Friday, 23 February 2018

Mercatora (1946)

Mercatora (1946?) Originally oil on canvas. Size and location unknown. Photograph: Dunbar family archive.

At the end of World War 2 in 1945 Evelyn's appointment as a war artist came to an end. Her mother Florence had died the year before, and The Cedars, the family home in Strood, Rochester, had become too large for the remaining Dunbar siblings, who decided to sell it. Evelyn had married Roger Folley, an RAF Navigator, during the war. Both were anxious to set up a married home. At the suggestion of Roger's sister Joan they bought a cottage next door to her in the Warwickshire village of Long Compton.

In the eighteen months or so that she spent at Long Compton, Evelyn began to re-explore her pre-war delight in allegorical figures and personifications. Mercatora, probably painted in the summer of 1946, was the first of these. Unfortunately it has disappeared from public view. 50 years and more after its completion Roger remembered, maybe rather vaguely, that the origin of this unusual personification of cartography lay in his wartime experiences.

It isn't easy to unscramble fully the symbolic content of this rich counterpoint of curved and straight lines from a monochrome photograph, for which I apologise, but it appears to be the only image in existence of this very remarkable painting. Colour would have played such a vital role in Evelyn's realisation of this fantasy and of our deeper understanding of it.

Mercatora, named after the Flemish map-maker Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594), he of the famous projection, is lying on her side, leaning on her left elbow, with her left knee drawn up. Her face is almost invisible, hidden in the shadow of a bonnet fastened by a ribbon tied under her chin. Her right arm is extended over a long rectangle, and she is marking an outline, a coastline, maybe, with a stylus. The rectangle, of paper or vellum, is liable to roll back on itself, and to prevent this it has been weighted down by an abstract conical form on the left and a cylinder on the right, marked with Evelyn's initials.

Mercatora's problem is how to project the image of the planet Earth, a three-dimensional sphere, on to a two-dimensional rectangle to make a map. The cone and the cylinder represent partial solutions to the problem, which is also symbolised by the scrolls in the left foreground. They are nothing more than a stylisation of an apple being peeled, the idea being that if you peel a more or less spherical apple carefully you can begin to arrange, extremely crudely, the strips of peel into something like a rectangle. This is a practical example sometimes used in schools to illustrate the problem of projection. Perhaps Roger used it to show Evelyn.

(The problem is actually insoluble, other than by the distortion of land masses progressively distant from the Equator, so that Greenland, in reality about the surface area of Algeria, appears larger than the entire continent of Africa. Eurocentric people have been happy to accept Mercator's compromise map of the world, and probably will for ever.)

Other map-makers have attempted projections based on the cone and the cylinder, both alluded to in Mercatora. The principal allusion lies however in Mercatora's magnificent skirt, where lines like meridians of longitude originating from a single point are swirled and regathered.

One or two preliminary sketches for Mercatora survive. They were found in 2013 in Evelyn's residual studio, now known as the Hammer Mill Oast Collection. It seems that Evelyn had some doubts about Mercatora's posture and position before finally deciding to show her lying on the ground:

The final Mercatora sketch above is currently on sale by Liss Llewellyn Fine Art (

Mercatora was exhibited at the Ruskin, Oxford, in November 1950, where it sold for 25 guineas (about £750 at 2018 values). It was probably sold to someone fairly local, because it next appeared at Evelyn's only solo exhibition, held at Wye College, Kent, in December 1953, so it might be assumed that she was able to 'borrow' it back. Since then nothing has been heard of it. I don't suppose anyone reading this has ever come across it?

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2018

If you'd like to
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Mystery Blue Man (c.1938)

Unidentified man holding a bowl c.1938 Blue pencil 6 x 5½ in.: 15.2 x 13.4 Photograph: Petra van der Wal ©Liss Llewellyn Fine Art

This appealing little drawing was one of the hundreds of one-off sketches and studies that made up the bulk of Evelyn's 'lost works', the contents of her studio at her death in 1960. It's unlikely that you'll need reminding that this huge collection was rediscovered in 2013, stored in the cone of a Kentish oast house.

Who is he? What is he holding in that bowl, clasped to his chest? Why did Evelyn draw him? To the best of my knowledge, no one knows, but I think that with the aid of one or two clues we might be able to build up a plausible conjecture.

