Clara Cowling, who died in 1946, was Florence Dunbar’s elder sister, hence Evelyn Dunbar’s aunt. A Yorkshirewoman and a devout Christian Scientist, she moved south to the Kent-Sussex borders with her husband Stead Cowling in the early 1920s. Stead Cowling was a wealthy Bradford woolmaster, who sold his business on his retirement in order to buy an estate called Steellands, on the northern edge of the village of Ticehurst. Here the Cowlings were fairly close to the Dunbars, who lived in Rochester, maybe an hour to the north. In addition to painting in a Sunday kind of way, Clara Cowling was (like her sister Florence) a dedicated and green-fingered gardener. Dunbar perhaps owed as much to her aunt Clara in the way of gardening practice and philosophy as she did to her mother Florence. In the late 1920s and 1930s Dunbar looked on Steellands almost as a second home, visiting as often as she could. The Cowlings part-financed Dunbar’s Royal College of Art studies, and helped to keep her afloat in lean years thereafter. Clara Cowling died in 1946, surviving her husband by 12 years
In Dunbar’s oil sketch, probably done in the late 1920s, the vibrant brilliance of the greens is both an actual and a symbolic background to the energy, dedication and (let it be said) the freshness of the beliefs and faith of her aunt Clara. She is seen here digging a shallow trench at the edge of one of the woods with which Steellands abounded. Whatever she is going to plant lies hidden in the trug in the foreground, but we can perhaps guess at spring bulbs en masse: the Steellands daffodils were famously splendid.
We are grateful to Christopher-Campbell Howes, author of Evelyn Dunbar: A Life in Painting, for the above text and the image below:
Cowling in Steellands garden, circa 1930