This is an account of the ‘local-life’ of Evelyn Dunbar – an outstanding young woman artist / illustrator who lived and partly trained in Medway, and who documented through her art the role played by women during WW2. I also include some details about her family – of which she was described as a “cuckoo”; a family who for over 40 years were very enterprising and entrepreneurial traders on the high streets of Rochester and Strood.
As seems to have happened so many times before, women whose contribution was well recognised in the contemporary press seem to ‘disappear’ when history is written. This seems to have been the case for Evelyn who appears to have been largely forgotten and her work lost, until one of her pieces – Autumn & The Poet – was brought along to a BBC Antiques Road Show for valuation.
Evelyn was one of three women, and 36 men, who were appointed as WW2 war artists. She was the only female artist to be given a full-time salaried position by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC).
In addition to recording the work of the Women’s Land Army, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and nurses of St. Thomas Hospital, London, Evelyn as provided the very clear illustrations for the manual – Farmcraft – that proved to be a valuable resource for novices who were increasing needing to work the land to ensure the country remained fed during the war. At her request the book was dedicated “to our mothers”. (I suspect Evelyn was very close to her mother who was also a very able artist, and probably appreciated Evelyn’s ‘difference’ from her more commercially minded siblings.)
Evelyn would produce numerous sketches in the field for her war paintings before returning to the family home – The Cedars in Strood. Here she would call upon family members to act as models in order to turn her sketches into her final painting. Her paintings not only portrayed the roles played by women during the war, her careful observations of the tasks being undertaken means that her paintings and illustrations detail the farming practices of the time
As is the case today, very few artists can live on the proceeds of their work and Evelyn often had to fall-back on support from her very enterprising family that ran a number of retail businesses in Rochester and Strood’s high streets.
The following images are no more than a tiny selection of Evelyn’s work, and have been chosen to illustrate the range and style of her work. Many more and better quality images can be easily viewed on the internet. Particularly useful sources are www.lissllewellyn.com and www.evelyn-dunbar.blogspot.com. More of her work and that of other war artists, can be found on the website of the Imperial War Museum –http://www.iwm.org.uk.
After the following ‘gallery’ I provide more detailed biographical information pertaining to Evelyn’s life and work in and around Rochester. In researching Evelyn’s work I was surprised to find that a vibrant arts community existed in Medway between the two world wars – clubs, exhibitions and art tutors.
Paintings from ‘around’ Rochester
Dunbar Family’s arrival in Medway.
Evelyn moved with her family to 244 High Street, Rochester, from Quinlan House, High Street, Snodland, in 1913; possibly via Strood according to a contemporaneous news paper feature. Here her father, William Dunbar, was able to accommodate his family (Florence his wife, and the children Ronald, Jessie, Marjorie, Alec, and the youngest, Evelyn, born 18 December 1906) and establish his drapery business. The property was a three-story weatherboarded house with a street level shop, some outbuildings and a very small garden. (That particular property may have ‘gone’ but the property with a neighbouring number appears to match the description of 244 – however other records suggest the property may have been 246 so could this have been the Dunbar’s home?)
By 1924 William’s business interests had spread beyond 244, and he was in a position to acquire ‘The Cedars’, off London Road, Strood. This was a larger property and was used purely for the accommodation of his family. The Cedars consisted of 17 rooms and was set in 21/2 aces with stables. It cost £1,800. On acquiring the property William added a tower within which Evelyn and her mother, Florence, had a studio that afforded them a view of Rochester and the surrounding countryside – beyond the neighbouring chimneys. (As an aside this property was built on the site of an old Smock Mill. The tower is still visible from the London Road at the junction with Madhuran Court.)
William Dunbar died in March 1932 and his wife Florence died in 1944 – by which time Alec had married his wife Jill, and moved into Micawber Cottage about a mile up Strood Hill, and Evelyn had married and moved away. The Cedars was now too large for the three unmarried siblings so Jessie, Marjorie and Ronald decided to sell the property in 1946.
