Evelyn Dunbar Jacob's Dream 1960 Private collection
This extraordinary painting is Evelyn's farewell.
Towards the end of April, 1960, I went to see Roger and Evelyn at their home in Staple Farm, Hastingleigh, in Kent, as I did during most school holidays for a few days. It was the last time I saw Evelyn. It turned out later that she had spent the previous weeks touring round her handful of relations - apart from her brother Alec, the Dunbar siblings were singularly unfruitful - and many friends in south-east England. What pain or discomfort she was in we shall never know, nor to what extent she repressed it, but as one who has experienced the very frightening pains and the limitations to everyday activities caused by coronary atheroma, I realise now that some very powerful need must have driven her to visit her wide circle. She had been to see my mother a few weeks earlier. My mother felt that in some inexpressible way Evelyn had come to say goodbye.
Jacob's Dream stood on one easel in her studio, the recently-signed Autumn and the Poet on another. I was struck and moved by Jacob's Dream in a way that no other painting of Evelyn's ever had. I spoke to her at some length about it, and I wish I'd noted down some of the things she said about it, because what she said is mostly forgotten.
She had wanted for a long time, she said, to round off her series of Genesis paintings. We know how fascinated she was by the great Abraham-Isaac-Jacob-Joseph family saga in the closing chapters of Genesis. I knew she had painted Joseph's Dream in at least two versions: she often painted the same subject more than once. I had seen Joseph in the Pit and Joseph Released from Prison (whereabouts of both now unknown) when she had exhibited them in her only solo exhibition, in Wye in 1953. I have vague memories as a small child of seeing The Butcher's and the Baker's Dreams, and an even vaguer impression of The Ram Caught by his Horns in the Thicket, all these now so distantly ghostly that they may not have existed at all.
Evelyn mentioned the story (which I knew already, having been to a very Bible-oriented, although not particularly religious, school) in Genesis, Chapter 28:
Jacob set out from Beersheba and went on his way to Harran. He came to a certain place and stopped there for the night because the sun had set; and, taking one of the stones there, he made it a pillow for his head and lay down to sleep. He dreamt that he saw a ladder, which rested on the ground with its top reaching to heaven, and angels of God were going up and down upon it. The Lord was standing beside him and said, I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. The land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants. [...] Jacob woke from his sleep and said, 'Truly the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.' Then he was afraid and said, 'How fearful is this place! This is no other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven.' Jacob rose early in the morning, took the stone on which he had laid his head, set it up as a sacred pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He named that place Beth-El [...]
Thereupon Jacob made this vow: 'If God will be with me, if he will protect me on my journey and give me food to eat [...] then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone which I have set up as a sacred pillar shall be a house of God.
( New English Bible)
Then we talked about the stone, the one on which Jacob's head is resting in the painting, which legend, ever unpredictable, said was somehow conveyed to Scotland to become the Stone of Scone, on which kings of Scotland were crowned. In 1296 it was taken as war booty by King Edward I of England. (It remained in London for 700 years, fitted inside the ancient wooden coronation throne in Westminster Abbey. In 1996 it was returned to Edinburgh.)
Evelyn had painted Jacob's Dream recently, within the last two months, a remarkably short time for a painting as finished as this canvas is. We spoke about the angels, the extraordinary white abstractions on the ladder. For some reason they sent shivers down my back: never before had Evelyn done anything so simple, yet so elemental. How these shapes shone against the perfect blue of a spring sky, how they seemed to shimmer up and down the ladder, propelled by...what? Heavenward prayers and oblations? Earthward epiphanies and forgivenesses? The souls of the departed? And of those - wild thought! - about to be born? How drearily unconvincing traditional winged creatures would have been.
Jacob is lying, foreshortened very skilfully, in a field receding into the darkness of the night, with large stones scattered among the grass. He has thrown his travelling cloak - he's on a journey - over him, and maybe his left hand, out of sight below the frame, is holding some form of scrip or travelling bag. He looks relaxed, with his legs crossed at the ankles.
His dream takes place, like his son (some years into the future: Jacob is not yet married) Joseph's will do, within the oval that is our normal frame of vision. Evelyn doesn't give us the top right-hand extremities of the oval. We don't see the top of the ladder. She doesn't trespass into heaven, but leaves it to our imagination. Curiously, she has done this before, once in The Cock and the Jewel, her lunette in the Brockley Murals, as a tiny background detail, and once, more deliberately, in Omega of Alpha and Omega, the twin Bletchley panels of 1957.
The foot of the ladder is resting just outside the oval frame of vision, as though to harness the reality of the physical, sleeping Jacob to the other, metaphysical reality (but can there be such a thing, outside a dream?) of the angels. But there's a third reality, the dream background.
There are orchards, and hillside pastures, fields of an overwintered green crop, maybe turnips, and yellow charlock, or possibly oilseed rape. It's a typical Evelyn scene, a managed landscape, the Covenant at work, the Creator's gift, a landscape worked and loved in equal measure, Evelyn's Kentish interpretation of the land God promised to the sleeping figure of Jacob.
It's cradled in a sunlit combe, between two hills. It brought, and still brings, to mind some lump-in-the-throat lines from Tennyson's The Passing of Arthur:
[...] I am going a long way
With these thou seëst - if indeed I go
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt) -
To the island valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadowed, happy, fair with orchard-lawns
And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound.
I remember trying to quote these lines, a passage my grandfather was fond of, but they escaped me. Probably just as well. Evelyn's taste in poetry was much more modern than mine.
The left hand hillside is thickly wooded and unremarkable, but the hill on the right, with its hanging beech woods, is entirely typical of the North Downs about Wye. Staple Farm, Hastingleigh, lies on the Downs, on just such a wooded hill as Evelyn has painted. It was while out gathering pea-sticks in the beech woods with Roger in the early evening of May 12th, 1960, that Evelyn suddenly collapsed and died.
Evelyn Dunbar Self-portrait under Rhubarb Leaf ?1953 Private collection © The artist's estate
* * *
Some weeks after Evelyn's death Roger set about disposing of her remaining work. Perhaps realising that Jacob's Dream, with its uncomfortable resonances, could not easily be given away to friends or family, he decided to sell it. The painting is unsigned, but the label on the back, in Roger's handwriting, reads:
Evelyn Dunbar Jacob's Dream verso, with sale label written by Roger Folley.
30 guineas (£31.50) in 1960 works out at a little under £500 in 2013. Jacob's Dream sold into private ownership, and was lost to view for many years. I had the good fortune to see it again in November 2011, a wonderful moment.
Thanks to Jane England for help in the preparation of this commentary.
(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2013. All rights reserved.)
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EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
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448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25
is now available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25