger. She accused him of attempted rape and Joseph was thrown into prison.

So the third of Evelyn's Joseph trilogy is Joseph in Prison. Joseph has proved himself an able and trustworthy man to the prison governor, who gives him certain responsibilities. Among them is care of his fellow-prisoners, who include two of Pharaoh's close servants, his chief butler and chief baker. We aren't told why they were in prison, simply that Pharaoh was 'wroth' against them.

(Image as above, reproduced for ease of reference)

Sharing the same cell, each had a disturbing dream. The Genesis account goes on (Chapter 40, verse 6) 'And Joseph came into them in the morning, and looked upon them, and, behold, they were sad'. Here we are plunged into the actuality of Evelyn's Joseph in Prison. Joseph, the central figure in red, has opened the cell from the outside - evidence of his trustworthiness - to give breakfast of sheep's milk or something similar to the two inmates. Through the window dawn is breaking. Joseph, seen from above and in quarter profile, has a strong resemblance to Roger Folley. What is happening?

Later they recount their dreams. Joseph interprets them: for the butler it means release and a return to his former royal duties, but for the baker it means death. And so it turns out. Eventually Joseph's dream-prowess reaches Pharaoh's ears: he too has had a dream, which Joseph interprets as meaning that seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of bad harvests and famine. And so it comes to pass. Joseph becomes Pharoah's right hand man, in charge of agricultural management and the storage of corn in years of plenty and of its distribution in time of famine. The predicted famine is universal. The now aged Jacob and his sons come from their land of Canaan to find corn. They apply to Joseph: they do not recognise him in his Pharaonic grandeur, even less - perhaps hardly surprisingly - from his new name, Zaphnath-Paaneah, supposedly meaning 'the god speaks: man lives'. (He is known as Aziz in the Koranic version of this story.) But Joseph recognises them, and after some vetting he allows them corn in plenty. He has become the provider for his people, reconciliation is complete, and maybe Evelyn has proved herself worthy of her family.

A strong and constant thread running through Evelyn's work is the contract, or covenant, or promise, that the Creator will provide the means for mankind to survive and flourish in exchange for mankind's undertaking to look after creation with intelligence, industry and love. The notion is most simply expressed in the early Genesis creation legend of the Garden of Eden, given to Adam and Eve 'to dress it and keep it'. When Evelyn was painting Joseph in Prison, Roger - in any case a keen gardener - was working at the Oxford University Agricultural Research Institute. In 1950 he was appointed to the Economics Department of Imperial College, London, at its agricultural campus in Wye, Kent, where he became a leading horticultural economist with a worldwide reputation in certain areas. It would be over-fanciful to equate the biblical Joseph with Roger, but it is true that in other images (e.g. Autumn and the Poet)  Evelyn vested him with the mantle of one who, through his intellectual work, kept his side of the Creator's bargain and its promise of provision. An extraordinary tribute.

Joseph in Prison was exhibited in Oxford in 1949 or 1950, where it was sold to Lionel Herbert, a prominent Oxford solicitor. Lionel Herbert lent it back to Evelyn for her solo exhibition at Wye in 1953, since when it has not been seen in public. For me it is privilege to be in a position to show for the first time since 1953 all three paintings in Evelyn's Joseph trilogy.

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2018

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


Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Senior Sister, Princess Mary's RAF Nursing Service 1944

   Senior Sister, Princess Mary's RAF Nursing Service 1944 Photo ©Christopher Campbell-Howes

Gazetted by the War Artists' Advisory Committee (WAAC) as an official war artist in 1940, Evelyn was first assigned to record the activities of the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS). She had hardly started on this when she was re-assigned at short notice to the Women's Land Army, and her images in this field are among her best known war paintings. In 1941 she was asked to portray hospital services in their wartime guise, and in due course a quartet of nursing paintings made their way to the WAAC. On completion she returned to the Womens' Land Army. 

At the end of 1942 Evelyn had an interview with Sir Kenneth Clark, chairman of the WAAC, who asked her to extend her coverage of the wartime activities of  women's organisations to include two women's branches of the armed services, the army (ATS) and the Royal Air Force (WAAF). The Royal Navy had made its own arrangements. Evelyn felt this was foreign territory to her. She baulked and procrastinated and it wasn't until July 1944, after a patient reminder from E.C.Gregory, the WAAC secretary, that she finally opened her WAAF portfolio, probably after discussion with her husband Roger Folley, then a serving RAF officer. Gregory had suggested that to speed her production up she might try water-colour instead of her usual oils.

