Monday, 16 March 2020

Evelyn Dunbar: Her husband Roger Folley as subject and symbol

 Roger Folley, the 'first portrait', 1945-46. Private collection. Forty years on, here is Roger holding his portrait for the camera of art specialist Jane England.

The husband as subject

Evelyn Dunbar became engaged to Roger Folley in February 1942. They married the following August. Evelyn had been employed since April 1940 as a war artist working for the Ministry of Information, Roger was serving with the Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve, with which he had signed up in 1938. Throughout the war years it had been Evelyn's intention to paint her husband's portrait, but as with many marriages in wartime their union was more marked by separation than by being together. 

The first known portrait of Roger is a touching and intimate study of him in the very early years of their association. In the late summer of 1940 he and Evelyn went for a few days under canvas to Kettlewell in Yorkshire, a favourite place of Roger's with its ready access to the great northern hills he loved. The summer of 1940, marked by the fall of France, the Battle of Britain and the daily threat of Nazi invasion, was marked with fear, uncertainty and impermanence, and I think there may be an element of capture of the man she loved as a sort of talisman for the future in Evelyn's mind. Maybe it has to be said that at the time Roger was in a fairly low-risk posting, looking after a barrage balloon unit on the Thames estuary, but he had applied for flying training. Anyway, here is Roger asleep, mostly naked but still wearing his RAF dog tag.

'Roger Folley asleep' 1940 Private collection
Four wartime years later, by which time Roger had transferred from the Voluntary Reserve become Flight Lieutenant Roger Folley RAF and was serving as a navigator with 488 (NZ) Squadron, she produced a more formal portrait of him in his flying kit, but still in pencil; oils would have to wait.

 'Flt. Lt. Roger Folley RAF in flying kit'. 1944. Private collection. Roger served with 488 (NZ) Squadron, a night-fighter unit mostly but not entirely staffed by New Zealand volunteers. Evelyn used the head of this drawing as their 1944 Christmas card.

Contemporary with this pencil portrait of Roger was another by a different hand, that of Sir William Rothenstein. By now long retired - he died in 1945 - he had been Principal of the Royal College of Art during Evelyn's studentship there in the early 1930s. He had long admired Evelyn's work, describing her once in 1936 as having 'real genius', he got on with her very well, remaining in touch with her until the end of his life. Her appointment as a war artist was to some extent due to him. In 1944 he drew Roger in crayon heightened with white:

Sir William Rothenstein Flt. Lt. Roger Folley 1944 Private collection. Inscribed 'To my dear Evelyn  William Rothenstein 4.3.44' How honoured Roger felt to have his portrait drawn by one of the great men of English art is not known, but it should maybe be remembered that the 74 year-old Rothenstein, by arrangement with the Air Ministry, made similar drawings of some 150 RAF officers. Many of these now hang in the RAF Museum at Hendon, North London. 

When the European war ended in May 1945 Evelyn's employment came to an abrupt end, although she continued working to complete some unfinished war paintings. Roger was demobilised in December 1945, but took advantage of some accrued leave to hand in his uniform some weeks earlier. In those weeks they moved at Roger's sister Joan's suggestion to their first married home together, a small cottage in the Warwickshire village of Long Compton. It was a big adventure for them both. Roger, then 33, had survived the war as a night-fighter navigator. Although unharmed physically, his wartime experiences had left other scars, among them a fear of flying. After the war he flew very seldom, first mastering his aversion in crossing the Atlantic and back with Evelyn by Boeing Stratocruiser on Ministry of Agriculture business in 1952.

Evelyn and Roger called their cottage Vyner's, after the earliest owner they could find on the title deeds. Roger wrote of their initial experiences at Vyner's: 'Evelyn had her first experience of housekeeping, but her painting was handicapped. The cottage had few rooms, low ceilings and low windows. Nevertheless she made her first portrait here...'

'Her first portrait', i.e. of Roger - a second followed a year or two later - was the one shown at the top of this post. I think Evelyn's portrait of her husband reflects the uncertainties and anxieties of those early post-war days. Roger looks at the worst  a little peevish, at the best thoughtful.

 The author with Roger Folley, aged 95, with his thumbstick 'Matey', a few weeks before his death. Evelyn's 'first' portrait is on the wall behind him, with Sir William Rothenstein's 1944 crayon portrait on the right.

* * *

The husband as symbol

 In 1937 Roger Folley graduated from Leeds University with two degrees, B.Sc. and B.Comm., the second awarded by special dispensation of the Senate. A man who as a young adult counted time spent indoors as time frittered away, Roger spent his vacations and his immediate postgraduate year working on a variety of farms. Any time left over from part-time farming was devoted to rock-climbing and fell-walking in the Pennines and especially in the Lake District. His farming experience plus his degrees qualified him amply for his chosen career as an agricultural economist. His first appointment was as Costings Officer at Sparsholt Farm Institute, near Winchester, where he subsequently met Evelyn, who had been posted there in 1940 to paint Women's Land Army recruits.

