Rediscovered artworks remind us of the playful creativity of Evelyn Dunbar

By Richard Moss | 02 November 2015

Pallant House Gallery curator Katy Norris on the lost works and creativity of Eileen Dunbar

A detail from Evelyn Dunbar's Calendar
Evelyn Dunbar, An English Calendar, 1938, oil on canvas, Archives Imperial College London© The Artist's Estate / Christopher Campbell-Howes
Evelyn Dunbar’s famous paintings of the Woman’s Land Army may be some of the most recognisable of World War Two but when Ro Dunbar saw one of her relative’s forgotten paintings pop up on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, it reminded her of a haul of artwork that had lain unseen in her attic since the artist’s untimely death in 1960.

The carefully wrapped stash of more than 500 sketches, prints, paintings and preliminary drawings at the top of Ro's Kent oast house effectively doubled the number of known Dunbar artworks overnight.

Highlights from this trove are currently on display at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, where Dunbar is being presented not just as the woman who painted the woman’s war on the home front in World War Two, but as one of the most significant British figurative artists of the 20th century.

Dunbar's track record during the 1940s is already impressive. She was the only women to work full time and salaried for the War Artists' Advisory Committee and her depictions of the home front are now an integral part of our understanding of that part of the conflict.

a painting of men and women in a field collecting hay and corn
Evelyn Dunbar, Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook, 1940, oil on canvas, private collection© The Artist's Estate / Christopher Campbell-Howes
But the Sussex gallery has amassed some compelling evidence of the artist's wider interests and skills via sketches, oils, cartoons, shop signs, book prints and embroideries, as well as a selection of some of the better known war works.

And for exhibition curator Katy Norris, it's the newly discovered works that show Dunbar’s “unique imaginative power" and "incredible creativity”.

“Something I have been interested in is the way the discovery of this ‘lost studio’ has revealed her really tender family portraits,” she says. “You can see how the early ideas that later took root during the war began with the people in her family and in the garden of her home in Strood in Kent.

“The portraits don’t come consistently - they kind of slip out of her, but fascinatingly you can see how they fed into the characters she later created, and you can build an understanding of her processes from them.”

a painting of woman reclining in a rocking chair
Evelyn Dunbar, Portrait of the artist's mother, Florence, 1930, oil on canvas© The Artist's Estate, courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art
These processes can be seen to captivating effect in the giant pre-war painting, An English Calendar (1938), for which Dunbar created a series of mercurial personifications for each month of the year – many of them based on her brothers and sisters. She even roped in the family gardener.

“You get a real sense of how much enjoyment she got from them and in creating a world for herself,” says Norris. “They are really mysterious little characters. She was really playful in what she did.”

The early paintings also offer intriguing clues to Dunbar’s ongoing fascination with nature and people in the landscape. Land Workers at Strood (1938) could be taken for one of her wartime paintings. But as Norris says, the idea of people working the land, cultivating the landscape and humans making an intervention in the garden of England in Kent "has its roots in her childhood, and actually took root before the war".

a painting of a filed with people working in it
Evelyn Dunbar, Land Workers at Strood, 1938, Oil on canvas© The Artist's Estate, courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art
“It was a natural thing that she would find her place painting the home front and in particular the work of the Land Girls. I think there is a very clear theme running throughout her interests and it’s quite interesting to see how close these studies are to many of the wartime paintings in the Imperial War Museum.”

Interestingly, Dunbar was initially given a series of commissions by the WAAC relating to the Women's Voluntary Service, nursing subjects and the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Many of these works now reside at the IWM in London together with the Land Army paintings but regardless of subject the recurring theme is one of women adapting to unfamiliar work and tasks.

But what really sets them apart is their sense of playful piety. As a Christian Scientist, Dunbar imbued her paintings with a kind of spiritual element that at times recalls the Stanley Spencer Bucleigh Memorial paintings, which were displayed at Pallant last year.

a painting of a figure in cloak holding a plant and a cold frame
Evelyn Dunbar, April, 1937, Oil on canvas, Evelyn Dunbar, April, 1937, Oil on canvas© The Artist's Estate, courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art
“I think her work is definitely Spencer-ish, especially the incidental details; you really get to know these characters,” says Norris. “The ideas of fantasy and of placing sacred elements within the everyday are also never far away. I’m struck by how clever she is as an artist - in a similar way to Stanley Spencer in terms of the form and the rhythm she creates.”

