Liss Llewellyn Fine Art - 20th Century British Art

Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960)   BIOGRAPHY

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Colour sketch for the Hilly Fields mural frieze at Brockley County School for Boys, including incidental sketches,1933 [HMO 430]
Framed (ref: 6684)
Squared, 
Inscribed recto ‘Learning & leisure/Labour & leisure’, referring to later addition of two schoolboys above the frieze.
Pencil, pen & ink and oil on paper, 10 1/4 x 23 in. (26 x 58 cm)



 


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


Exhibited: Evelyn Dunbar - The Lost Works, Pallant House Gallery, October 2015 - February 2016, cat 20.

Literature: Evelyn Dunbar - The Lost Works, Sacha Llewellyn & Paul Liss, July 2015, cat. 20, page 56.

The Brockley Murals
Art educators saw murals both as a training method in the classical tradition, and as
an affirmation of the value of artists to society. Sir William Rothenstein, the Principal
of the Royal College of Art, made a broadcast in 1932 on ‘The English Artist and the
English Public’, stressing the value of honestly painted everyday subjects from nature
as a counterweight to Modernism on one hand, and the devotion even of topographic
painters to foreign places on the other. ‘Being in daily touch with students’, Rothenstein
told his listeners, ‘I know that there is no lack of blossom; that the English genius for
rich content still persists.’ Dr. Sinclair, the headmaster of the Brockley County School for
Boys in the London borough of Lewisham, then the suburban fringe of Kent, responded
by offering his school hall, with its five arched recesses, and a balcony with a vaulted
underside. The result, in Rothenstein’s view, was the best mural cycle since Ford Madox
Brown’s work in Manchester Town Hall.
Charles Mahoney, as a tutor at the RCA, assembled a team of younger women
collaborators, with Dunbar as the senior among them, and two who were still students:
Violet Martin and Mildred ‘Elsie’ Eldridge. According to Eldridge’s memory in the 1980s,
they were united chiefly by their dislike of London and yearning for the country. The
chosen theme was Aesop’s Fables, which gave scope for narrative themes in landscape
settings. Dunbar painted ‘The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk’, one of five large arched
panels, in which the main story in the foreground is perhaps less dramatic than the
before-and-after episodes of the fable drama in the background. It is fascinating, in the
light of this work, to see two of Dunbar’s newly discovered schemes for the panels on the
facing wall. Both have the same spatial design, with a winding road containing the main
subject at the bottom, and additional figures. Hercules, the god of the title, is contained
in a tondo shape, filling the arched top, (CAT 24) while in The Woodcutter and the Bees
(CAT 25), a carefully observed rural scene, the chicken hut peforms an equivalent role
in the composition, while a visually intriguing framework of green branches fills out the
bottom right corner.



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.

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