Evelyn’s early education
Evelyn attended St. Margaret’s Banks Private School at 254 High Street, Rochester, before winning a scholarship worth £3 6s 8d / term from the Kent Education Committee, to attend Rochester Grammar School for Girls. This school would have been highly suited for Evelyn as ‘drawing’ was one of its core subjects. (The school still honours its ex-pupil with the naming of a training suite at the school after her.)
As Evelyn’s mother and aunt were able amateur artists and both encouraged Evelyn in her drawing – by the age of eight Evelyn was winning prizes and certificates from the Royal Drawing Society.
Her innate ability to draw would have been further enhanced at the Grammar school where George Ward a landscape artist, that was instrumental in setting up the Rochester School of Art, taught art and drawing to the girls. (The Rochester School of Art was set in the Technical Institute at Rochester – now Rochester Library. It was later renamed the Medway School of Art & Crafts, and later evolved into KIAD which is now part of the University College for the Creative Arts. More of this below when detailing Evelyn’s training as an artist.)
Evelyn the thinker and activist
Evelyn’s secondary education would have been greatly influenced by WW1. Rochester was an important military hub and she would have witnessed the going of troops and the return of wounded soldiers. School sewing classes concentrated on making garments for soldiers, and there would have undoubtedly been ‘bomb drills’. Evelyn clearly gave a lot of thought to the consequences of war. Before she left school she was instrumental in setting up the local branch of the ‘League of Nations’ that was created after the First World War to provide a forum for resolving international disputes. One can perhaps gain some insight into this aspect of her character in the piece she wrote for the school magazine:
“I would remind everyone that our branch is not a learned society for the Upper School; it is a union in which all can take an active interest. The younger members are just as important as the older ones, since it is imperative that the coming generation should realise the necessity of world peace, and the importance the work which the League is doing in a great cause. Each individual opinion helps build up the great force of public opinion which is to do away with war.”
Evelyn also organised a debate at school on the motion that “war has always been derogatory to civilisation”. On leaving school she painted the following picture. It perhaps says something of her originality in that she painted the back of her fellow scholars!
Evelyn’s training as a professional artist.
On leaving school Evelyn took what we would refer to today as a ‘gap year’. It was during this year that she made her first foray into being a professional artist – her siblings were already working in the family businesses. Evelyn’s first professional work was in the writing and illustrating short stories for children.
For a short while Evelyn attended classes at the Rochester School of Art. This did not prove a good experience for her as she found the school overly focused on craft and trade skills such as painting & decorating. (This is probably due to the school being set up with funding in / around 1916, to establish a craft-school that was to specialise in providing training for boys intended for the industrial occupations in art and craft work, and to provide short trade courses for sailors and soldiers who had been disabled in the war.)
Both Evelyn and her mother were members of the Rochester and West Kent Art Society. Its first annual exhibition was held at the Corn Exchange at Rochester in 1926. No mention is made of Evelyn exhibiting at this show but her mother’s work was well admired – the reviewer observing that her studio at The Cedars was frequently full of vases of decaying flowers.
The exhibition, that was encouragingly well supported, included oil and watercolour paintings, drawings, aquarelles, etchings and woodcuts, and 54 examples of embroidery, leather pottery and bronze work. It contained many items of “agreeable and meritorious quality.” The ‘critic’ reported: “The entire exhibition … reflected the great possibilities of the Medway District as a centre of art and its successful show entices us to look forward to an even better performance in the future”.
(The website for the West Kent Art Society states that it has been “Passionate about Art since 1927”, but I’m wondering if it could be 1926 based on the report in the Chatham News (18 June 1926) and the subsequent numbering of exhibitions.)
