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The Rediscovery of Evelyn Dunbar

Posted 2nd August 2017
Watts Contemporary Gallery

based on a speech by Christopher Campbell-Howes

In 2006, when opening the first posthumous exhibition of Evelyn Dunbar's work at the St Barbe Gallery and Museum in Lymington, Dr Roger Folley, Dunbar's husband, opened his speech with the words, 'If you haven't heard of Evelyn Dunbar, you will very soon.' It is now eleven years later and Watts Gallery – Artists' Village is ensuring that people are still hearing about Dunbar's work with a new exhibition called Evelyn Dunbar: Studies, Illustrations and Paintings.

Evelyn Mary Dunbar was born in 1906, the youngest of five children of a Yorkshire mother and Scottish father. By 1913 the family were residing in Rochester, Kent, where Dunbar's father ran a successful travelling credit drapery business with ladies' fashions and gents' suitings on the side. Each of the Dunbar children, excluding Evelyn, became shopkeepers of one kind or another, leading the deeply uncommercial Evelyn to think herself a cuckoo in the Dunbar nest, as illustrated in one of her most original paintings, April, a sketch for which is on display in the current exhibition in Watts Contemporary Gallery.

Dunbar and her siblings were brought up as Christian Scientists. She had a wide knowledge of the Bible, and the wholly practical, dignified, vital and mystique-free observations about the interaction of mankind with nature — especially in the Book of Genesis — impressed her deeply and remained with her until the end of her life. At certain points she devoted herself to illustrating Biblical scenes, including one titled Joseph's Dream, which recently sold for £60,000. Preliminary sketches for this work are also on display in Studies, Illustrations and Paintings.

In February 1942, Dunbar became engaged to Flying Officer Roger Folley, whom she had met at Sparsholt Agricultural Institute near Winchester when she had been painting Land Girls in training, nearly two years earlier. A very good pencil portrait of Folley in flying gear is included in this exhibition.

There is always something hidden about Dunbar, something lying just beneath the surface, something you find only when you peer into the mirror of her allegory or which you discover, sometimes by accident, through the Open Sesame of her allusion. Like G F Watts, she was an illustrator of ideas rather than things, and in various levels of imagery she presents hints of unexpected greatness, an approachability when dealing with great matters.

Joseph's Dream, for example, is on the surface about a lad whose dreams foretell his future eminence. Another more significant level concerns mankind's duty to look after this earth the creator has given us — a frequent theme in Dunbar's work — and yet other levels include educational images prefiguring the life and purpose of Jesus alongside Stanley Spencer influences and also ideas about family relationships: about Joseph's unpopularity with his brothers — you may remember that they tried to murder him — despite his love for them. You can't help feeling that the artist is casting a sidelong glance at what she once called 'her funny family'.

There are similar levels of meaning in the Dunbar's Seven Days, the centerpiece of this show, and if you can work them out without consulting the storyboard you'll have done very well.

There was always a certain distance between Dunbar and her family. There was never any open breach, just a feeling that for all her seven years of full and part-time study she never had any money to contribute to the household economy. Her average earnings over the 27 years of her professional career came to £22 a week, and yet she was considered the family success.

Dunbar died suddenly in 1960 when she was just 53 years old. The following year Roger Folley, on his remarriage, gathered up the extensive collection of works from Dunbar's studio and consigned it to her siblings. Few of them had space to house the residual work of a sister whose art they had never taken more than a superficial and sometimes bewildered interest in. Eventually Alec Dunbar, the younger of her two brothers, took it on and, in turn, passed it to his son Alasdair, during whose tenure it became forgotten in the cone of an oast house.

Roger Folley had not forgotten these works, and in the early 2000s he met with Gill Clarke, a biographer who had discovered Dunbar via research into the Women's Land Army and who had a particular interest in Dunbar's wartime paintings. The two hoped to locate the lost studio collection, but initial research led them to believe it had been destroyed. In 2008, Folley asked Dunbar's nephew Christopher Campbell-Howes to find it, if it still existed.

In February 2013 — just a few weeks after Autumn and the Poet, one of Dunbar's greatest works, had appeared on Antiques Roadshow and been valued at an eye-popping £40,000-60,000 — Howes and his wife found themselves outside Dunbar's first house in Biddenden enquiring about a place called 'Hammer something', as Folley had referred to it. The couple were directed to Hammer Mill where they were received warmly as distant relations of Dunbar. Within a few months Howes was invited back to inspect what became known as the Hammer Mill Oast Collection.

Although much of the collection is now dispersed, the selection included in Evelyn Dunbar: Studies, Illustrations and Paintings expertly showcases the development, invention and creation of Dunbar as an artist. This collection draws back the curtains on periods of Dunbar's life of which she never spoke, chiefly those involving her one-time Royal College of Art Tutor and later colleague and lover, Charles Mahoney. Perhaps because of Mahoney's involvement, Dunbar never spoke of what some have designated her masterpiece: the Brockley Murals.

Nor did Dunbar ever speak about several years of crisis before the war, when poverty obliged her to work behind the counter in a shop belonging to her sisters.

This exhibition offers insight into a most remarkable woman, a richly gifted draughtswoman, an artist of a very distinctive and refined imagination who was rarely content to paint or draw something for its own sake but rather for the deeper meanings that might be got from it, especially as it might concern how we treat our earth. Dunbar's work is never sentimental or sanitised, always level headed, approachable and logical, often witty, subtle and playful and alive to the promotion of women's needs and causes.

Dunbar was proud to portray women, in her war paintings particularly, as the agents of reconstruction and regeneration. She was a far greater artist than is commonly recognised and a fascinating person with a huge sense of fun and playfulness as well as a positive attitude to illusion and the notion that not everything that she painted is necessarily what it seems.

Evelyn Dunbar: Sketches, Illustrations & Paintings is on now at Watts Contemporary Gallery.