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Evelyn Dunbar: Such a Gifted Painter
[ Essay )
In 2012, an extraordinary discovery of unrecorded works by Evelyn Dunbar was made in the attic of a Kent Coast house.
In 2015 we celebrated the work of this unfairly neglected artist with the exhibition Evelyn Dunbar: The Lost Works. Art critic Andrew Lambirth explains why we need to look again at the work of this British painter.
Evelyn Dunbar, who was part of a generation which did not seek publicity for their work, rarely exhibited her paintings, did not view them as an essential source of income and preferred to give them away. This apparently modest self-valuation has been all too readily accepted by subsequent generations, and her work had, until recently, all but disappeared from accounts of 20th century British art.
So, who was Evelyn Dunbar? Was she just a respectable talent, or something more?
Only prolonged study of her work – in all its aspects – will enable us to decide that, which is why it is so important to be able to see and contemplate such a body of paintings and drawings as the present one. Certainly she was a painter who loved the English countryside, but particularly her native Kent with its generously opulent landscape, the garden of England, wide-skied and fertile.
Her favourite terrain was the Weald – the fields and beech woods of the North Downs – and she painted it not just with deep affection, but with an understanding of place (the numinous quality of landscape) that can rival artists such as Paul Nash or Graham Sutherland. Dunbar does it in a less overt and demonstrative manner – perhaps in a less masculine way – but the magic, and the authoritative perception, are undoubtedly there.
To position her fairly one must try to imagine an intersection of three such disparate artists as Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious and Stanley Spencer. The Bawden of the Ambrose Heath illustrations, the Ravilious of Downs in Winter (c1934) and Beachy Head (1939), and the Spencer of the early religious paintings and the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere.
Then add overtones (and undertones) of Paul Nash, such as might be present in Wood on the Downs, 1929 and Landscape of the Megaliths, 1937, but with the tinge of mysticism translated into pure spirituality. Add to this rich mix the work of Paul’s seriously underrated younger brother John.
In fact John Nash at his finest (for example The Cornfield, 1918, Dorset Landscape, c1930 and Iken, Suffolk, 1934) offers perhaps the nearest single parallel to Dunbar, though she tends to people her landscapes, whereas Nash prefers his empty, and there is a different kind of intensification to her clipped and tender imagery. John Nash is adept at the unvarnished poetry of the seasons, the natural cycle. Dunbar tempers this with the intended benefits of human intervention. Her landscapes are curiously more controlled than Nash’s. In the end, her work might be defined as reportorial matter-of-factness, tinged with lyricism: richness with restraint.
Dunbar’s wartime career is key to an understanding of her art. She was the only woman working for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) on a full-time salaried basis, and her brief as a war artist was to record the Home Front, by documenting in paint civilian contributions to the war effort, with particular reference to the Women’s Voluntary Service and the Women’s Land Army.
Her special achievement lies in the unsentimental depiction of ordinary women adapting to unfamiliar work, painted with sympathetic but arresting intensity. By the end of the war some 40 paintings by Dunbar had been accepted by the WAAC.
Is Dunbar a Modernist? Kathleen Palmer writing in Women War Artists (Tate, 2011) seems to think so:
With her innovative and original style, Evelyn Dunbar was developing a reputation as a leading female modernist.
Certainly Dunbar was admired by her peers, and by the art establishment, but it is perhaps rather beside the point to discuss her in terms of Modernism.
She is not a Modernist along the lines of Ben Nicholson, for instance, with his complex understanding and interpretation of international abstraction. She is much closer to the attitude of Stanley Spencer, and was he a Modernist? Again, this is not really the issue. With both Dunbar and Spencer we are talking about artists who delved so deeply into the human condition, its hopes and celebrations, as well as its tragedies, that their work is timeless in its relevance. It does not belong to a particular era or movement but joins that idiosyncratic band of great individualists that makes up the history of British art.
Dunbar had an instinct for the revealing aspect of a subject, for the dramatic and eye-catching. She had a good visual memory, remembering details to supplement the drawings she made on site for her paintings. She also had a powerful visual intelligence, and was good at analysing and organizing the structure of figure compositions or the way landscape should spread out and recede. This formal compositional discipline, though presumably answering a need within herself, no doubt also owed a considerable debt to the teaching at the Royal College of Alan Sorrell, who was nicknamed ‘Old Angles’ because of his passion for pictorial structure.
For Dunbar, the depth and opacity of the paint was as important as the pictorial design, the surface texture as essential a part of the product as the patterns of light and colour.
We are still at the beginning of Dunbar studies and I don’t think it’s wise just yet to make too many large or definitive statements about her place in the history of 20th century British art. We need to get more used to her very particular vision, to seeing her in the company of others, to weighing her interpretations of people and places against her contemporaries. Her work must settle into place rather than be forced to adopt a position.
But from what we have now, in terms of re-discovered work and thoughtful scholarship, despite her relative newness to the spotlight, it can reasonably be maintained that she is a substantial artist whose work deserves much more attention than it has so far received.
In fact, the more one sees of her work, the more impressive and assured it looks, and that cannot be said for a number of artists whose reputations currently stand much higher than hers.