Evelyn Dunbar

I thought I would dedicate this weeks entry to a very talented lady, Evelyn Dunbar who was born in 1906 - a true artist and all-round heroine. I believe she is one of the most important artists of WW2, and who still holds a unique position in twentieth century British art.

She was described by Sir William Rothenstein, principal of the Royal College of Art, as having ‘real genius’ and was the only salaried woman war artist in the Second World War.

Evelyn photographed April 1941 in the Lake District

She is especially known for her unsentimental paintings of the Women’s Land Army and of domestic life during the war, such as people queuing for fish and chips and rations. However, she was also an accomplished muralist and illustrator, as well as an inspiring teacher at The Ruskin School of Drawing and of Fine Art, Oxford. While she was still an RCA student she collaborated on murals at Brockley Boys School in Kent:

Brockley Murals, Prendergast-Hilly Fields College (Formerly Brockley School) 1933-36

An enthusiastic gardener, she collaborated with her mural tutor Charles Mahoney to write and illustrate Gardeners’ Choice,  As Elizabeth Bulkeley (Charles Mahoney's daughter) notes in her biographical essay, “They presented the plants that they liked to draw, paint and grow. The were sculptural and bold, yet subtle, and unusual for their time. Each was described lovingly, as if in sharing their favourite plants they were sharing their mutual happiness."

The inspiration for much of Dunbar’s early work lay in her devotion to nature and the natural world, and in particular the garden. She held a deeply rooted affection for the Kentish landscape and, like Charles Mahoney, had a passionate interest in plants and flowers and knew them in all their moods, and various stages of development. This empathy and understanding is embodied in her work and demonstrates what interested and preoccupied her for most of her life.

The outbreak of WW2 in 1939 closed Evelyns newly opened gallery, so she wrote to the War Advisory Committee (WAC) which had been set up to keep artists from being killed fighting and to keep culture and art thriving through the war, to be selected for a role as a war artist. The appointment of Dunbar, as a war artist by was announced in The Times on 25 April 1940 and she was the only salaried woman artist of the painters and sculptors employed.

Dunbar went to Sparsholt Farm Institute near Winchester for the first time in June 1940 to record the training of recruits to the recently reformed Women’s Land Army (WLA). She also travelled to Usk, Berwick and East Malling to complete WLA paintings. It was at Sparsholt that she met Michael Greenhill, one of the instructors, with whom she collaborated on A Book of Farmcraft.
 ‘A 1944 Pastoral: Land Girls Pruning at East Malling’ by Evelyn Dunbar

 A Land Girl and the Bail Bull (1945)

 Singling Turnips, 1942

These vivid, stirring paintings provide an important documentary record of women's work and contribution to the war effort. Like many other war artists she tended to fall out of sight of the mainstream,modernist art world, instead following the cessation of hostilities. It was important to show the enemy that Britain was thriving, and so these paintings became part of a touring exhibition. These works have become important documents of the change in society at the time, despite it being terribly hard work, these women found a very liberated existance, they could have independance after all! Many found it difficult to return to the "domestic" housewife role after the war, after all, they'd helped kept this country running for years, why go back to constant cooking and cleaning?

Dunbar’s most extensive body of work portrays other vital aspects of the war effort that she recorded included nursing subjects, and the Home Front. She wrote to the WAAC to inform them that she was:
Now able to embark on the great work. I am being slow on this commission, as the subjects were so completely unfamiliar to me, and it has taken me some time to feel at home in them"

 Convalescent nurses making camouflage nets, 1944

 A Knitting Party, 1940

One of her most recognised works of the Home Front was "The Knitting Party" - a collection of women determined on sending home comforts to the men at the front. Activities such as this were a moral booster as well as a chance for the women to socialise and reclaim some normality - you can almost feel like you're there with them when looking at this painting, stunning light through that back window! The setting is the Dunbar family drawing room in Rochester

 The Queue at the Fish Shop, 1945

Evelyn recorded important shifts in society in a very honest and (I believe) typicaly 'British' fashion. Her colour choices are always perfect, the moody blues and greys of domestic life contrasted to the bright natural greens and yellows of the open fields where Land Girls found their freedom. I also think they are now nostalgic in the best possible way, they show what we should be proud of from that time. Her style was utterly unique - lyrical but true, using very brave perspectives which stem from her love of classical murals, but also, her love of people and in general, life. She was unafraid to show the everyday mundane moments which lay untouched by the more famous Male commissioned artists.

