Steven Marshall, the curator of a new exhibition of Evelyn Dunbar’s paintings, spoke to Socialist Worker
Evelyn Dunbar was the only British woman artist paid by the government to record the Second World War. She painted unsentimental images of the Women’s Land Army that are easily recognised, yet she is largely forgotten in discussions of Second World War art today.
Dunbar was a mural and landscape painter who was commissioned by a government committee to record scenes from the home front.
In her paintings, there is a recurring theme of women adapting to unfamiliar work and surroundings as both the war and technology moulded, framed and shaped lives.
Steven Marshall is the curator of the exhibition. He told Socialist Worker, “This is the first retrospective exhibition focusing on the career of this accomplished painter, muralist, illustrator and war artist.
“It features over 30 of her paintings on loan from a number of other public and private collections from across Britain. Among these will be 15 of the works she painted while working as an official war artist, including her most famous work, A Land Girl and the Bail Bull, which was featured in David Dimbleby’s recent series, A Picture of Britain.”
Evelyn Dunbar’s most famous commissions were part of the official schemes the British government established for artists to record both the First and Second World Wars.
During the Second World War a structured approach to official picture collecting was taken by the War Artists Advisory Committee - a governmental committee which had been created during the First World War and resurrected during the Second World War.
After the war, one third of the collection was allocated to the Imperial War Museum.
Dunbar’s contribution to our perception of the Second World War is unique. Marshall explains, “Dunbar was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Commission to depict women’s work on the home front and she has left us with an evocative but unsentimental record of this often unsung part of the war effort.
“She is particularly remembered for her poetic but carefully observed paintings of the Women’s Land Army, recording their training at Sparsholt Farm Institute in Hampshire, their work in the fields and their day to day life in the hostels that accommodated them.
“She also painted nurses at St Thomas’s Hospital and the staff on the hospital trains designed to tend civilian casualties away from the dangers of cities during the Blitz.
“Dunbar has also left us sympathetic but humorous depictions of life on the home front, including Women’s Institute knitting parties and canning demonstrations, and the queue outside an empty fish shop. Through these paintings we get a vision of what life was like for ordinary people but also the massive contribution made by women.
“She was the only woman war artist employed on a salaried basis to record women’s activities on the home front.
“As such she was quite unique and was very much a woman working on her own terms in a male dominated domain.”
Evelyn Dunbar - War and Country is on at the St Barbe Museum, Lymington until 18 November. Go to www.stbarbe-museum.org.uk or phone 01590 676 969