Posted 5th September 2017
Evelyn Dunbar (1906 – 1960) is now considered to be amongst the most important 20th century British artists. Born in Reading and raised in Kent, Dunbar won national awards for drawing as a young student before going on to study at the Royal College of Art.
Evelyn Dunbar: Studies, Illustrations and Paintings — on now until Sunday 24 September in Watts Contemporary Gallery — brings together nearly 100 pictures, sketches and illustrations by Dunbar, over half of which have never been shown and many which had been long forgotten before their rediscovery in 2013 in the attic of Dunbar's former Kent home.
The Children's Shop: Mice (recto) Birds (verso), 1938
Dunbar painted this curious artefact for a children's shop run by her two older sisters, Jessie and Marjorie. The Dunbar family owned several shops along the high street in Rochester, Kent, and in 1938 Evelyn was, in the words of her nephew Christopher Campbell-Howes, 'roped in' to a 'grand Dunbar festival of commerce'.
Dunbar contributed this panel, which she designed to be suspended from above like an inn sign, with birds on one side and mice on the other. She was fond of mice, and for many years she had a carved wooden mouse dressed in bouffant dress — like the moussette featured in the illustration — as a mascot on a bookshelf in her kitchen.
She often sketched anthropomorphised mice into letters, and in the later war years Dunbar illustrated two journals about climbing holidays in the Lake District featuring mice as protagonists. This charming panel showcases Dunbar's charm, playfulness and sense of fun.
Study for Background of a Land Girl and a Bail Bull, 1944
After succeeding in winning a Royal College of Art exhibition in 1929 and graduating in 1932, Dunbar worked on the Brockley Murals with her former RCA tutor and partner Cyril (Charles) Mahoney. The couple then created Gardener's Choice, an illustrated guide to the qualities and cultivation of 40 unconventional herbaceous flowers and shrubs.
Dunbar's career faltered during what she called her 'crisis years' from 1938-40 when, following a miscarriage and separation from Mahoney and then a failed attempt to open a gallery space above her sisters' shop, she spent a year working behind a shop counter, painting next to nothing.
In December 1939, Dunbar's friend Sir William Rothenstein suggested that she apply to the War Artists' Advisory Committee for recruitment as an official war artist. She did so and was accepted in April 1940. She became the only woman artist to be salaried throughout the war, and she quickly became associated with the Women's Land Army.
Her remit to record women's home front activities allowed her to promote a gentle and unaggressive feminism. Reconstruction and regeneration, backlit by a kindly humanity and even wit, are constant threads in her war painting.