In 1927 Evelyn attended courses in London provided by the Royal Drawing Society which had been established promote drawing as an educational tool – through helping children develop their observation skills and a retentive memory. (She had won prizes from this school since a young age.) Having obtained her qualification in 1927 to teach art, she attended Chelsea Polytechnic (now the Chelsea College of Art and Design) for two terms before returning to full-time study at Medway School of Art – formerly the Rochester School of Art. The fact that she returned to Rochester to continue her art training suggests that there had been a change in emphasis as well as a change of name. It was here that Evelyn probably developed her interest in the painting of murals.
In 1929 Evelyn won a much coveted three-year grant to attend the Royal College of Art.
On graduating Evelyn undertook a number of commissions mainly away from Medway, that involved the painting of large murals. This was somewhat ‘radical’ at this time as such large scale works tended to be the province of men.
One such commission was the Brockley Murals painted between 1933 and 1936 at Brockley County School for Boys, now Prendergast-Hilly Fields College. The huge task was led by Charles (Cyril) Mahoney who recruited three of his senior students from the Royal College of Art – one of whom was Evelyn – to undertake this work. To enable the work to be undertaken Evelyn took lodgings in London but would return to The Cedars to sketch and develop her ideas for the figures – using Ronald, Jessie and Marjorie as models – they appear as the group of three just above the milkmaid who had spilt the milk.
It is probably around this time that the relationship between Evelyn and Mahoney went beyond that of pupil and teacher.
In 1937 the couple created Gardener’s Choice, an illustrated guide to the qualities and cultivation of 40 unconventional herbaceous flowers and shrubs. As Cyril or Chaz as she referred to him, were both very competent artists it’s not possible to determine with any certainty which drawings were those of Evelyn. However it is possible that she drew the cartoon fillers as they were closely observed and witty. The following image of staking plants could very well have been based on her mother working in the garden at The Cedars.
This publication probably led to the Country Life commissioning Evelyn to produce their annual Gardener’s Diary for the following year.
The relationship between Evelyn and Charles / Cyril did not last but they appear to have departed on good terms.
Evelyn’s Crisis Years 1938-1940
On the breakup of her relationship with Cyril Mahoney, and a miscarriage, Evelyn returned home to The Cedars. The cause of the breakup is unrecorded but they did hold different religious beliefs with Evelyn being a very committed member of the Christian Science church.
Returning home after living independently and in a relationship, could not have been easy; particularly as all the rest of the family were involved in the family business. (Roger, Evelyn’s later husband, described Evelyn as being something of the Cuckoo of the family.)
Evelyn worked hard at this time on establishing a career for herself as an artist – as opposed to being the partner of an established artist. This task would have been made all the more difficult with another war pending. (All the local newspapers published from January 1939, that I reviewed for this blog, contained reports on the preparations being made locally for war – including the construction of air-raid shelters. WW2 was not officially declared until September 1939.)
By the end of 1938 the family had a number of business in the High Street: 168 was run as a Fancy Shop selling haberdashery and wools, by the sisters Jessie & Marjorie who also ran a Children’s Shop from 90 High Street.
They later moved the Children’s Shop to 38 High Street when Ronald moved his radio business to Strood. The photo of the Children’s Shop , was probably taken in 1917 because of the National Baby Week banner in the window – and would, in all probability, have been 90 High Street.
Without a job and income, Evelyn joined the family business – working alongside her older sisters Jessie and Marjory in their haberdashery / “Fancy Shop”. In the 1939 census Evelyn recorded her occupation as being “Artist and Fancy Draper”.
Although not in paid work as an artist Evelyn continued to attract high praise for her work. A local art critic in 1939 whilst reviewing the 14th annual exhibition of the Rochester and West Kent Art Society, and finding himself “underwhelmed” – again – recalled that the exhibition of the previous year had only been saved from “the drabness of earnest mediocrity” by Evelyn’s “An English Calendar” that he described as the first example of Sectionism. The work was 6 ft square and was comprised of 24 sections – 12 of which contained a figure symbolic of the months of the year.
