Sunday, 1 September 2019

'Peeling Apples', c.1922

'Peeling Apples': Pen and wash, c.1922. Photograph: Anton Liss ©Modern British Art Gallery

Equal portions of chagrin and delight for the Evelyn Dunbar enthusiast: chagrin that such an interesting and revealing image should appear too late for inclusion in available biographies of Evelyn, and delight at the discovery of something new from her juvenilia, especially when it foreshadows, as this pen and wash drawing does, some of the important themes of her mature work.

In 1908, when Evelyn was rising two, the Dunbar family moved from Reading to Kent, renting a short succession of properties in lower Medway riverside villages before moving in 1913 into 244 High Street, Rochester. This was a three-storey weatherboarded house with street-level shop premises and a modest garden behind. From here Evelyn's Scottish father William (seen wearing his hat in the drawing above) carried on his drapery, bespoke tailoring and dressmaking business. Evelyn's mother Florence, seen here peeling apples taken from the cloth at her feet, was an enthusiastic amateur artist - hinted at by the easel behind her - specialising in floral still-lifes who gave her youngest daughter much encouragement.

When Evelyn was 11 she won a Kent County Council scholarship to Rochester Grammar School for Girls, which later counted her among its most celebrated alumnae and named buildings and facilities after her. Her art teacher was George Ward, a gifted teacher who was also closely connected with the Rochester (later Medway) School of Art. Ward's practical teaching can perhaps be seen in Evelyn's sectioning of her image with vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines in the approved manner, preparatory to making a larger image, maybe in a different medium.

Evelyn's scene, drawn when she was 14 or 15, is the only known interior of the Dunbars' house at 244 High Street, Rochester. (The house is still there, or was when I explored the area in 2014, on a raised pavement called The Banks, opposite Rochester station forecourt. No blue plaque, however.) We can assume that we're in the kitchen, and that the fire, or more probably the range, has been lit, partly to dry the washing hanging on the clothes horse on the left.

Following Evelyn's left-to-right travel, a constructional device very common in narrative painting probably deriving from the way we read, we see her self-image squatting on a low footstool with her hair wrapped in a towel; it's hair-wash time, and barely visible and loosely defined in the background are her older sisters Jessie and Marjorie washing each other's hair, although which is which is uncertain.

Evelyn's father is just to her left. An intriguing photograph of William Dunbar, possibly contemporary with Evelyn's drawing, shows him as a portly, tallish man of about 60. He has removed his hat for the camera and is holding it in his right hand. Someone, probably Florence, has written 'Lord de Dunbar and his charming daughters' on the back.

William Dunbar flanked by two of his daughters, c.1922: Evelyn (L) and Jessie (R). Dunbar family archive.

He appears via Evelyn's brush a few years later in a family group set in the garden of The Cedars, the house in Strood (the trans-Medway part of Rochester) which William bought in 1924.

  'The Dunbar Family in the Garden at The Cedars' Oil on paper, c.1928. Photograph ©Liss Llewellyn Fine Art. Private collection.

Evelyn has included the whole family in this quasi-Impressionist study. Central pride of place is given to William and Florence, with their sons Ronald and Alec in the left hand middle ground, balanced by Jessie and Evelyn knocking a badminton shuttlecock about in front of the summer-house and Marjorie, with a bunch of narcissi, playing with the cat in the right foreground. (The features are too indeterminate for positive identification, but as Marjorie was the most fashion-conscious of the sisters and as to my knowledge Evelyn never owned a striped blazer I have made the most appropriate assumption.) Florence is identified with the mulberry tree behind her, not yet in full leaf, as though the branches represent the expanding family of which she might in time become the grand progenetrix. (In fact all but Alec died childless.)

William, who kept hens whenever his circumstances allowed, is offering Florence a handful of eggs. Evelyn has thus shown him as a provider, a sort of enabling middleman between Nature and Humanity. It's not hard to equate the status she has given him with his stance in 'Peeling Apples' above, where he is pointing at the apples he has provided. In both his left hand occupies an almost exactly central position. Is this accidental or deliberate?

