Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960):
Self-portrait, [HMO 766], 1958
Framed (ref: 6772)
Provenance: Roger Folley; Alasdair Dunbar; Hammer Mill Oast Collection
Exhibited: Evelyn Dunbar - The Lost Works, Pallant House Gallery, October 2015 - February 2016, cat 113.
Literature: Evelyn Dunbar - The Lost Works, Sacha Llewellyn & Paul Liss, July 2015, cat 113, page 160-161.
Llewellyn, Sacha, and Paul Liss. Portrait of an Artist. Liss Llewellyn, 2021, p.301.
Painted in her studio at Staple Farm, near Wye, Kent, this was the last self-portrait Dunbar undertook.
"At the end of the war, Dunbar was still only 38 years old. Married in 1942 to Roger Folley, she was able to spend time with him at last, setting up home firstly in Warwickshire, thenin Oxfordshire, finally in Kent. In a manner similar to Stanley Spencer, to whose work her Joseph’s Dream (FIG 21) was not unexpectedly compared, she had worked in a personal and mystical mode as well as in a more objective observational one. Dunbar’s Portrait of a Retired Schoolmistress (CAT 110) is compelling in its directness, with the sitter’s determined gaze, solid figure and floral patterned overall. The black line between the shoulders forms the base for an equilateral triangle to the crown of the head. Her self-portrait (CAT 113) has the quality found in some of Spencer’s of being caught off guard in the act of painting, as the awkward positioning of the legs seems to suggest.
In Flying Applepickers (CAT 107), the theme of levitation, used at Brockley in the
soffits of the balcony, returns. Is it a metaphor of liberation after the years of pre-war unhappiness in love, followed by the privations and war? No doubt this theme of weightless bodies emanates from the spiritual seeking of a Christian Scientist, but it is also delightfully comic, with more tenderness than is found in most of Spencer’s comparable works of supernatural events in Cookham High Street. Such compositions were falling out of fashion in the post-war world, but this did not prevent Dunbar from working on a series of allegorical and deliberately mysterious paintings that continue the pastoral romantic tradition in which she was trained, as her companion painter at Brockley, Mildred Eldridge, was to do with her cycle, The Dance of Life, painted for the Orthopaedic Hospital at Gobowen in the Welsh Marches. They shared a belief that humans are most complete when close to the rhythms of the natural world, to which
Eldridge brought a more mistrustful view of ‘civilisation’. These are themes of urgent contemporary relevance and far from sentimental.
Several of Dunbar’s major late works remain to be relocated and revealed. Autumn and the Poet (CAT 114) has the look of a post-war painting in its brushwork and slightly distorted drawing (with a hint of John Minton, perhaps), which pulls away from the more purely classical pre-war works. The iconography of poet and his fecund pin-headed muse, characterized as a season but more representative of nature as a whole, continues the celebratory quality of Dunbar’s painting of the numinous landscape as shaped by man, very different from Minton’s more sinister evocations. Lines in the composition tie the surface together in a root two rectangle, while leading the eye into the distance by
a double perspective.
Dunbar’s last mural commission, Alpha and Omega (CAT 111), painted for the library at Bletchley Park Training College, fortunately survives, although not in situ. The many studies that came with the two paintings to Oxford Brookes University show Dunbar’s range of experiment in finding an appropriate iconography for a modern dress allegory.
Both panels have the unforced otherworldly quality that Dunbar found early on and which stayed with her to the sadly early end."