Evelyn opens the Blue Gallery at Rochester
Perhaps showing some of the entrepreneurial spirit of her family Evelyn in 1938, took-over the first floor of her sisters’ shop at 168 High Street, Rochester, and endeavoured to establish her own galley – “The Blue Gallery”. (Christopher Campbell-Howes believes the gallery was in a “large, ancient and unoccupied house behind 168). The gallery consisted of one room that ran the length of the shop below. It was a panelled Georgian room that Evelyn painted a duck-egg blue.
In introducing the gallery Evelyn was described as an artist who had gained a wide reputation not merely on merit but also striking originality, who was now bringing her distinct and unusual abilities to the commercial activities of the family. The gallery was envisaged as being more than an art gallery. In addition to displaying her own “provocative work” it was planned to display antiques – mainly furniture – and fancy goods.
In March 1939 Evelyn staged an ambitious exhibition of work by friends including Charles Mahoney, Allan Gwynne-Jones, Kenneth Rowntree and Edward Bawden, and a sculpture by Bainbridge Copnall. She also gave wall space for the works of members of the staff of the Medway School of Art who had provided some of the best features of the Rochester and West Kent Art Shows. In addition to making money Evelyn’s aim was to prove that artists did not have to sacrifice their personalty to be successful in producing commercial work.
The Chatham News gave the exhibition of 60 pictures a very a positive review:
Evelyn Dunbar has “thrown down the glove to people who may have been disposed placidly to accept things akin to the art of the camera as the be-all-and-end-all of painting.
This does not mean, however, that Miss Dunbar has flung a bombshell of ultra-modernity at her home towns. She has, on the contrary, arranged a remarkably catholic show.
There are her own angular figures, clip figures. A number of school children were amongst the most interested visitors of the day.”
The Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham News commented “for an area with a population approaching 200,000 the Medway Towns have been sadly lacking in things of this sort.”
Evelyn was apparently very happy with the numbers who attended the exhibition and their comments; the Chatham News even went as far as to say that the exhibition was “one of the most notable events in the history of art in the Medway Towns. Despite this support and praise she didn’t sell one work of art and the gallery closed. (The portrait titled the “Platinum Blonde”, by the Rochester artist Miss Mary White, that was displayed at the Blue Gallery was of a Rochester women who has an interesting life-story that will feature in a future blog.)
The lack of sales and the deteriorating ‘relationship’ with Germany led to the inevitable – the gallery closed.
In March 1938 and still in her early thirty’s, Evelyn was the only woman to be included in a group of 12 artists chosen by the Wildenstein Galleries in Bond Street, to represent “typical” modern artists from contemporary schools. This must have been quite a boost for Evelyn who observed that when she submitted work it was usually rejected or if accepted, hung in the most obscure corners of the show. Her ‘An English Calendar’ was included in the exhibition. Sadly for Evelyn this work did not sell and after the exhibition it returned to The Cedars. During the 1950’s Jessie and Marjorie displayed it in their Children’s Shop in Rochester High Street. It’s apparently now in the care of Imperial College London – Evelyn having donated it to Wye College and it was then given to Imperial when Wye College closed.
In 1940 the Tate Gallery purchased her “Study for Decoration: Flight” that Evelyn painted in 1930 whilst she as still a student.
Appointed as a War Artist and life begins to look up.
In December 1939, Evelyn’s friend and past principal of the Royal College of Art, Sir William Rothenstein, suggested she apply to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee for a position an official war artist. Despite having missed the closing date she wrote expressing an interest in the position of war artist. Some four months later in April 1940, she was offered a position. Her remit was to record the home-front activities of women – a brief that allowed her, according to a biographer, to “promote a gentle and unaggressive feminism”.
Evelyn was one of three women and 36 men who were appointed as war artists. Evelyn became the only woman to be given a salaried position and quickly became associated with recording – but not solely – the work of the Women’s Land Army. She mainly worked out from Strood, retuning to The Cedars to turn her field sketches into a finished works. She frequently used her sisters to model for the final work – Evelyn avoided painting Jessie ‘face-on’ as she was very sensitive about her squint.