Two or three years before her death in 1960 Evelyn donated some of her early drawings to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. One of them, to which she gave the title Martha, Mary and Lazarus, is contemporary with 'Peeling Apples'.

Martha, Mary and Lazarus: Pen and wash, 1922. Image ©Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

This drawing relates to a story in St Luke's gospel, chapter 10, verses 38-42:

While they [the disciples] were on their way Jesus came to a village where a woman named Martha made him welcome in her home. She had a sister, Mary, who seated herself at the Lord's feet and stayed there listening to his words. Now Martha was distracted by her many tasks, so she came to him and said, 'Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to get on with the work by myself? Tell her to come and lend a hand.' But the Lord answered, 'Martha, Martha, you are fretting and fussing about about so many things; but one thing is necessary. The part that Mary has chosen is best; and it shall not be taken away from her.' (NEB)

Despite the title, Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, does not appear in this story. The man in the foreground is Jesus. Evelyn has turned the story into an early expression of the convictions she has assembled partly from Florence and partly from a subset of the Christian Science into which the whole family except William moved in the early years of the 20th century. We do not know what or who encouraged Evelyn to dress a Bible story in a contemporary setting, a powerful vector later particularly associated with Stanley Spencer.

Evelyn's thesis, which permeates her work, is based on the notion of the Garden of Eden. Her conviction was that Creation, symbolised in Genesis as the Garden of Eden and visible and evident everywhere about her, came with duties and obligations: as it was given to Adam 'to dress it and keep it' in the words of Genesis, so it was promised to mankind in return for our undertaking to look after it and cherish it with devotion, intelligence and hard work. (It's not hard to see what happens when mankind reneges on this undertaking.)

In Evelyn's pantheon a special place is reserved for devoted, intelligent and industrious people who look after creation, with or without a capital C: gardeners and farmers and agricultural workers in particular, with a favoured smile for the Women's Land Army during World War 2. Also included were artists in any medium who interpret and celebrate creation (we have already noted the easel behind Florence in 'Peeling Apples') and those whose academic work facilitates the maintaining of creation. In fact in 1942 she married Roger Folley, then an RAF officer but in peacetime a leading horticultural economist who occasionally wrote poetry in his spare time.  

In Martha, Mary and Lazarus we're in the garden at 244 High Street, Rochester, with William's apple trees on the right. Evelyn has equated Jesus, his spade laid aside, with the good husbandman of her convictions. He has taken his boots off - a standard practice in Islam, one which the Koran shares with the Old Testament - denoting that the place where he is and the context of his discourse is sacred. The starry-eyed Mary, a willing student, has laid aside her school books as irrelevant and is listening enraptured. (Mary was Evelyn's middle name.) The Martha figure in the middle ground, maybe peeling potatoes, is comparable to the figure of Florence in 'Peeling Apples', perhaps grumbling about household tasks that keep her from her easel. There may be a self-deprecatory comparison here between the reluctance of Mary to do anything useful about the house and Evelyn's position in the Dunbar household, although I doubt if she pulled divine exoneration when told to peel potatoes.

Evelyn's image of her father in the kitchen was clearly an abiding one. She kept it all her life. Whether she intended at one point, as the squaring up may suggest, to work the drawing up into something of greater consequence will probably never be known, but the basic concept and design reached its fullest fruition at the end of her life in possibly her greatest work, Autumn and the Poet (1960).

 Autumn and the Poet Oil on canvas 1960. Photograph ©The author. Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery.

Here a commanding and imposing figure offers the fruits of the earth on a cloth to the poet, identifiable as Roger Folley, the horticultural economist exponent of good husbandry both through his work and through his poetry. The teenage Evelyn's vision has stood her in excellent stead. 

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2019

Further reading...
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £30