Roadworks by Evelyn Dunbar
‘Roadworks’, an early work by Evelyn Dunbar that sold for £19,000 at Cheffins of Cambridge.

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Most recently, an early work emerged from a descendant of the artist at the latest art and design sale at Cheffins of Cambridge.

Thought to have been produced while studying at Rochester School of Art in c.1926, likely as an exercise set by her tutor Harold Shimmell, the 14 x 18in (36 x 46cm) oil on canvas depicts a scene near the Dunbar family home in Strood, Kent. Uncharacteristic of her later style that developed in the 1940s during her time as the only officially commissioned female war artist, it was one of only three known urban scenes in Dunbar’s oeuvre according to the artist’s nephew and biographer Christopher Campbell-Howes.

Bidding began slowly at the sale on January 25, but the £3000-5000 estimate was eventually easily eclipsed and it drew intense competition before it was knocked down at a final £19,000.

Rare appearance

The price in Cambridge was all the more notable in light of the fact that it was only six years ago that the first pictures by the artist ever to appear at auction were sold. The three pictures that emerged at TW Gaze in Diss in July 2011 sold for a combined £5100 to dealer Andrew Sim of Sim Fine Art. The trio of paintings, which included the only major example of her work as a war artist to have been sold since the Second World War, later featured in Sim’s exhibition Holding the Line in November 2011.

Evelyn Dunbar received further attention in 2013 when one of her paintings appeared on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow and was highly praised by the show’s picture expert Rupert Maas. However, the work was almost impossible to value at the time as the artist had no real track-record commercially.

Sim told ATG that a market never really developed as the majority of her known works, which were made while she worked for War Artists' Advisory Committee on a full-time salaried basis, remained the property of the state and have since passed to institutions such as the Tate.

However, last year a few works sold at auction, firstly at Sworders in February where a study for a mural for Brockley County School took £3100 and then, more spectacularly, painting titled Joseph’s Dream from 1938-42 which had been in the collection of the Cambridge County Council school fund, fetched £60,000 at Cheffins, establishing a major auction record for the artist.