Evelyn Dunbar Dorset 1946-7 (1' 7" x 1' 11": 48 x 58cm) Private collection
Writing towards the end of his life in his unpublished 2007 pamphlet Evelyn Dunbar: The Husband's Narrative, Evelyn's husband Roger states: 'My sister offered us the use of a vacant cottage adjoining her house at Long Compton. With more pull than push, we leaped at the chance. The Dunbars gave us some furniture, and we moved there, not appreciating what a haven The Cedars had been. [..] our married life began. Evelyn had her first experience of housekeeping, but her painting was handicapped. The cottage had few rooms, low ceilings and low windows. Nevertheless she made her first portrait [in fact the first Roger Folley, subject of the previous post], and the first Dorset was sold to a patron.' ¹
This implies that there were two Dorsets, but - to date - there is no documentary or other evidence of the existence of a second. (Sometimes the existence of a reasonably completed oil sketch gives rise to the idea that there may have been two or more versions of the same subject. This is perhaps the case with Evelyn's greatest canvas, Autumn and the Poet, completed towards the end of her life.) Dorset doesn't appear to have been a commission: neither Evelyn nor Dorset's first owner, Mary Landale, had any particular connection with the county of Dorset. Interviewed by Gill Clarke, Evelyn's biographer, in 2003, Roger suggested that reason for painting it was because the county of Dorset was 'rural, exposed to the sea, untrammelled. It had the reputation of [not being] industrialised.'²
At the time of painting Dorset Evelyn was teaching part-time at the Oxford School of Art. She was also active as a Visitor at the Ruskin School of Drawing and of Fine Art. By all accounts she was a skilled teacher, painstaking, outgoing, patient and resourceful. Some of her students became good friends, and one such was Mary Landale, whom Evelyn taught for a while at the Ruskin School. At some stage, possibly when Evelyn left the Oxford area to go and live in Kent, she either sold or gave Dorset to Mary Landale.
It wasn't the last Evelyn saw of Dorset: in 1953 Mary Landale lent it back to Evelyn for the only solo exhibition of her career, one mounted in Wye College, Kent. I remember that exhibition: I was rising 12 and impressionable, and some of Evelyn's images imprinted themselves indelibly on my visual memory.
This was the first time that I saw The Queue at the Fish Shop (which she had borrowed back from the Imperial War Museum, along with several others of her war paintings) in its vibrant actuality. Dorset was there, too, remarkable in many ways, among them the figure of Dorset herself: after years of nondescript and sometimes plain, even mousy women, here was a figure of statuesque, majestic, almost voluptuous womanhood. (Not that I would want to suggest that Land Girls of Evelyn's war paintings ought universally to have mirrored the paragons of loveliness that appeared on the Women's Land Army recruiting posters: the message they carried was reinforced by their ordinariness.)
Where was Evelyn going, what new direction was she taking with Dorset? For most of her admirers and commentators, the post-war years are among the most shadowy and least documented of Evelyn's life. For me they are the most spirited and lively, and the most charged with the ideas she was trying to convey. The supposition is that Evelyn produced little in the post-war years, that by the end of the war her creativity was exhausted and her imagination dulled. The Times obituarist wrote of her post-war work: 'Living a retired life in Kent, absorbed in country pursuits, Miss Dunbar did not often come before the public in mixed exhibitions, but her mural paintings and illustrations, with their peculiar authenticity of work inspired by the ruling passion, appealed strongly to those who knew it.' ³
The suggestion is far from the truth. There were no post-war murals, for one thing. She painted continually. I think, after war years largely yoked to the requirements of the War Artists Advisory Committee, she felt a new freedom. In the earlier years of the war, before her marriage, she had to earn her own living. Her work as an Official War Artist was reasonably well paid, and she worked hard for it, sometimes with subjects she found unrewarding and uncongenial. After marriage, she could depend on Roger to support her.
With the 1945 dissolution of the War Artists Advisory Committee, and with Roger's salary, she had the liberty to explore the more visionary side of her aesthetic senses, and the time to finish her canvases to the very high standard of, say, A Land Girl and the Bail Bull. She could lavish her imagination on subjects at some remove from the daily grind of winning the war. She could develop her sense of allegory as a powerful instrument of expression of the Covenant, of the interactive relationship between mankind and the land. Although an unquantifiable amount of her work is lost, unaccounted for, and waiting to be discovered, her major post-war paintings combine her strongly developed and inventive sense of design, composition and colour with her new-found liberty to unleash her individual vision, and Dorset is a case in point.
It's a wonderful experience, a privilege, when a painting of Evelyn's remembered from childhood and adolescence reappears after half a century, sometimes as a result of someone reading these commentaries. Sincere thanks to the present owner of Dorset, without whose input this commentary would have been severely limited.
¹ Roger Folley: Evelyn Dunbar: The Husband's Narrative unpublished 2007
² Quoted in Gill Clarke: Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country (Sansom & Co, Bristol, 2006) p137
³ The Times obituary, May 16th 1960
(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2012. All rights reserved.)