Lately, the lengthening April days have been cold and overcast, punctuated with occasional welcome bursts of sunshine. This moment, before the warmth of spring finally arrives, is captured expertly by Evelyn Dunbar in a series of paintings of gardens, mostly belonging to members of her family in Kent and East Sussex. With trees bare of leaves and the soil freshly turned ready to receive new crops, the chill in the air is perceptible.
Dunbar chose these semi-rural allotment gardens as her subjects, showing a preference for vernacular gardens rather than those attached to grand houses and designed to impress. These practical spaces were a familiar sight in the 1930s and beyond, and had a special style of their own, running in parallel to ever-changing garden fashions. Dominated by large fruit trees, and under-planted with vegetable crops, these productive gardens were necessary as a response to war time food shortages, but also speak of pre-supermarket days when fresh produce was not so easily available.
In ‘Florence Dunbar Tending the Garden’ (1939) an apple tree bursts into flower, the clotted texture of the paint suggesting the abundance of blossom, (and recalling Samuel Palmer’s ‘In a Shoreham Garden’). Strawberry Cottage in Hurst Green, East Sussex belonged to Dunbar’s aunt and ‘Vegetable Garden at Strawberry Cottage’ (1938) shows rows of tiny seedlings starting to emerge with a row of beans (or peas) starting to climb their simple wooden supports. A more conventional approach might show these gardens in the height of summer, but Dunbar chooses the very start of the season and we share the anticipation of flowers and fruit to come.
In recent years there’s been a revival of interest in the painter Evelyn Dunbar (1906 – 1960) after a retrospective show at the Pallant House Gallery in 2015, giving a new generation an opportunity to re-discover an artist who had been largely forgotten after her death in 1960 at the age of 53. This show came about after a relative of the artist took a painting by Dunbar to the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. After this, a large quantity of Dunbar’s sketches and drawings came to light, some relating to her best known work as a war artist.
Born in Rochester, Kent Dunbar attended Rochester School of Art (1925 – 27) and Chelsea School of Art (1927 – 29), followed by Royal College of Art where she studied until 1933. There she formed a close relationship with her tutor, Charles (Cyril) Mahoney (1903 – 1968), who used domestic gardens as a source of inspiration in his painting. She worked with him on various projects during the 1930s including a mural for the assembly hall at Brockley County School for Boys in south east London and Gardeners’ Choice, an illustrated book published by Routledge. In 1938 Dunbar produced illustrations for A Gardener’s Diary, an appointments book for Country Life.
In 1940 Evelyn Dunbar was appointed to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee – the only woman to be given a full time salaried role as a war artist. Her work during this period shows the contribution of the Women’s Land Army and the Women’s Voluntary Service to the war effort. From gathering in harvests of peas, potatoes and corn, to sewing military camouflage, Dunbar recorded the detail of these vital activities. She met Roger Folley, an agricultural economist, in 1940 and they were married in 1942. Folley’s work took him all over the country in the war years, and this enabled Dunbar to feature a wide range of locations in her paintings, as she followed him to each posting. They eventually returned to Kent, living near Wye, in 1950.
Dunbar’s paintings from this period are accomplished, and show great affinity with the English people and countryside. But perhaps their necessary, but narrow, focus on England in war-time made it inevitable that they would be overtaken by new styles, as the public, seeking a brighter future in the 1950s, left the hardships of the 1940s behind them.
Dunbar’s illustration style is very different from that of her paintings, and here the gardens she depicts while still vernacular, are more formal. Two front gardens show neatly edged flower beds, picket fences and topiary – all classic features of the cottage garden. The slightly child-like charm of this work is produced by Dunbar’s use of a very even weight of line – as well as the architectural details of the houses and the plants in their gardens. Lots traditional country dwellings in the 19th century had a conifer tree planted close to the house and Dunbar shows these, along with tulips in the borders.
Dunbar also decorated her personal letters with garden motifs and designs. In a thank you letter to Edward and Charlotte Bawden she includes a garden plan and planting suggestions for them – rather mischievously including a dandelion and some snails in one corner. A letter to Charles Mahoney shows a wonderful topiary peacock, a shape typical of gardens in Kent and Sussex which are still cultivated today.
Contained in a series of vignettes drawn on a sheet of squared paper is a design with a jug of flowers against a background of an open book, and in the winter of 1945 – 46 Dunbar developed this idea into the painting, ‘Pansies and Violas’. Her choice of these modest items for this painting encapsulates her talent for recording the domestic world in a way that celebrates its beauty; allowing people, their gardens and everyday activities and objects to transcend their ordinariness.
With special thanks to the Liss Llewellyn Gallery and Evelyn Dunbar’s biographer Christopher Campbell-Howes.
Evelyn Dunbar’s work at the Liss Llewellyn Gallery here
Evelyn Dunbar: A Life in Painting – a biography by her nephew Christopher Campbell-Howes here
Paintings in UK museum collections via Art UK here
Evelyn Dunbar Wikipedia entry here
Pallant House Gallery: Andrew Lambirth’s essay about Dunbar here