One of Evelyn’s first assignments took her to Sparshot Farm Institute near Wiltshire, to record the training of the recruits to the newly formed Women’s Land Army.
Whilst working at Sparshot she met Michael Greenhill who was responsible for instructing the recruits to the Women’s Land Army in farming skills. Together they collaborated on preparing a book that would a valuable resource for the novices who were increasing being drawn upon to ensure the country was fed during the war; “A Book of Farmcraft” was published in 1942″.
Evelyn’s “Putting on Anti-Gas protective clothing” was included in an exhibition of 300 paintings by British war artists that was put on at the National Gallery in London. When the London exhibition closed the paintings were displayed in 1941, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; at this time America had not been drawn into the war.
Evelyn was not commissioned to produce the picture of the Fish Shop Queue – shown below – however it provided a powerful illustration of the daily grind of the lives of many women during the war, and was very well received by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. It was based on a shop in Strood’s high street. As with many of her other paintings family members acted as models. The cycling RAF officer was her husband, and her sister, Jessie, is the woman crossing the road carrying a wicker basket. The shop was near Angel Corner in Strood and appears to have been painted from the vantage point of her brother’s shop opposite. (As fish was not rationed queues would form outside fishmongers when a delivery as expected.)
Marriage & Religion
It was also while at Sparsholt that Evelyn met Roger Folley. As their relationship developed she moved around the country as he was deployed to various RAF sites; this probably explains the wide range of areas in which Evelyn prepared her war time pictures. The couple married at St. Nicholas Church, Strood, on 17 August 1942. The decision to marry at this church must have caused some ‘discussion’ as Evelyn, her mother and sisters – Jessie and Marjorie – were active members of the Chatham & Rochester Christian Science Society. (As a child Evelyn had attended the local Christian Science Sunday School at Boley Hill, close to Rochester Castle.)
When Evelyn no longer required the room over 168 High St. for a gallery, it was used as a Christian Science reading room. One biographer suggested that Evelyn’s breakup with Charles Mahoney may have been because of their religious differences. (Followers of the Church of Christian Science believe that Christian Healing can lead to significant cures of physical and mental problems.)
The following description of the wedding was published in the Chatham News. I’ve included it because of the artist / stylistic eye that Evelyn and her mother undoubtedly had. It was though war time and that would have impacted on the available materials.
Evelyn was given away by her brother Ronald (an old Williamsonian). She wore a dress of lime blossom green with antique silver ornaments lent by her mother. Evelyn’s hat was of French blue ostrich feathers and she wore blue shoes. Her bouquet was comprised of cream ophelia roses (very fragrant) and white heather. She was attended by Miss Dorthy Cook who wore a brown ensemble and carried a bouquet or apricot roses.
Florence, the bride’s mother, wore a Chinese patterned silk dress. “The King of Love my shepherd is” and “Praise my Soul the King of Heaven” was sung at the service. As a going-away outfit for the honeymoon in Yorkshire, Evelyn wore a rose red suit with hat, and shoes of mushroom brown. Cars for the wedding were supplied by Messrs J W Trice, Castle Garages, Rochester.
Postwar Evelyn’s association with Medway diminished and ended.
Evelyn and Roger Folley first lived at the Cedars but then moved to Long Compton, Warwickshire, along with Eveleyn’s mother Florence, when Roger secured work in that area, From Warwickshire Evelyn and Roger moved to Oxfordshire – perhaps because Evelyn secured a position as lecturer at Ruskin College. They later returned to Kent and set up home at Staple Farm, Hastingleigh.
Evelyn died young at the age of 54. People who knew her believe that she may have sensed her life was coming to an end as she made the effort to visit her siblings and
friends in the weeks before she died.