Apart from other mutually attractive elements, Evelyn found in Roger a man strongly committed to the land and the intelligent management of its productivity. Evelyn's Christian Science encompassed a covenant, frequently mentioned in the Old Testament, between the Creator and mankind, whereby the creator guaranteed the means of subsistence to mankind in return for mankind's undertaking to cherish the land with love, intelligence and industry. The Garden of Eden, given to Adam (which simply means 'man') 'to dress it and keep it' as the Old Testament book of Genesis expresses it, is a symbol of that covenant. Whatever we may think about that, for Evelyn the notion was something very powerful and indeed of great happiness for her, and it became the backdrop in one or another guise of almost all her work. It developed from her mother Florence through the medium of the garden of The Cedars, the Dunbar family house in Strood (the trans-Medway part of Rochester, Kent) and was then enormously magnified through the British wartime agricultural organisation.

A biblical personage who appealed strongly to Evelyn was Joseph,  perhaps best-known to non-Bible readers for his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat given him by his father Jacob. In 1938, when her personal life and career were at a low ebb, Evelyn started a trilogy on the life of Joseph, whom she saw as a man destined to greatness in the observance and implementation of the covenant. The trilogy started with Joseph's Dream:

Joseph's Dream 1938-42. Photo: Cambridgeshire County Council. Private collection

A full account of Joseph's Dream can be found here. The painting was unfinished when war broke out in 1939, and Evelyn laid it aside. When the immediate risk of invasion and the Blitz had receded to some extent, she took it up again with a view to showing it in the New English Art Club's 1943 exhibition.

By this time she had been married to Roger for over a year. On and off during this time she had been painting The Queue at the Fish Shop, in which Roger is shown in RAF uniform cycling down Strood High Street, and in which he is cast by extension of his service role as a guarantor of the availability of fish and thereby the sustenance of the people in the queue. Is the mantle of Joseph falling on his shoulders?

 The Queue at the Fish Shop 1942-45. Imperial War Museum, London

The Queue at the Fish Shop (detail)

After the war, when Roger and Evelyn had settled (temporarily, as it turned out) in Long Compton, she took up the Joseph trilogy again in Joseph in the Pit. The background, the pit into which Joseph's jealous brothers threw him to die, is strongly reminiscent of Gordale Scar, a dramatic gorge not very far from Kettlewell, the area first visited with Roger in the very early days of their relationship. There is something about the set of Joseph's eyes, nose and hair which is reminiscent of Roger:

 Joseph in the Pit 1947 Photograph: Petra van der Wal  © The author. Private collection.

Joseph in the Pit (detail)
What we might suspect was a gradual metamorphosis of Joseph into Roger becomes confirmed with the final painting of the trilogy, Joseph in Prison:

Joseph in Prison 1947-8. Private collection. Joseph, having been rescued from the pit by passing nomads, has been sold into slavery in Egypt. Bought by Potiphar, the captain of Pharoah's guard, he is accused falsely by Potiphar's wife of attempted rape, and thrown into jail. He becomes a trusty, and is here seen doling out breakfast to his fellow prisoners.

Joseph in Prison (detail). Because of his prowess in the interpretation of dreams, Joseph is released from prison and becomes Pharaoh's right-hand man, responsible for the measures enabling the Egyptian people to be fed in time of famine. He has become a powerful agent of the covenant.

By now the Joseph-Roger metamorphosis seems to be confirmed. At the time of painting Roger had become a demonstrator with Oxford University Agricultural Research Institute; he was shortly to become a lecturer in horticultural economy at Wye College, the agricultural campus of King's College, London, a post in which he rose to obscure but global eminence in the fields of cultivation of apples and tomatoes. He too has become a powerful agent of the covenant.

Another, non-Biblical, painting which had been gestating since Evelyn's post-war move was Autumn and the Poet, almost her last major painting and one in which she attempted to express a sort of testament.

Autumn and the Poet 1960 Photograph St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington © The author. Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery, Maidstone, Kent

The figure of Autumn, wrapped in a winding-sheet, offers the Poet the fruits of the earth, some of which will have come from the fields in the background, even now ploughed and ready for sowing for next year's and subsequent years' crops. In a kind of Annunciation she is telling the Poet to explain and interpret the covenant through his writing. The Poet is very clearly Roger: Joseph's mantle has fallen on his shoulders.

Autumn and the Poet (detail)

With thanks to Jane England for her help

(Text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2020. All rights reserved.)

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