Evelyn Dunbar

Posted by: Claire Komacek

Accomplished painter, muralist, and illustrator, Evelyn Dunbar was the only salaried female war artist commissioned by the British government during World War II.1 Dunbar’s wartime paintings serve as historical documentation and testimony to the often unspoken but important war efforts of women on the home front and with the Women’s Land Army, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and the nurses of St. Thomas Hospital. Working within a male-dominated field, Dunbar chose to highlight the important work of women and their massive contribution to the war effort from a feminist perspective, depicting women with dignity and strength adapting to the harsh reality of their changing lives.

Dunbar was already a highly accomplished and renowned painter before the war. She studied at both Rochester and Chelsea Schools of Art before enrolling at the Royal College of Art where she graduated in 1933.2 During her senior year there, she was chosen by her professor Charles Mahoney to work on several large murals in the assembly hall of Brockley County School for Boys in London.3 By herself, Dunbar completed one of the five major wall panels and the entire frieze, while simultaneously working on sections of the remaining wall panels and ceiling.4 The murals depict allegorical subjects and scenes from Aesop’s Fables, and Dunbar used her two sisters as figure models.5 She retained an interest in large-scale public works throughout her career, and later went on to become a member of the Society of Mural Painters.6

Dunbar’s mural work at the Brockley School was so well received that in 1937 she collaborated once again with Mahoney to publish Gardeners’ Choice, ‘an illustrated guide to forty herbaceous perennial plants.’7 She had acquired a strong interest in plants and gardening from her mother which would continue to influence her art career.8 Her mother and sisters are featured in several of Dunbar’s vignettes for Gardeners’ Choice, and her written texts exhibit an ‘intimate knowledge of chosen plants.’9

Dunbar continued to flourish as an artist, and by the outbreak of the war, one of her paintings had already been purchased by the National Gallery through the contemporary artists exhibition.10 In 1938, Dunbar opened her own art gallery, The Blue Gallery, in the first floor of her sisters’ well-established haberdashery store, The Fancy Shop.11 She exhibited her own work as well as the work of fellow artists Charles Mahoney, Edward Bawden, Allan Gwynne-Jones, Barnett Freedman, and Kenneth Rowntree, and even included several of her mothers’ floral still-lifes.12 However, Dunbar was forced to close The Blue Gallery due to the outbreak of the war that following year.

It was at this point that she wrote to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee offering her services as an artist and expressing specific interest in agriculture and horticulture.13 Through the National Gallery, her work was introduced to Kenneth Clark, then the gallery’s director, who held strong influence over the appointment of war artists,14 and in 1940 Dunbar was appointed an Official War Artist, commissioned by the Ministry of Information to record civilian war efforts, that which were largely of women and women’s organizations.15 Her first commission, A Knitting Party, features her mother hosting a group of women in her own home, fervently producing piles of knitted garments. A Knitting Party serves as historical documentation of the national frenzy of knitting that took place on the British home front to support the needs of the military. Another early painting, A Canning Demonstration, depicts a group of women sitting in a community hall learning how to ‘preserve fruit in tins’16 through a demonstration given by the Ministry of Food. In light of food rations, canning functioned as a way for women to participate in the war effort and provide food for their families. Another scene from the home front, The Queue at the Fish Shop, displays a long line consisting of mostly women and small children waiting to purchase fresh fish. ‘Because fish is perishable and was never rationed, the queues were always very long; even air raids could not disperse them.17 The Queue at the Fish Shop documents this time of change and difficult process of adapting to new and daily routines.

In 1940, Dunbar was sent to the Farm Institute of Sparsholt, Winchester, to document the training of the Women’s Land Army.18 Her paintings submitted to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee at this time unapologetically depict the women engaged in rugged, brute farm work. ‘Unlike some of her counterparts, she did not object to being limited to women’s activities,’19 but took as much pride in depicting these women as they themselves did in their work. Dunbar developed a close relationship with the women she lived with and painted, and would frequently ‘entertain them in the evenings by drawing their portraits on the blackboard.’20

Dunbar painted the Women’s Land Army diligently tackling strenuous, repetitive tasks, in the dairy, ‘learning to milk cows using mechanical dummy machines’21 and cleaning milk churns, and on the farm, working the land, pruning the fields, and harvesting the crops. Baling Hay depicts the strength and effort of women putting their back into the work of gathering hay; one woman lifts a heavy bundle of hay, as large as herself, over her head with a pitchfork. Potato Sorting shows similar strenuous work; women lift large heavy baskets and shovelfuls of potatoes. In addition to their farm labor, she painted their mundane, day-to-day experiences as seen in Land Army Girls Going to Bed and Women’s Land Army Hostel.