Within a year of her death Roger remarried and passed the contents of Evelyn’s studio onto her family. The collection that included paintings by her mother Florence and her aunt Clara Cowling, then laid forgotten for 50 years in the cone of the Hammer Mill Oast house in Cranbrook. The discovery of the paintings was prompted by the appearance of the ‘Autumn & the Poet’ by Evelyn which the valuer on the BBC Antiques Roadshow, described as a masterpiece. (This painting was later donated to the Maidstone Museum where it is on display in the Local History Gallery.)
Dunbar’s Business Interests in Rochester/Strood.
The following is mainly contextual to Evelyn’s story but it seems an appropriate place to record / file my findings on a family who would have been a significant part of the trader’s community of Rochester and Strood.
The family had a full page newspaper spread in December 1938 to promote their “Home Comfort Exhibition” – which looks as if it was an effort to hold a local ‘Ideal Homes’ type exhibition. The exhibition promoted the various family business and attracted exhibitors from significant national suppliers.
On their promotional page the opportunity was taken to publicise the various businesses ran by members of the family.
The text likened William Dunbar – who died in March 1932 – as a Julius Caesar ‘character’ who came south from Scotland, and ‘saw and conquered’ trade in the south. Not for detailing here but William must have been a determined man. He left a rural life in Scotland to ‘seek his fortune’. He secured a position as an apprentice draper in Swindon, eventually buying the business off of his master. William then sold up the successful business to move to Kent in search of a new location for his business interests.
As described above, William Dunbar set up home and business in 1913 at Snodland. He appears then to have moved his business to 17 High Street, Strood. By dint of industry his drapery business thrived and he relocated to larger premises in North Street, Strood. (Later returning to 11 High Street, Strood.) The family and business then appears to have moved to 244 High Street, (St. Margaret’s Banks) Rochester. From this address Jessie and Marjory Dunbar later ran a “brisk and fascinating trade in dressing babies and small children”. Around 1932 the sister’s moved their business to 90 High Street, Rochester. In 1938 they acquired a haberdashery and wool shop (168 High Street). The shop had been the business of Miss Dale who had decided to retire after running it for 62 year. Here Jessie and Marjorie ran a ‘Fancy Shop’. On taking over Miss Dale’s business the sisters found a large number of new skeins of rare embroidery silk – “the silk is of such antiquity that it contains colourings but rarely seen in silks today.”
Always abreast of modern developments the family opened a wireless department in 1934 – Castle Radio Company at 38 High Street Rochester. The Dunbars then took over the cycle business of Mrs Franks at High Street Strood. Ronald was responsible for these innovations but Jessie and Marjory had managed their own business since 1920.
When Ronald moved his business interests to Strood, Jessie and Marjory took over 38 High Street for their Children’s Shop. (The site – next to what was NatWest Bank – is currently ‘awaiting’ redevelopment.)
The Home Comfort Exhibition, in addition to promoting Dunbar businesses, had exhibits from six radio manufactures, and about 50 of the latest suites from furniture manufacturers of “national repute”, and two well known cycle manufacturers who had exhibited at the Earls Court exhibition. It also had a demonstration of “Television”. (At this time TV broadcasts in London were on the air an average of four hours / day and there were only 12,000 to 15,000 receivers.)
None of the Dunbar children had a family. Jessie and Marjorie never married – perhaps as a consequent of a dearth of suitable men after WW1.
So, not only was Evelyn’s art and story lost so was the story a family who ran half-a-dozen flourishing businesses during the interwar years.
Numerous contemporary newpapers.
Evelyn Dunbar – The Lost Works. Edited by Scaha Llewellyn & Paul Liss, 2015. Catalogue for the exhibition held at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex, from October 2016 to February 2016. (With a bit of detective work you can still find this in the internet.)
Evelyn Dunbar – War and Country. Gill Clarke. 2006
Evelyn Dunbar – A life in painting. Christopher Campbell-Howes. 2016
Geoff Ettridge – 15 March 2019.
Since writing this blog I have come across this short YouTube video you might enjoy. It was made by a the Play on Words Theatre company, based in Chatham – click the link below to view.
A film about the painter Evelyn Dunbar
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