It's a quality beautifully illustrated in the graceful study of land girls, Singling Turnips (1943), which Norris describes as “zig-zagging effortlessly back to the deep horizon” and being “full of the modernist language that people like Spencer were working with".

“It’s really sophisticated,” she adds. “You can enjoy her on lots of different levels”.

Dunbar made her first studies of the Women’s Land Army during the summer of 1940 at their Sparsholt Farm Institute training centre near Winchester before returning to the subject via a series of WAAC commissions as the war progressed.

a painting of three women on stools practicing with false udders
Evelyn Dunbar, Milking Practice with Artificial Udders, 1940, oil on canvas© The Artist's Estate, courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art
At Sparsholt she met her future husband, the RAF pilot and pre-war agriculturalist Roger Folley, who worked with her on the introductory primer for the Women’s Land Army, A Book of Farmcraft (1942). The drawings for the pamphlet informed many of her later paintings, such as Milking Practice with Artificial Udders (1940).

“She was successful in capturing the poetry of the moment,” says Norris. “But she was also very successful at showing the practicalities of what they had to go through as well. It’s very good war art.”

Although never really part of any artistic movement, like many of her peers, including Eric Ravilious and Kenneth Rowntree, Dunbar was a prolific and whimsically crisp illustrator for publications like Gardener’s Choice. She was also a muralist who painted murals for Brockley School in Kent.

“It’s really interesting to see her working across different disciplines which I think is a very female characteristic,” adds Norris. “It was quite a natural thing for her to create in different mediums.”

a print of people working in a garden with cold frames
Evelyn Dunbar, Vignette for title page of Gardener's Choice, 1937, Pencil and pen & ink on paper© The Artist's Estate, courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art
The shop sign Dunbar created for her sister’s Children’s Shop on Rochester High Street, where she also worked, hangs above her sketches of children’s nursery rhymes. There also fabric designs, wall paintings and studies for her murals.

The Rochester Children’s Shop also provided a modest upstairs space which she called the Blue Gallery and where she organised exhibitions featuring people like Ravilious and Rowntree. It was here that former tutor William Rothenstein came by and suggested that she apply to become a War Artist, the role which continues to define her. 

“People who knew her stood behind her and regarded her work very highly,” says Norris. “But the war art came at a time in her career when she needed a new thing. Today the art she created during the war has become a valuable contribution to our understanding of that time and it really does give a sensitive insight into women’s experience.”

But there is more to Dunbar than the woman's war. In later works, such as her last painting, Jacob's Ladder, there are some surprisingly visionary and abstract elements. It would have been, as Norris points out, "interesting to think where she might have gone with her art" had she not died suddenly of a heart attack in the woods near her house aged just 53.

an allegorical pastoral painting of a female figure with fruits on the trail of her white robes looking towards a prone man sitting on the ground
Evelyn Dunbar, Autumn and the Poet, 1948-60, Oil on canvas, Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery © The Artist's Estate / Christopher Campbell-Howes
As to the painting which kickstarted the rediscovery of the real Evelyn Dunbar, it seems heavily-laden and almost Victorian in its sense of allegory. It is, in the words of Norris, “perhaps not such a successful painting”.

But we have it to thank for unlocking the mysteries of one of the British mid-century’s most gifted painters.

Evelyn Dunbar: The Lost Works is at Pallant House Gallery until February 14 2016.

A painting of a figure with a large hat leaning over a glass box
Evelyn Dunbar, February, 1937-38, Oil on canvas, © The Artist's Estate, courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art
a painted portrait of a woman in a beret
Evelyn Dunbar, Self-portrait, 1930, Pencil and watercolour on paper© The Artist's Estate, courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art
a print of hands performing gardening tasks
Evelyn Dunbar, Study for the frontispiece of Gardener's Diary, 1937, Pencil and pen & ink on paper© The Artist's Estate, courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art

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