Evelyn sadly died at only 53 years old whilst walking with her husband near her home in Kent. She is a fine example to all those who have a passion for art, nature and finding beauty even in the most trying times. She worked extremely hard and didn't let day-to-day circumstances faze her, always remembered the importance of being passionate to learn. She should be considered a National Treasure of that time forever. The Imperial War Museum holds a collection of her work if you want to see more, or the fantastic book "War And Country" by Gill Clarke is a uncompromised study of Evelyns life.

I hope you have enjoyed reading! Many thanks to http://paintdropskeepfalling.wordpress.com for providing some fantastic images from the "War and Country" book.



James Russell said...

Fascinating post - thank you - a great treat to see so many of Dunbar's paintings!

Unknown said...

Thank you James! I was really pleased to find your wonderful blog, i spent a long time enjoying your past posts with all my favourite artists, what could be better?


LandGirl1980 said...

I adore Dunbar's work. Thank you so much for sharing.

Christopher said...

Thank you so much for such an interesting and enthusiastic post. I'm sorry to have left it so long in discovering it! The top photograph was taken in April 1941 in the Lake District. You can see the Langdale Pikes over Evelyn's right shoulder. She had gone on a climbing expedition with her husband-to-be Roger Folley and two other friends, Glyn and Mariella Burton.

Elizabeth Bulkely is Charles Mahoney's daughter.

'A Land Girl and the Bail Bull' seems to be missing - were you perhaps asked to remove it by the Tate?

The painting you have labelled 'Land Girls 1941' is in fact entitled (I hope you will enjoy knowing!) 'Singling Turnips'. It dates from 1942 and is probably placed in Wiltshire.

'A Knitting Party' does indeed date from 1940. The hatless woman surreptitiously looking at her watch, possibly wondering when all these women will leave, is Florence, Evelyn's mother. The setting is the Dunbar family drawing room in Rochester. The room was actually much smaller. I watched Queen Elizabeth's 1953 coronation in that room.

'The Queue at the Fish Shop' wasn't finished until 1945. The RAF officer cycling in from the left is Evelyn's husband Roger Folley. The woman crossing the road is her sister Jessie, who also modelled for The Land Girl and the Bail Bull.

She was actually 53 when she died. She would have been 54 the following December.

If you want to know more about her, there's a recent Wikipedia article and a lot more previously unknown paintings at http://evelyndunbar.tumblr.com

Thank you for a fascinating post. Evelyn certainly deserves to be better known.

Unknown said...

Christopher - Thank you VERY much for your knowledge on this subject! When i wrote this post, i was relying on internet sources beacause my copy of Evelyns book hadn't arrived yet, since receiving it i've been meaning to re-visit and research the post again, as you can't always rely on the internet (this obviously proves this theory true!) So MANY thanks for your suggestions, i've added them all!

Evelyn is an absolute inspiration, hero, icon. She deserves to be known as one of the most brilliant British war artists.


Anonymous said...

Evelyn Dunbar (childless) fostered two Kent boys in Kent (KCC) care from the mid 1950's up to her sudden death in 1960. There is bound to be even more 'unknown archive' on this artist that could be gleaned from these two now grown males who will probably be c.50 or 60 years old at this time - assuming they are still alive.

Giles Hefer said...

Was at the Tate Britain today and was very moved by "A land girl and the bail bull". what an amazing landscape