During her time as Sparsholt, Women’s Land Army instructor Michael Greenhill asked Dunbar to collaborate on an instruction manual of farm work for new recruits.22 Dunbar’s second book, A Book of Farmcraft, features pen and ink illustrations of correct and incorrect methods of various farm tasks; it proved to be a much-need guidebook that eventually sold 40,000 copies.23 After this, Dunbar went on to record the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, where she painted several portraits.

In 1942, Dunbar was sent to record the nurses of St. Thomas Hospital after its bombing in and subsequent relocation to St Nicholas’ Orthopaedic Hospital in Pyrford, Surrey.24 Her paintings are highly focused on this state of emergency, depicting evacuation procedures in hospital quarters and civilian trains that were used to evacuate casualties on short notice. Another painting of this time, Convalescent Nurses Making Camouflage Nets, is a rarely seen documentation of women completely the important task of ‘weaving netting and painted canvas into chicken wire to be used as canopies to conceal key military installations and air bases.’25

Dunbar’s painting commissions continued throughout the war, and she ‘often expressed pleasure in her work and enthusiasm for further commissions.’26 After the war, she settled down in Ashford, Kent with her husband Roger Folley, a horticultural economist and former Royal Air Force officer, whom she had met during her time with the Woman’s Land Army at Farm Institute of Sparsholt where he lectured.27 Dunbar continued to paint as well as organize exhibitions at Wye Agricultural College and lecture part-time at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford.28

‘Her major post-war paintings combine her strongly developed and inventive sense of design, composition, and color with her new-found liberty to unleash her individual vision,’29 with themes focused largely on landscapes of her home in Kent, and on allegorical paintings of female subjects. Dunbar painted a trilogy of allegorical paintings – Mercatora, Oxford, and Dorset, and although Mercatora has since been lost,30 both Oxford and Dorset show Dunbar’s lifelong interest in plants and life work with women, while simultaneously drawing upon the archetype of Mother Earth.

In Dorset, a gowned woman sits upon the windblown grass, her forearms resting on her upraised knees; the wind billows the sleeves of her gown and golden hair which is swathed in a ring of leaves. Her face is illuminated by the sunlight; she focuses her pensive stare between her hands, her fingertips together as if in thought or prayer. Dorset parallels woman’s fertility against the fertile land, and stands as an image of woman’s power and will. It is not hard to see how Dunbar might have drawn inspiration for Dorset from her experience with the Women’s Land Army, of women working intimately with the land and its harvest.

More than fifty years after her death, Dunbar’s first solo exhibition is currently on view at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex. The exhibition features a vast body of ‘lost works,’ over 500 paintings, drawings, and studies found hidden in the attic of her Kent home.’31 This exhibition serves to not only bring awareness to her work, which has largely been unrecognized, but to finally give Dunbar the recognition she deserves as a significant 20th century war artist and painter.


1. ‘Dorset, 1947-1948,’ Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960) 20th Century British Artist, accessed November 13th, 2015, http://evelyndunbar.com/6746art0_Evelyn+Dunbar.htm.
2. ‘A Canning Demonstration,’ BBC Your Paintings, accessed November 13th, 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/a-canning-demonstration-7690.
3. ‘Women’s Land Army Dairy Training,’ BBC Your Paintings, accessed November 13th, 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/womens-land-army-dairy-training-7692.
4. ‘Baling Hay,’ BBC Your Paintings, accessed November 13th, 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/baling-hay.
5. ‘Standing-By on Train 21: A Civilian Evacuation Train Ready to Evacuate Casualties at Short Notice,’ BBC Your Paintings, accessed November 13th, 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/standing-by-on-train-21-a-civilian-evacuation-train-ready-t7024.

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