Evelyn Dunbar, February, 1937-38, Oil on canvas © The Artist's Estate, courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art
In January 2013, Dunbar's painting ‘Autumn and the Poet' (1960) appeared on the BBC Antiques Roadshow, leading Ro Dunbar, a relative of the artist, to explore the extraordinary hoard of over 500 paintings, drawings and studies hidden in the attic of her Kent home. The unrecorded works were identified with the help of the artist's nephew Christopher Campbell-Howes, who had been tracking contents of the ‘lost studio' - dismantled in its entirety after Dunbar's death in 1960 - for over 20 years. The discovery doubled the known body of Dunbar's work overnight.
The contents of the ‘lost studio' includes preliminary drawings and oil studies for some of Dunbar's best known compositions. These works are reunited in the exhibition with major paintings from private and public collections, many of which have recently been rediscovered, or have been rarely seen in public.
As the only salaried female Official War Artist during WW2, Dunbar is celebrated for her wartime paintings, but she was also notable for her share in a public commission, the 1933-6 mural scheme at Brockley School, and for illustrations for several books about gardening and agriculture. She created a large body of family portraits, which will be on display alongside illustrations, commercial advertisements and shop signs, and ephemeral materials such as sketch books, photographs and letters.
At the Royal College of Art, where Dunbar enrolled from 1929, she was taught a blend of observational drawing and traditional painting techniques. Her pictures at this time reflect a growing interest amongst contemporary painters and illustrators in the art of the Renaissance, in particular the figurative paintings of Leon Battista Alberti. Portraits of Dunbar and her family in the garden of their home, The Cedars, in Strood, Kent, show her use of classical compositions knitting together a casual family group. These works also reveal how easily she managed the transition between drawing and painting, with a mixture of detail and broad handling that later informed her work in illustration.
Amongst the individual portraits that Dunbar produced at this time was her own self-portrait (1930), in which she adopted the cool, critical gaze of the painter. Sketches of her mother and father also reveal an early talent for capturing the essence of her subjects rapidly and succinctly.
Between 1933 and 1936 Dunbar was amongst a team of recent graduates from the RCA who were invited by their tutor Cyril (Charles) Mahoney to create a mural design for the hall of Brockley County Schools for Boys in Lewisham. United by their dislike for London and yearning for the country, the chosen theme, Aesop's Fables, gave the group scope for narrative subjects in landscape settings. The exhibition includes two newly discovered oil sketches by Dunbar for a large arched panel, entitled ‘The Woodcutter and the Bees' (1933) and ‘Hercules and the Waggoner' (1933), which are similar in composition to her final realised design, ‘The Country Girl and the Pail of Milk' (1933). In the exhibition they are shown alongside ambitious designs for the sub-gallery spandrels and balcony frieze, including a detailed watercolour measuring over a metre and half in length.
Working closely together at Brockley, Dunbar and Mahoney fell in love, brought together particularly by their mutual love of plants and gardening, which was reinforced by their friendship with artist colleagues such as Edward Bawden. In 1936 Dunbar invited Mahoney to share a commission from Routledge & Sons to write and illustrate Gardeners' Choice, a guide to 40 unusual or unconventional flowering plants. Although it has previously been assumed that Dunbar was responsible for the vignettes and Mahoney the main plates, the new works presented in this exhibition reveal that Dunbar also produced many of the principal illustrations. A series of black pen and ink drawings of Gladiolus tristis demonstrates Dunbar's obsessive examination of her subjects in order to achieve an incisive style of illustration, which was reminiscent of early herbals or eighteenth century chapbooks. The exhibition also includes small drawings of Mahoney sketching in the garden of The Cedars, before the eventual break-up of their relationship.
In 1938 Dunbar's work for Gardeners' Choice led to a further commission from the editor Noel Carrington to compile the Country Life 1938 Gardener's Diary. The 1937 edition, designed by Edward Bawden, had focused on the characteristics of individual plants, but in this later issue the physical task of gardening was emphasised, leading Dunbar to design a dozen vignettes representing characters toiling in their gardens. Dunbar further developed her concept for the personification of the months in a series of oil sketches, which will be presented in the exhibition alongside her painting, ‘An English Calendar' (1938) frequently interpreted as the culmination of this theme.
For Dunbar the Second World War offered new opportunities to explore the relationship between people and the natural world. In pictures examining how the war effort affected the home front, we see Dunbar move out of the realm of the domestic garden and into the productive world of farming. Her principal subject the Women's Land Army gave rise to compositions such as ‘Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook' (1940) and ‘Milking Practice With Artificial Udders' (1940), closely related to her line illustrations for A Book of Farmcraft, a primer for novice farm hands, especially newly recruited Land Girls, contrasting the correct and incorrect ways of undertaking manual tasks. The former painting was wrongly catalogued in an auction in 2011 where it was identified by the art dealer Andrew Sim and subsequently exhibited in London before entering a private collection.
At the end of the war Dunbar was aged 38 and married to Roger Folley, a horticultural economist whom she met at Sparsholt Farm Institute. Her work at this time has been compared to Stanley Spencer due to its personal and mystic qualities, although Dunbar's paintings are arguably more objective. In Autumn and the Poet (1960), lent to the exhibition by Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery, the iconography of the poet and his muse, characterised as a season but more representative of nature as a whole, continues the celebratory quality of Dunbar's paintings of the landscape shaped by man. In 1957, having abandoned a commission for a large mural in the assembly hall at Bletchley Park Training College, she produced instead two smaller panels, entitled 'Alpha' and 'Omega', for the college library. This undertaking is represented in the exhibition by two studies for these panels, which demonstrate the same otherworldly quality that persisted in her work until her early death in 1960.
This exhibition, in association with Liss Llewellyn Fine Art, is a rare chance to encounter such a large quantity of previously unseen work by an important 20th century artist. It is also in line with the Gallery's continuing commitment to the reappraisal of overlooked Modern British artists.
The exhibition is accompanied by the publication of an illustrated book published by Liss Llewellyn Fine Art, with contributions by Gill Clarke, Andrew Lambirth, Alan Powers, Peyton Skipwith and Christopher Campbell-Howes.