Seven Days, inscribed on stretcher ‘Design for mural’
Framed (ref: 6719)
Signed and dated. Oil on canvas. 18 x 30 in. (45.8 x 76.2 cm)

Exhibited: Corn Exchange, Rochester, May 1939; Evelyn Dunbar - The Lost Works, Pallant House Gallery, October 2015 - February 2016, cat 72. Literature: Evelyn Dunbar - The Lost Works, eds Sacha Llewellyn & Paul Liss, July 2015, cat. 72, page 110, 112-113; Evelyn Dunbar: A Life in Painting, Christopher Campbell-Howes, October 2016, pages 238-240. Seven Days, one of Dunbar’s most intriguing - and powerful - allegorical paintings, has ‘Design for a mural’ written on the frame and scrawled on the back. Completed in 1938, it was exhibited in May 1939 at the Corn Exchange, Rochester, with this subtitle. What mural this refers to is not known. There’s an unusual clue to its destiny as a mural design: several extraneous red transfer lines remain on the canvas. Which way should we read the figures? Left to right, the normal direction we read in, or right to left, following the group from the light to the dark, following the increasing length of the shadows? Does it matter? I think it does, maybe in the Kierkegaardian sense of life being lived forwards but understood backwards. On one level Seven Days is all about gardening, with one telling exception. Moving from left to right, Numbers 2 and 3 (the woman with the lily and hydrangeas), 4 and 5 all carry references to making things grow, to looking after creation, even at the level of the garden, in return, as is usual in Dunbar’s work, for having been given it by the Creator. Number 6 sums up the benefits: she’s carrying a basket of fruit, probably plums. Then Number 7, whom we can now confidently associate with Sunday, is reading, attending to things of the mind. Maybe it’s her Bible, we don’t know, but significantly behind her there’s a door in the wall, maybe opening on to wider horizons and brighter truths. The top of the wall is strongly lit, suggesting that whatever lies beyond it basks in sunlight. On another level Seven Days is a personal statement. In preliminary sketches Number 1 is carrying a baby, her own particular harvest and promise for the future. Why did Dunbar change her to a woman carrying washing? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that a little before the design of Seven Days was finalised Dunbar miscarried. The father was Charles Mahoney, her colleague and lover, formerly her Royal College of Art tutor. They weren’t married. Their relationship came apart as her pregnancy was confirmed. The miscarriage and separation was a time of terrible misery for her, leading to what Dunbar called her ‘crisis’ years, which only ended with her 1940 appointment as a war artist. Christopher Campbell-Howes

We are grateful to Christopher Campbell-Howes for assistance.

Provenance: Roger Folley; Alasdair Dunbar; Hammer Mill Oast Collection

Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960)

The importance of Evelyn Dunbar (1906-1960) in the history of British 20th century art is continually being reassessed and belatedly recognised. A gifted draughtswoman: youthful prodigy; brilliant student at the Royal College of Art under Sir William Rothenstein and a galaxy of teaching staff including Allan Gwynne-Jones, Alan Sorrell and Charles Mahoney; principal muralist at Brockley School; book illustrator; devout Christian Scientist; official World War 2 artist, the only woman artist to be salaried throughout the war; post-war allegorist and much-loved teacher; subtly insistent feminist; devoted plantswoman, gardener and inspired advocate of 'green' values; warm and witty but self-effacing personality with many accomplishments including, unexpectedly, rock-climbing and playing the banjo; but above all a very individual artist of spirited imagination and consummate technique, whose work, which hangs in all major UK galleries and several overseas, defies ready classification.

Born in Reading, Berkshire, into a merchant family, Evelyn Dunbar moved in childhood to Kent, where she lived for most of her life. A close post-RCA relationship with Charles Mahoney, with whom she shared the painting of the Brockley Murals, also led to the jointly written and illustrated Gardeners' Choice (1937). Her Christian Scientist background helped her to develop firm ideas about the interaction of mankind and nature. Initially limited to the context of the family garden in Rochester, Kent, her ideas found a wider field of expression when, having been appointed Official War Artist in 1940, Evelyn Dunbar quickly became particularly associated with the Women's Land Army. Her remit to record women's home front activities also allowed her to promote a gentle and unaggressive feminism.

Evelyn Dunbar's relationship with Mahoney ended in 1937. In 1940 she met and married Roger Folley, then an RAF officer but later to become a leading horticultural economist. Their common interests and convictions encouraged Dunbar, after the war, to concentrate on a series of allegorical paintings and drawings which reflected her beliefs, and also her debt to Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaëlites, whose ideas about the function of art and the place of narrative in painting she acknowledged as strongly influential.

Evelyn Dunbar divided her postwar years between allegories, teaching as a Visitor at the Ruskin School, exhibiting - as she had done before the war - in a rather dilatory and self-effacing way, and, towards the end of her life, recording her beloved Kent in landscapes again expressive of the synergy between man and nature. Evelyn Dunbar died suddenly at the age of 53, leaving behind a studio collection of some 800 works, major and minor, which only came to light in 2013 and for the public presentation of which Liss Llewellyn Fine Art has been responsible. Among them was a wealth of paintings and drawings bespeaking, as does her entire œuvre, a warm and cheerful personality working in the best humanist tradition of English art, and a modest and imaginative woman of deep convictions, richly gifted in her means and techniques of expressing them.

We are grateful to Christopher Campbell Howes for his assistance.

See all works by Evelyn Dunbar