Evelyn Dunbar was the only woman to be salaried as an Official British War Artist during World War II, painting and sketching images of the home front, particularly the Women’s Land Army where civilians were employed in agriculture to fill in for absent soldiers. Despite her commanding, naturalist depictions of women in the fields or at work with livestock, her name practically vanished after her death in 1960. Recently, a forgotten cache of over 500 paintings, sketches, and other material was found in an attic, doubling the known work she left behind and reviving her memory.
Evelyn Dunbar: The Lost Works opened earlier this month at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex. The exhibition, organized with Liss Llewellyn Fine Art, is installed in the domestic spaces of the museum’s Queen Ann townhouse. It explores her career in unprecedented depth, including her early portraiture, time studying at the Royal College of Art, wartime practice, and mural work. In each piece, whether a quiet portrait of a family member, a detail of her garden plants, or portrayal of women learning to bundle hay during the war, there is a sensitivity to her subjects.
“In that way she was very democratic in her approach,” Pallant House Curator Katy Norris told Hyperallergic. “There is a message in Dunbar’s work that human beings are part of the natural world and nature’s cycle, which I think in some way is very relevant to the environmental questions that we are facing now.”
The reemergence of Dunbar’s art was sparked by a 2013 appearance of her painting “Autumn and the Poet” (1960) on BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, which her relative Ro Dunbar just happened to watch. This encouraged Ro to examine work languishing in the attic of her Kent Coast home, which Evelyn Dunbar’s nephew Christopher Campbell-Howes helped identify. Along with examples from this hidden trove, The Lost Works focuses on pieces in private and public collections that are rarely seen, especially not alongside her wider body of art.
This “lost studio” of work is especially valuable in revealing early studies for her better-known pieces, as well as material related to her mural commissions, advertisement illustrations, and paintings. For example, sketches connected with her “English Calendar” that portrayed the seasons as different people show her experimentation with personification. September is a woman laden with watermelons, holding a bouquet with a huge sunflower at its center, while December is turned away, carrying a log laced with foliage in one arm, her head wrapped in a blue scarf.
“It is really valuable to see how the final painting grew out of the initial drawings and painted sketches, as they reveal the genesis of perhaps her most accomplished work,” Norris explained. “I think it also perfectly illustrates the bounds of Dunbar’s imagination and her ability to push a creative idea to its limit. There is a wonderful sense of joy in the series, it seems that above all Dunbar really relished making it.”
Her war-time art shows a similar celebration of the ordinary through her careful observation. While her name may not be as well-known as other World War II artists like Edward Bawden or Paul Nash, it equally reflects the humanism that is often present in 20th-century English art.
“Dunbar documented women’s changing role in society, but with such flair and imagination that they can equally be appreciated for their masterful use of color and form,” Norris stated, adding that for her Dunbar’s art is on the same level of Stanley Spencer who painted soldiers at military camps during World War I. “It is no surprise that Dunbar’s later work has often invited comparison with that of Spencer and I hope that by drawing attention to Dunbar’s achievements in this exhibition she will be more viewed more equally with her male peers in the future.”
Evelyn Dunbar: The Lost Works continues at Pallant House Gallery (9 North Pallant, Chichester, UK) through February 14, 2016.