Liss Llewellyn Fine Art - 20th Century British Art

Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960)   BIOGRAPHY

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September, preparatory drawing for Gardener’s Diary 1938, 1937 [HMO 232]
Mounted (ref: 6713)
Pencil and pen & ink on paper
10 x 8 in. (25.3 x 20.3 cm)

 


Provenance: Roger Folley; Alasdair Dunbar; Hammer Mill Oast Collection


Exhibited: Evelyn Dunbar - The Lost Works, Pallant House Gallery, October 2015 - February 2016, cat 66.

Literature: Evelyn Dunbar - The Lost Works, Sacha Llewellyn & Paul Liss, July 2015, cat. 66, page 107.


Gardener’s Diary 1938 & Related Paintings
"Noel Carrington, Dunbar’s Hampstead landlord, was keen to promote the work of those artists he admired. In 1937 as editor at Country Life Ltd. – a separate publishing entity from the eponymous magazine – he commissioned Ravilious to illustrate The Country Life Cookery Book and Edward Bawden The Gardener’s Diary. These were followed in 1938 by High Street, again illustrated by Ravilious, with text by J.M. Richards, and a further Gardener’s Diary illustrated by Evelyn Dunbar. Although the two diaries are similar in format they are very different in content – the 1937 one has a running frieze of flowers and plants along the top of each weekly double page, balanced at the bottom by quotes from William Cobbett’s English Gardener of 1827: within each week the Diary provided upright columns for daily entries and notes, while a considerable space was allowed for comments on the weather. 
Bawden’s end-papers depicted a cut rose in a vase with his own half-drawn sketch pinned neatly to the drawing board beside it.
For 1938 the brief must have changed quite radically, perhaps in response to comments
received on the previous year’s production, as the emphasis changed from the
depiction of individual plants to the physical attributes of gardeners and gardening,
with quotes ranging from the Book of Job to authors as varied as Charles Lamb and
Thomas Hardy. The decision to depict the months through the personification of their
attributes was probably a joint decision between Dunbar and Carrington, but chimes
with the otherworldly quality she had exploited so successfully at Brockley in her mural
The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk. Bawden’s running frieze of plants and flowers at
the top of each page was replaced by discreet depictions of fruits and seeds in the top
right-hand corner while Dunbar’s tailpieces consisted of simple outline depictions of
gardeners – male and female. There were only a dozen vignettes of these toiling figures and the delightful sheet of studies (CAT 60) shows several of them in embryonic form, most particularly the rear view of one of the Dunbar’s gardeners bent double with rake or hoe in hand.
This figure makes five appearances in all, being repeated as the tailpiece 
to various weeks in January, March, April, May and December. Apart from the figure
of a weary gardener carrying two full watering cans, who appears just twice – in June
and July – there is little correlation between the seasons and the activity depicted;
Dunbar took the opportunity through a studied awkwardness to emphasise the fact that
physical labour is the gardener’s lot throughout the year.
A lighter mood is reflected in her depictions of the months each of which takes human form: female in the gentler months – February (CAT 65) with crocus flowers and daffodil shoots in her hat, and April (CAT 69) jauntily wearing a bird’s-nest hat and carrying attributes of topiary and a garden frame.
August is definitely a male month with its abundance of cabbages and 
onions, as is November, the season for bonfires and general clearance. The figure of April – expressive of lightheartedness – became almost a leitmotif in her work recurring
in odd drawings and doodles, as well as in one of her most beautiful oil paintings.
Dunbar was not one to waste a good idea or design. These personifications of the
months also recur as the principal motifs in An English Calendar (CAT 71), the large
(6 foot square) decoration she painted the same year and later presented to Wye
College (on the closure of Wye in 2005 it passed into the collection of its parent body
Imperial College). Personation of the Seasons and the Virtues is deeply rooted in our
psyche from the Green Man of northern climes to classical sculptures of ancient Greece
and Rome. Dunbar delighted in personifying abstract conceptions returning to this
device in The Days of the Week (CAT 72) and in her projected Faith, Hope and Charity
(CAT 109) as well as transforming April into the heavily muffled figure in her wartime
painting Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing (FIG 4)."
Peyton Skipwith



Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960)

The importance of Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960) in the history of British 20th century art is continually being reassessed and belatedly recognised. A gifted draughtswoman: youthful prodigy; brilliant student at the Royal College of Art under Sir William Rothenstein and a galaxy of teaching staff including Allan Gwynne-Jones, Alan Sorrell and Charles Mahoney; principal muralist at Brockley School; book illustrator; devout Christian Scientist; official World War 2 artist, the only woman artist to be salaried throughout the war; post-war allegorist and much-loved teacher; subtly insistent feminist; devoted plantswoman, gardener and inspired advocate of 'green' values; warm and witty but self-effacing personality with many accomplishments including, unexpectedly, rock-climbing and playing the banjo; but above all a very individual artist of spirited imagination and consummate technique, whose work, which hangs in all major UK galleries and several overseas, defies ready classification.

Born in Reading, Berkshire, into a merchant family, Evelyn Dunbar moved in childhood to Kent, where she lived for most of her life. A close post-RCA relationship with Charles Mahoney, with whom she shared the painting of the Brockley Murals, also led to the jointly written and illustrated Gardeners' Choice (1937). Her Christian Scientist background helped her to develop firm ideas about the interaction of mankind and nature. Initially limited to the context of the family garden in Rochester, Kent, her ideas found a wider field of expression when, having been appointed Official War Artist in 1940, Evelyn Dunbar quickly became particularly associated with the Women's Land Army. Her remit to record women's home front activities also allowed her to promote a gentle and unaggressive feminism.

Evelyn Dunbar's relationship with Mahoney ended in 1937. In 1940 she met and married Roger Folley, then an RAF officer but later to become a leading horticultural economist. Their common interests and convictions encouraged Dunbar, after the war, to concentrate on a series of allegorical paintings and drawings which reflected her beliefs, and also her debt to Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaëlites, whose ideas about the function of art and the place of narrative in painting she acknowledged as strongly influential.

Evelyn Dunbar divided her postwar years between allegories, teaching as a Visitor at the Ruskin School, exhibiting - as she had done before the war - in a rather dilatory and self-effacing way, and, towards the end of her life, recording her beloved Kent in landscapes again expressive of the synergy between man and nature. Evelyn Dunbar died suddenly at the age of 53, leaving behind a studio collection of some 800 works, major and minor, which only came to light in 2013 and for the public presentation of which Liss Llewellyn Fine Art has been responsible. Among them was a wealth of paintings and drawings bespeaking, as does her entire œuvre, a warm and cheerful personality working in the best humanist tradition of English art, and a modest and imaginative woman of deep convictions, richly gifted in her means and techniques of expressing them.

We are grateful to Christopher Campbell Howes for his assistance.

See all works by Evelyn Dunbar