The RAF station to which Evelyn was assigned for her WAAF portfolio was RAF South Cerney, in Gloucestershire, which she knew already through Roger's posting there some two years before. She took lodgings a few miles away in Malmesbury for the weeks she spent observing what everyone called 'Waffs' at work and occasionally at leisure. Nothing very much came from her time at RAF South Cerney. The WAAFs were quite unlike the Land Girls Evelyn had come to know and admire. Their occupations were very different, and mostly took place indoors. Interiors rarely inspired her. She found WAAFs neither easy nor rewarding to record in paint. The entire Women's Auxiliary Air Force, a non-combatant back-up echelon to male-dominated aircrew and ground crew units, expressed its ethos in uniforms, drill, parades and the usual military hierarchy of commissioned and non-commissioned officers, all adopted from their male counterparts. All this was new to her. She was not allowed into the more sensitive Operations buildings, where WAAF telegraphists, cryptographers, clerks, messengers, radar operators, air traffic controllers and administrative officers might be found at work. Further senses of distance came from the WAAFs having no occupational involvement with the soil, whereas through her convictions about the synergy between mankind and nature Evelyn could identify with the Women's Land Army very readily. WAAFs had no existence outside the context of the RAF, in which they were totally subservient to their male counterparts, whereas the Land Girls had forged a sturdy independence for themselves, to an unknown extent through Evelyn's and her female colleagues' championing of them, and in doing so had raised large question marks about the role and status of women in both wartime and in post-war society. She may well have been apprehensive of her role, wondering uneasily what Sir Kenneth Clark and the WAAC expected of her. In the event she managed to produce a modest group of paintings to fulfil her commission.

It wasn't a very happy time for her. In later letters to Gregory she wrote 'I must own that the aesthetic mood didn't flourish very vigorously on the Raf station I was at' and '...they wouldn't let me stay on and complete the job at Cerney'. For lack of much else, half her Services portfolio is made up of portraits, some of which were never submitted. One of these was Senior Sister, Princess Mary's RAF Nursing Service, a rare water-colour in which Evelyn has maybe borne Gregory's recommendation in mind. We don't know who she is - maybe a reader does? - and it may be at RAF South Cerney that Evelyn was forbidden to name her subjects. All that we know is that she's wearing a white ward dress underneath an RAF blue tippet decorated at the points with the Rod of Aesculapius, the classical healing wand emblem of medical services, and shoulder boards showing her rank and status. There's an air of calm, confidence and competence about her, so consoling to sick or wounded RAF personnel, or indeed to anyone in need of nursing.

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2018

Would you like to read more?
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25

Monday, 19 March 2018

Sacking Potatoes, c.1949

Sacking Potatoes c.1949 Oil on canvas Private collection

Now, what's this? At the outset I ought perhaps to put up a conjecture alert. Not much of what follows can be proved, and I may be entirely wrong. The main ingredient in my scenario is more-or-less intelligent guesswork. I hope that at the very least it's logical.

Sitting and staring at Sacking Potatoes, a necessary process for any picture for any art commentator, doesn't reveal all that much. It's in the same vein as several of Evelyn's agricultural war paintings, and might be mistaken as such: groups of women in pairs (I can't identify any men) are trailing sacks between them, traversing a field in line abreast picking up potatoes previously unearthed by a tractor and potato spinner. The women are not Land Girls, or they would be wearing some sort of Women's Land Army uniform. They presumably belong to a field labour group hired for the occasion by the farmer. It's hard to determine any logical progression; the middle group appears to be covering the same ground as the more distant group. I'm led to think that whatever the purpose of Evelyn's design, it wasn't necessarily to record a maybe not-very-interesting potato harvesting scene. She had something else in mind. 

Enter Glynn Burton, a former Leeds University fellow-student of Roger Folley, Evelyn's husband, who became a lifelong friend. As it happens, we've met him before, not as an agricultural scientist but as a rock-climbing mouse. Glynn Burton had found his post-war feet working as a researcher and advisor at East Malling Research Station, near Maidstone. In 1948 he completed a book called The Potato: A Survey of its History and of Factors Influencing its Yield, Nutritive Value and Storage. It became the standard work on potato cultivation and is still in print today. He asked Evelyn if she would design the cover. She agreed readily, but I wonder if Burton's request was made before or after he had composed the title. In the event The Potato etc. appeared with an unexciting and quite un-Evelynish drawing of a potato on the cover.

We move forward 11 or 12 years. Evelyn died in May 1960. Within two years the house she and Roger had lived in was sold and her entire residual studio of some 800 pieces of artwork was boxed and bundled up and consigned to Evelyn's family. Or almost her entire residual studio: Roger kept back a small quantity of her work, paintings and drawings of which he was fond or which had a particular meaning or importance to him or those about him. Among them was Sacking Potatoes. He kept it until about 1985, when he gave it to an art specialist with a deep interest in Evelyn's work. Why did he keep it? What special meaning did it have for him?

I think Sacking Potatoes was Evelyn's design for Glynn Burton's book. I once printed out the image above and folded it with four proportionate vertical folds so as to make a book cover of it, one fold for the front flap, two for the spine, one for the back flap. It worked almost perfectly. Evelyn's wrap-around design allowed for a central spine and back and front fold-in flaps, with blank space for the publisher's blurb inside the back flap. But...oh dear, that title: 'The Potato' would have worked brilliantly, arranged between the upper and central groups of sack-women, with the author's name below. But not Burton's full 17-word title. Did the publisher cavil at the expense, indeed the impossibility, of threading the title and author's name among Evelyn's deliberately arranged teams of women? Was the project abandoned, living on only as a modest canvas in Evelyn's store and in Roger's memory as a regretted might-have-been? The questions remain unanswered and we shall never know, merely acknowledging the possibility.

Grateful thanks to England & Co. for their help with this commentary.

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2018

Would you like to read more?
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25