Artists That Inspire

Evelyn Dunbar

Born in 1906, Evelyn Dunbar was a British artist, illustrator and teacher. She is notable for recording women’s contributions to World War II on the United Kingdom home front, particularly the work of the Women’s Land Army. She was the only woman working for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee on a full-time salaried basis. Dunbar had a deep devotion to nature and a particular affection for the landscape of Kent. Dunbar was modest regarding her achievements and outside of the post-war mainstream art world which has led to some neglect of her work until recent years. She painted murals at Brockley County Secondary School, and was a member of the Society of Mural Painters. After the war she painted portraits, allegorical pictures and especially landscapes. She attempted a return to mural painting in 1958 with a commission at Bletchley Park Teacher Training College, but was unable to fulfil the original specification.

Educated at Rochester Grammar School for Girls, to which she had won a Kent County Council scholarship. Dunbar studied at Rochester School of Art (now the University for the Creative Arts) from 1925 to 1927, at Chelsea School of Art from 1927 to 1929. In 1929 she won an Exhibition to study at the Royal College of Art. She graduated ARCA (Associate of the Royal College of Art) in 1933. In 1940 the Tate Gallery purchased one of her early student works, Study for Decoration: Flight 1930.

Among her Royal College of Art tutors was Charles Mahoney. Encouraged by the Principal of the RCA, Sir William Rothenstein, Mahoney and a small group of fourth-year students including Dunbar were commissioned to decorate the assembly hall of Brockley County School for Boys, now Prendergast-Hilly Fields College, in south London with a series of murals illustrating Aesop’s fables. Of the group Mahoney and Dunbar contributed most to the series, which was formally unveiled in 1936.

The principal figure in The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk was modelled by the older of Dunbar’s two sisters, Jessie. The subjects of Dunbar’s murals and their interpretation predict the chief preoccupations of her artistic career. The frieze, a broad landscape of the area known as Hilly Fields was observed from the vantage point of a nearby water tower. Framed by two allegorical figures, the landscape is animated in the middle distance by dogs, people walking, pushing prams and working at their allotments. In the foreground are boys in the uniform cap and blazer of the then Brockley School engaged in various activities.

Dunbar and Mahoney spent some three years, from 1933 to 1936, completing the Brockley murals. During this time they formed a close relationship, which eventually ended in 1937. A collection of Dunbar’s often lavishly illustrated letters to Mahoney covering their relationship between 1933 and 1937, are held in Tate Gallery archive. No letters from Mahoney to Dunbar remain.

In late 1938 Dunbar opened The Blue Gallery, a large first-floor room above the shop run by her sisters Marjorie and Jessie at 168 High Street, Rochester. Here she displayed her own work and included some of her mother’s floral still-life paintings. She invited Charles Mahoney (with whom she remained on friendly terms) and prominent contemporary artists Allan Gwynne-Jones, Barnett Freedman and Edward Bawden, to contribute their work to her first group exhibition, which opened in March 1939. The Blue Gallery did not prosper and it closed after a few months.

In April 1940 Dunbar was appointed by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, WAAC, as an official war artist, eventually becoming the only woman artist to receive successive and continuous salaried commissions throughout the war. Her brief was to record civilian contributions to the war effort on the home front. Her initial subjects were the activities of the Women’s Voluntary Service, WVS, and later in the war, the Women’s Land Army. By the end of the war Dunbar had some forty paintings accepted by WAAC.

In autumn 1940 Dunbar met Roger Folley (1912–2008) whom she would marry in August 1942. Folley, from Lancashire, was an agricultural economist who had worked and lived on site at Sparsholt Farm Institute as Costings Officer. As a Royal Auxiliary Air Force volunteer, he was called up to serve in the RAF in August 1939, receiving his Flying Officer commission in 1941.

On the evening of 12 May 1960, in the woods around Staple Farm, the Kent farmhouse in which she and Folley were then living, Dunbar suddenly collapsed and died. A post-mortem showed coronary atheroma to have been the cause of death.

At the time of her death, the storage shelves in a room adjoining the studio in Staple Farm, contained some 30–40 canvases. There were also numerous folios of drawings. Folley remarried in 1961, and in the interim Dunbar’s remaining work was distributed among family and friends. It is sometimes supposed that Dunbar’s post-war output was limited, and that her best work came from the pre-war and wartime periods. What evidence there is suggests that although her post-war work is unquantifiable, the quality of her work reached its maturity and peak. Dunbar worked continually, and there is nothing to suggest that at any time in her career did her output slacken, except for brief holiday periods, and even then it was impossible for her to leave her sketch-book behind. Her oil paintings were her prime product, but she left behind many portfolios of water colours, drawings, pastels, sketches and other secondary work, most of which were not seen for many years after disappearing shortly after her death.