Ten years or so before 1938, in the late 1920s, Evelyn painted a series of Dunbar family studies, mostly individual portraits of her parents and siblings. Among these family paintings is an unusual group portrait of the family:

The Dunbar Family in the Garden at The Cedars 1928 Pencil and oil on paper 14½ x 19½ in.: 37 x 50 cm. Photograph: Petra van der Wal © Liss Llewellyn Fine Art

I shall leave a fuller commentary on the painting until another time. For the moment perhaps we can notice that the bulky figure just left of centre, Evelyn's father William Dunbar, is showing something in his hand to his wife Florence. Let's look at it in greater detail: 

Detail of The Dunbar Family in the Garden at the Cedars

In fact William is holding out a clutch of eggs, and we can imagine that he has just been to his henhouse (he kept hens whenever possible) with a basin or bowl to collect to day's laying.

We move forward ten years or so, to the late 1930s. Evelyn's career is in the doldrums and she is very short of money. Someone, possibly Allan Gwynne-Jones (her first year tutor at the Royal College of Art who became a lifelong friend), has suggested that she should try her hand at commercial art. This goes against Evelyn's grain; in 1936 she had written to Charles Mahoney expressing the hope that he would never need to supplement his living by turning to commercial design, like his colleague Barnett Freedman. Nevertheless Evelyn overcomes her distaste and begins a series of designs for Shell petrol. Shell was already known for its patronage of artists, and indeed some remarkable advertising work came out of this policy.

Evelyn produced at least three designs, two of them punning on the word 'shell'.

Studies for designs for advertisements for Shell petrol c.1938 Water colour on paper. Photographs: Liss Llewellyn Fine Art

I'm left wondering if Evelyn intended to conjugate the verb 'shell' in its antique form -

I shell
Thou shellest
He/she shelleth, etc., etc.

...with appropriate illustration for each? And - a final conjecture - was the mystery man, echoing Evelyn's study of her father with the day's eggs, originally intended for 'he shelleth'? Whatever the truth, it was all too archaic and homespun and not nearly modern and forward-thrusting enough for a company like Shell. It didn't work out, no commission arrived from Shell and Evelyn dropped the project, probably with much relief. All the same, she was attached enough to this work to keep it for the rest of her life, and indeed all the artwork in this post was found intact among her residual studio in 2013.

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2017


If you'd like to
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Mice (1938)

Decorative panel, recto-verso, for The Children's Shop 1938 Oil on wood (18½ x 23¾ in.: 47 x 60cm)

This curious artefact appeared among Evelyn's so-called Lost Works in 2013. The story is probably familiar by now: after her death in 1960 Evelyn's husband Roger Folley gathered up the contents of her studio, consisting of some 900 pieces of artwork, major and minor, and passed it all on to her family. The collection, swollen further by paintings by Evelyn's mother Florence Dunbar and her aunt Clara Cowling, lay forgotten in the cone of an oast house for some 50 years before it saw the light of day again. I took these photos in their unredeemed state, before the panel passed into the care of Liss Llewellyn Fine Art to be cleaned - it certainly needed it - and presented to the public.

Evelyn had two older sisters, Jessie and Marjorie, born close enough together in the late 1890s as almost to be twins. In due course they followed in the family commercial tradition by opening The Children's Shop in Rochester High Street. By 1938 the Dunbar presence along Rochester High Street had grown to a mini-empire of shops, an expansion in disturbing contrast to the deeply uncommercial Evelyn's career, which had fallen into the doldrums, not without causing a little inter-sibling tension. 

Catalogue cover for the Dunbar Home Comfort Exhibition, December 1938. (Strood is that part of Rochester on the west bank of the Medway.)

Evelyn was roped in to take part in a grand Dunbar festival of commerce entitled The Home Comfort Exhibition, held in December 1938. She contributed several pieces of artwork, including this panel, designed to be suspended from above like an inn-sign, with birds on one side and mice on the other. Evelyn was fond of mice, or at least acceptably anthropomorphised versions of them. For many years she had a mascot, a carved wooden mouse dressed in a bouffant dress something like the mousette above, which sat on a bookshelf in the kitchen. Her early letters to Charles Mahoney (former Royal College of Art tutor, later colleague and lover) were sometimes decorated with mice, until the sometimes impatient Mahoney put his foot down.

Mouse morning break: detail from a letter to Charles Mahoney, 25th June 1933. The black-gowned figure is Dr Sinclair, Headmaster of Brockley County School for Boys, where Evelyn was painting.The other mouse, stretching out a paw, is presumably Mahoney, as at the time only he and Evelyn were working on the Brockley Murals.

