Liss Llewellyn Fine Art - 20th Century British Art

Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960)   BIOGRAPHY

View of Brockley School in Hil
Framed (ref: 48)
Oil over pencil on paper, 8 1/2 x 38 in. (21.5 x 96.5 cm.)


Provenance: given by the artist to Charles Mahoney; thence by descent
Literature: Alan Powers, 'Labour of Love', Country Life, April 30 1987; Annabel Freyberg, 'The Heroine of Hilly Fields', The World of Interiors, January 2004

The murals at Brockley County School in South London (now Prendergast School for girls) were first started in 1933 and unveiled in 1936. The scheme was supervised by Charles Mahoney, who at the time was tutor in painting at the Royal College of Art, and undertaken by him and Evelyn Dunbar, who was a senior student. As well as contributing a large mural entitled The country girl and the pail of milk, Dunbar was responsible for decorating the 39-foot balcony. For this she devised a panoramic view of the school, in the setting of the nearby Hilly Fields. In an account to appear in the forthcoming book on Dunbar, Dr. Gill Clarke writes:

'In order to complete her preliminary sketches, which took 3-4 months, and to get the best view of the extensive buildings, Dunbar had to ascend the water tower of Lady Well Institution. In the Kent Messenger (January 1935), she described how she had to squeeze through a small trap-door and climb on to the top of an extremely narrow shaft, which led on to a tiny railed platform on the edge of the lead roof of the water tower, more than 100 feet above the ground. 'It was like being on a gas stove', Miss Dunbar told a Kent Messenger representative, 'and it was so hot with the sun beating down mercilessly that the water in my paint nearly boiled'. These sketches and the ten-foot long cartoon were purchased by Rothenstein (for five guineas and £25 respectively) for the Carlisle City Art Gallery (now Tullie House).'

It is probable that the oil sketch reproduced here, one of two that she gave to Mahoney, was worked up rapidly to give an outline of the colour and overall composition. Working on the Brockley murals together, Mahoney and Dunbar developed an extremely close relationship, sharing, as Rothenstein noted in his Studio article of 1936, ' a clear affinity of vision'. In 1937 they collaborated together on the book Gardener's Choice. Alan Powers points out that the Brockley Murals belong to a pastoral romantic tradition in English art, which flourished in the 1930s and is often too quickly dismissed as being merely imitative of Stanley Spencer (Country Life 30 April 1987).

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-RaphaŽlites, 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 úuvre, 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.

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