Study of Land Girls in training [HMO 709]
Unmounted (ref: 6737)
Pen & ink and wash
15 1/4 x 22 1/2 in. (39 x 57.5 cm)
Provenance: Roger Folley; Alasdair Dunbar; Hammer Mill Oast Collection
Exhibited: Evelyn Dunbar - The Lost Works, Pallant House Gallery, October 2015 - February 2016, cat 102.
Literature: Evelyn Dunbar - The Lost Works, Sacha Llewellyn & Paul Liss, July 2015, cat.102, page 149.
Trainees at Sparsholt Farm Institute putting on wet weather gear and rolling a milk churn.
"The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk at Brockley (FIG 11) was a strangely prescient
subject in view of Evelyn Dunbar’s later work as a war artist. Her career had gone into
the doldrums at the end of the 1930s, but the war gave her the opportunity to create
paintings and illustrations for which her skills seemed especially well suited, moving out
of the garden and into the productive landscape peopled by dungareed volunteers of
the Women’s Land Army. In addition, she recorded other subjects on ‘the home front’,
such as the fish queue in the high street of Strood (FIG 18), or the knitting circle in a
comfortable middle class house (FIG 7).
In these varied subjects, Dunbar’s keen observation and skill in drawing and
composition paid off in paintings of relatively large scale. They were criticized at the
time for being insufficiently dramatic, but that does not diminish their value today,
when we have become equally interested in the experiences of non-combatants. Two
things stand out from these paintings. One is the didactic quality of many of them,
which can be related to the illustrations Dunbar made at Sparsholt Farm Institute for
use in Michael Greenhill’s A Book of Farmcraft, 1942 (FIG 16). From Hesiod to Thomas
Tusser, there has been a tradition of using verbal art to convey practical rural wisdom,
but the visual element was now added, helping land girls avoid elementary mistakes.
Milking Practice with Artificial Udders, 1940 (CAT 85), the final version of which is in
the Imperial War Museum, shows intense concentration yet has an edge of comedy.
The physical and psychological demands of farm work are perhaps most apparent
in A Land Girl and the Bail Bull, 1945 (Tate, London) (FIG 19), a work that required
early rising to catch the atmosphere and action involved, described by her as ‘a
delicate and dangerous job’. It is a complex composition,and we can see how, in the
preparatory drawings (CAT 92-93), the academic method worked to good effect. The
study for Potato Sorting, Berwick (FIG 20) is in some ways more interesting than the
finished work because of the sense of movement in the overlaid outlines of the figures.
Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook (CAT 100) is unusual in technique for Dunbar,
with a pointilliste treatment of the newly cut field more like Ravilious than her usual work.
The catalogue of actions depicted makes the whole process easily understandable, successfully holding the disparate composition together. She did not underestimate
the difficulties involved, writing in October 1943, when the terms under which her
appointment as a War Artist might be continued were under discussion. ‘Anyone who
paints a figure composition knows that it takes often much longer than 10 days.’ The
Advisory Committee acknowledged her need for more time.
The drawings for Joseph’s Dream (CAT 104-106) also give us the chance to see Dunbar’s
process at work in a different kind of subject, as they move from what is essentially
illustration to become the basis for a haunting metaphysical painting, a foretaste of her
more imaginative post-war work."
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.
See all works by Evelyn Dunbar