At some time during the later war years Evelyn illustrated two journals of climbing holidays in the Lake District written by Roger Folley, with all the protagonists featured as mice. The one below shows Roger Folley leading, Evelyn roped up to follow, and, bringing up the rear, their friend Glynn Burton. There's more about one of these expeditions here.

Pen and ink illustration from Roger Folley's An Episode in the History of the Lake District, 1941. The only original copy is in the Tate Archive.

Hardly great art, maybe not even the crumbs from the table of a greater banquet, but there's a certain charm and captivation in Evelyn's playfulness and sense of fun, mice or no mice.

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2017



If you'd like to
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25

Monday, 5 June 2017

Gothic horror Cha-cha-cha

The Haunted c.1927 Pen and ink Photograph ©Christopher Campbell-Howes. Private collection.

Perhaps as an antidote to the goody-goody Goldilocks images of children (see the previous post) which preoccupied her in the years immediately after leaving Rochester Grammar School for Girls (which she sold to various publishers of children's books and stories), she began to show another, darker, side to her vision, equally short-lived.

Goodness knows what's going on in The Haunted. A man in modern dress appears to have got up out of an ornate antique chair in some agitation. He has dropped, or has seen on the floor, a playing card, maybe the ace of clubs. He's surrounded by four ghostly men in Tudor costume, the figure on the left ominously clutching a dagger. Overlooking the scene, from a picture frame brilliantly lit by candles, is an enigmatic figure. Man or woman? I don't know. Is there a cruel smile playing about his/her lips? Is a terrible revenge for some historic crime about to be wreaked?

This is not typical Evelyn. In a sense it's refreshing to see her widening her horizons, even with forays into the Gothic, as well as exploring new media, in this case pen and Indian ink. The answer to what The Haunted is about may be that, like her early children's drawings, it's an illustration for a novel or serial story in a magazine and not a stand-alone work. To me it has the feel of a frontispiece. If this is so, The Haunted isn't the only example of Gothic/horror illustration she ever undertook, although my second example comes from almost ten years later.

Study for an illustration for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights 1936 Pencil, pen & ink and wash on paper (22 x 15in: 57.5 x 38.5 cm) Signed 'E.Dunbar 1936'. Photograph: Petra van der Wal ©Liss Llewellyn Fine Art. Private collection.

In 1936 Evelyn submitted an entry for a competition organised by Signature, an ephemeral art magazine. The subject was to be an illustration of a passage from Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, and indeed here we have Catherine and Heathcliff in the context of a freshly-dug grave; in the upper left-hand middle ground there's a spade leaning against a pile of what Emily Brontë calls 'mools', an old Yorkshire word meaning earth dug out to make a grave. Rather than showing an actual episode from Wuthering Heights, Evelyn's drawing is more likely to be illustrative of Catherine's Chapter 12 raving: We've braved its [Gimmerton Kirk] ghosts often together, dared each other to stand among the graves and ask them to come...But Heathcliff, if I dare you now, will you venture? If you do, I'll keep you. I'll not lie there by myself: they may bury me twelve feet deep, and throw the church down over me; but I won't rest till you are with me...I never will!

Evelyn took some of her burial ground images from the graveyard of St Nicholas' church in Strood, the parish church in which in 1942 she would be married to Roger Folley. Her drawing didn't win the competition, and indeed drew some fairly savage censure from the adjudicator, Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery, later to become Lord Clark, who thought Evelyn's drawing inexpressive and lacking in significance. Maybe he had a point: Heathcliff, and Catherine particularly, do appear less intense than might be expected and not really touched by the dreadful eventuality of her dying rant. The Gothic really wasn't Evelyn's forte.

A more appealing pen-and-ink drawing in a completely different vein comes from about 1926, when Evelyn attempted a series of cartoons for illustrated magazines like the now-defunct Punch:

Should e'er the Charleston be forgot inscribed verso. Pen and ink, c.1926. (11" x 15": 28 x 38cm) Photograph: ©Christopher Campbell-Howes. Private collection.

Evelyn's skit is metamorphosing the Charleston, then at the height of its popularity, into hands-across Auld Lang Syne, as sung traditionally at New Year. It's not known whether she sold it, but I hope she did. For a lot of money. 

Text ©Christopher Campbell-Howes 2017

If you'd like to
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25