Liss Llewellyn Fine Art - 20th Century British Art

Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960)   BIOGRAPHY

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Preliminary sketches for the ‘supporters’ at either end of the Hilly Fields mural frieze at Brockley School
Unmounted (ref: 7938)
Pen and wash
15 x 22 in. (38 x 55.8 cm)


Provenance: Roger Folley; Alasdair Dunbar; Hammer Mill Oast Collection. no 444

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

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

The mainspring for what became the Brockley mural project was Sir William Rothenstein, principal of the Royal College of Art and one of the great figures in British art in the 1920s, 30s and early 40s. In one of a series of BBC National Lectures in 1931, the year of his knighthood, he urged local authorities to consider the employment of young artists in the decoration of public buildings. A Dr Sinclair, then headmaster of Brockley County School for Boys, in south-east London, became interested in Sir William Rothenstein's ideas, although the initial impetus came from a group of Brockleians including the art teacher, a Mr Livens, himself a former RCA student. In 1932 Dr Sinclair persuaded the school governors to approve and even fund a scheme to decorate the school hall, employing postgraduate Royal College of Art students. Implementation of Dr Sinclair's scheme fell, via a delighted Sir William,  to Charles Mahoney.

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, as well some of the 'supporters, which decorated spaces above the arches and a frieze which  spans the 12-metre width of the hall. At either end are allegorical female figures, modelled by her sisters Jessie and Marjorie, the left hand figure holding a scroll with an architectural plan of the school and its surrounds, the right hand figure a large book open at a page with a map of the area covered by the landscape. In this preliminary study the  models are Dunbar’s sisters Jessie and Marjorie, plus other unrelated figures and objects, including a kettle. 

We are grateful to Christopher Campbell-Howes for assistance and supplying images

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