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Evelyn Dunbar: the genius in the attic

One day, Ro Dunbar was watching Antiques Roadshow when she saw a painting by her aunt Evelyn
being hailed as a masterpiece. A quick search revealed 500 more like it bundled up in her loft
Stuart Jeffries
Sunday 18 October 2015 16.00BST

ne Sunday night two years ago, Ro Dunbar was watching Antiques Roadshow when
she noticed something shocking. One of the people queuing in the rain to have their
antiques valued had just produced a painting by her long-dead relative Evelyn
Dunbar.
This is a masterpiece, said painting expert Rupert Maas. It is such an extraordinary
picture. Maas was worried about how to value a work by what is perhaps an unknown
artist. In the end, he estimated 40,000-60,000.
Autumn and the Poet was one of the last works ever painted by Evelyn, before her death in
1960 at the age of 53. It was a gift to her husband, the second world war airman and leading
horticultural economist Roger Folley, and its whereabouts had been unknown for half a
century. Evelyn, however, was not quite unknown. She was celebrated as the only salaried
woman war artist, commissioned to record the work of land girls on the home front. Her
war paintings hang in Tate Britain and the Imperial War Museum.
But the paintings appearance on TV got Ro (who was married to Evelyns nephew)
thinking. She remembered that in the attic of her farmhouse, near Cranbrook in Kent, was a
tightly bound collection of artworks Roger Folley had left after his wifes death.
I had no idea what was up there, she says. I thought it might all be paintings by Evelyns
mother, Florence. But when Ro went to look, she saw that, along with Florences still
lives, there was a whole hoard of works by Evelyn the woman described as having real
genius by Sir William Rothenstein, principal of the Royal College of Art, where she had
studied.
I havent got an artistic bone in my body, says Ro, who felt ill-qualified to judge what she
saw. She called on Christopher Campbell-Howes, another nephew, who has fond memories
of discussing his aunts paintings with her as a boy.
Christopher was compiling a record of her paintings, so when I told him Id found some in
my attic, he flew over from France where he lives. When he saw them, he fell through the
floor.

What had been languishing in Ros attic for the best part of 50 years was a stash of more
than 500 paintings and drawings. Overnight, it doubled the number of Dunbars known
works. For 20 years, Campbell-Howes had been tracking the contents of Evelyns lost
studio which was dismantled after her death in 1960, its contents sold on or given away
to family and friends. And much of it had been collecting dust in Ros loft.
We decided we needed to call in professional help because it was pretty grubby, she says.
Theres a bit of a nibble here and there, but nothing was too damaged. It just needed
cleaning.
Now, Pallant House Gallery in Chichester is staging a show called Evelyn Dunbar: The Lost
Works, featuring much of Ros hoard. It is the first big retrospective of an artist who has
certainly been neglected and perhaps not properly understood since her death.
Evelyn Dunbar was born in Reading, the daughter of William, a draper and bespoke tailor,
and Florence a keen gardener and amateur still-life artist. She was the bigger influence, and
inculcated her children (Evelyn was the fifth and youngest) in Christian Scientist beliefs.
Evelyn would remain a Christian Scientist throughout her life, and the churchs influence
suffuses all her work.
She held her beliefs to be self-evident, writes Campbell-Howes on his blog. The only
doubts she had concerned the readiness of humankind to play its part in the Covenant. The
Covenant my term, not Evelyns as she conceived it, was the promise given by the
creator to the human race of a fertile and eternally abundant land, in return for mankinds
promise to cherish it, to appreciate it and to care for it through intelligent and devoted
husbandry.
That explains, no doubt, why nature rarely appears untamed in her work. She didnt really
do landscapes on a grand scale, says Ro. She was more interested in hen coops, worked
fields, and the business of tending the land.
Indeed, almost all the art at Pallant House shows her love for mankinds nurturing of Gods
creation. In 1938, she was commissioned by Country Life to produce pen-and-ink drawings
for its Gardeners Diary and made witty personifications of each month. September is a
woman laden with watermelons; December is a woman in a blue scarf carrying a yule log
laced with foliage. She later reworked these drawings in oils. Among the works Ro found in
her attic is Evelyns scintillating personification of February a woman sporting a yellow
cape, with crocus flowers and daffodil shoots in her jaunty hat, who seems to be lifting a
cold frame as if to indicate spring is around the corner.
The exhibition also includes the paintings for which she is best known: her second world
war commissions of the Womens Land Army at work, such as Men Stooking and Girls
Learning to Stook and Milking Practice with Artificial Udders. She was a war artist but she
didnt paint anything awful like the other war artists, says Ro. That, Ro suggests, was
because of her faith. In fact, she never painted anything bad. Other women war artists
did: Doris Zinkeisen painted Human Laundry, an image of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen
concentration camps starving survivors; Mary Kessell made charcoal drawings of homeless

women and children in Berlin, as well as the destruction of Hamburg.


Ro admires Evelyns final war painting, A Land Girl and the Bail Bull from 1945. (The bail is
the movable shed where milking is done.) The model for the land girl was her sister Jessie,
who posed for her several times, but is never seen full-face because of an eye
disfigurement. She would have been extremely sensitive to showing any problems like
that, says Ro. But I really like how close Jessie is to the bull. She must have been very
brave.
After the war, Evelyn settled into rural life in Kent with Folley. She didnt exhibit much.
The commissions didnt come, says Ro. She did one or two they were mostly portraits.
A lot of her work stayed in the studio.
But Evelyn painted a great deal until her death, often depicting visionary religious themes
that featured people she knew as sitters. In this she was similar to her contemporary
Stanley Spencer. For the last 12 years of her life, she worked sporadically on Autumn and
the Poet. It was an allegorical work, reflecting her faith as usual. It shows the fecund figure
of Autumn, a bare-breasted and maternal figure, releasing a harvest from complicated
drapery in front of a reclining figure the poet of the title. The sitter for the poet was her
husband Roger. Autumn was modelled by Rogers sister, though its hard to resist the
thought that the apparition represents Evelyn.
The final version of the painting was on an easel in her Kent studio when she died. After its
appearance on Antiques Roadshow, its owner (who turned out to be Richard CampbellHowes, Christophers half-brother) donated the painting to Dunbars local gallery,
Maidstone Museum, which in turn loaned the picture to Pallant House.
And there was one more visionary work in Evelyns studio when she died: her painting of
Jacobs Dream. Based on the biblical story, Jacob is lying in a field at night. Above him, in a
bubble, floats his dream a ladder extending to heaven. Christopher Campbell-Howes
remembers visiting Evelyn in her studio and talking about the painting shortly before her
death: This extraordinary painting is Evelyns farewell. She knew, he suspects, that she
was going to die and had been saying goodbye to relatives for weeks.
In the bubble representing Jacobs dream is a hill with hanging beech woods, typical in the
North Downs where she lived. It was in just such woods that, early one evening in May
1960 while out gathering pea-sticks with Roger, Evelyn suddenly collapsed and died. Roger
later sold Jacobs Dream shortly after her death for 30 guineas (31.50), which works out at
a little under 500 in todays prices.
Not all Evelyn Dunbars works have been rediscovered. The whereabouts of two wartime
paintings (one with the tantalising title Mrs Dunbar and the Snog) remain unknown.
Still, there is enough newly rediscovered work to be going on with. What will happen to her
work when the show finishes? Will Ro sell off her hoard and make a lot of money? Its all
up for discussion. The thing Im most interested in is having her in the picture. More than
anything, Im glad she is getting the recognition she deserves.

Evelyn Dunbar: The Lost Works is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 14 February
2016
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