Dunlop, Ronald Ossory ('R. O.', 'ROD') (1894–1973), artist, was born 28 June 1894 at 71 Lower Drumcondra Road, Dublin, second of three children and only son of Daniel Nicol Dunlop (qv), a Scottish-born clerk and theosophist, and Eleanor Dunlop (née Fitzpatrick), a Dublin native. His father – who, through his prominence in the Dublin lodge of the Theosophical Society, was intimate with George Russell (qv) ('Æ'), and knew William Butler Yeats (qv) and other important writers of the literary revival – became a successful businessman in the electrical industry and a leading figure in the theosophical and anthroposophical movements internationally. Ronald described him as aloof, and their relationship as remote and detached; when travelling on the same train they would choose separate carriages, not owing to antipathy, but to a dearth of common interest and emotional warmth, and to a mutually felt desire for independence.
Ronald moved with his family at age three to New York and at age five to London. After attending a school near the family home in Wandsworth, he boarded at the Friends' School, Saffron Walden, Essex, where he excelled at drawing and painting. His talent led to friction with his father, who disapproved of his becoming an artist, foreseeing only financial insecurity in such a career. After several unhappy months of office work in Manchester – his father's career having taken the family to Hale, Cheshire – he spent one year as a printer's devil in a works at Trafford Park, while taking night classes at Manchester's municipal school of art and moving in the city's art and literary scene (c.1912). The year out, he refused to sign the indenture papers binding him to a further six-years' apprenticeship. By 1914 the family had returned to London, where Dunlop worked as a commercial artist, first in the studio of an advertising agency and then in the publicity department of W. H. Smith. A conscientious objector during the first world war, owing to pacifist convictions derived from his father's quaker background and his own education in a quaker school, he may have been imprisoned briefly, and as an alternative to military service was assigned to farm work in Cheshire, and then to home general service with the Friends' Ambulance Unit.
Determining after the war to give himself ten years to become a full-time professional artist, he earned money by free-lance advertising work, while devoting most of his time to developing his painting skills in a small studio in the family home, and taking evening courses nearby at Wimbledon School of Art, where his reputation was that of a rebel. Out of weekly informal discussions in his studio, there emerged c.1923 the 'emotionist group' of artists, writers and musicians, who included the painter Jean Shepeard (1904–90), Dunlop's lover at the time; the artist and illustrator Clifford Hooper Rowe (1904–89); and the then poet and emerging actress Peggy Ashcroft (1907–91). (The London progressive art scene at the time was dominated by a plethora of such groups in opposition to the established, staidly conservative art societies.) Meeting and exhibiting at the Hurricane Lamp Gallery, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, the emotionist group attracted such occasional visitors as George Bernard Shaw (qv), Sybil Thorndike and Aldous Huxley. A reaction to the perceived over-intellectualising and excessive theorising of modernist movements in the arts – especially the 'sterile head work' of cubism and the 'stunts' of surrealism (Dunlop, 40) – the emotionists believed that the artist must be emotionally engaged with his subject, express that engagement in his execution, and thereby invoke an emotional response in the viewer: 'The heart must govern all artistic work, not the head. You must love what you wish to create' (ibid., 39). The group produced a short-lived journal, Emotionism (1928), to which Dunlop contributed a manifesto, a poem, and a reproduction of one of his paintings, 'The fish market'.
From the start of his career, Dunlop favoured large swaths of strong, pure colour, applied thickly to his canvas. By the late 1920s he was chiefly painting still lifes and small head-and-shoulder portraits of friends, employing a limited palette of rich, dark tones, breaking down his subject into several large components each of which was depicted in a single colour, executed with verve and feeling. His breakthrough came with a successful one-man show at the Redfern Gallery on Old Bond Street (1928), where he sold every painting exhibited and out of which he secured several prestigious portrait commissions. The proceeds of the show financed a seven-week trip to Paris, where Dunlop immersed himself in historic and contemporary French art (he especially admired Pissarro and Sisley), and took informal life classes at an art school in Montparnasse. A second one-man Redfern show (1929) financed a two-month painting trip to south-eastern France. His reputation thus established, he realised his ambition of supporting himself entirely by the sales of his paintings, and abandoned commercial art entirely, save for occasional commissions for signed paintings for use in advertisements.
Dunlop's aim when painting portraits was not to capture the character or emotional state of the sitter, but to explore a purely aesthetic interest in representing the shapes and colours of the masses of the face. He soon came to dislike painting portraits to order on commission (and frequently failing to fulfil the philistine expectations of sitters), so during the 1930s he concentrated increasingly on still life and especially on landscape (the genre for which he became most renowned), and confined his portraiture to pictures of his friends, hired models, himself, and a few cultured clients (mostly personalities in theatre and the arts). Moving residence to Leatherhead, Surrey, he painted the local landscape and made regular painting excursions elsewhere, especially to the Thames valley and the Channel coast. Never owning a motor car, throughout his career he relied on public transport and walking when accessing locations to paint. His recurring landscape subjects were inland woods and riversides, and coastal scenes (with a special penchant for estuaries and harbours); he was especially drawn to depict water, in all its natural guises.
Working in a bold, bravura style, Dunlop favoured rapid execution of a canvas in a remarkably thick, rich impasto, applying undiluted paints with the palette knife, often creating surfaces that were almost sculptural, with shadow-casting ridges. Throughout his mid career, the palette knife was his exclusive instrument for laying the paint, employed throughout the picture, not merely to achieve effects on a section of the surface. The foremost British-based exponent of the technique, he influenced many emulators, both professional and amateur. His compositions thus achieved were impulsive and vigorous, pulsating with energy and vitality, the colours vibrant and glowing. Dunlop compared the palette-knife technique to that of mosaic, in that it involved building an image with precisely placed daubs of pure colour. He eschewed representation of the visual world in precise, painstaking detail and small finish, preferring a sweeping, enraptured summation of what the eye saw, without excessive elaboration: 'it is better to understate than to overdo. Leave off painting whilst the emotional energy is hot' (ibid., 75).
Dunlop attracted wide attention with his 1939 exhibition at the Reid and Lefevre Galleries, the first solo show by an artist in a London gallery after the declaration of war. Distressed by the increased industrialisation around his north Surrey home, soon after the war he moved to Old Mill Cottage, Barnham, West Sussex, a quiet rural location with excellent rail connections to London and the coast, and frequent bus services among the neighbouring villages; scenes along the river Arun became a frequent motif in his work, and he revelled in the clear, bright light of the region. In the 1950s his style mellowed to a degree, and he moved away from exclusive use of the palette knife, achieving softer tones and tonal gradations, and subtler effects, by using diluted pigments applied with sable brushes.
From his discovery in the late 1920s, Dunlop's work was purchased regularly by several prominent private collectors. Treating unchallenging, traditional subjects in a post-impressionist style that was no longer avant-garde and had lost the power to shock mainstream taste, he enjoyed considerable commercial success, and commanded wide public recognition and acclaim. He is represented by three works in the Tate collection, London: 'Lifeboat, Walberswick' (1936), 'Rosalind Iden as Ophelia' (1940) – both purchased for the Tate by the Chantrey bequest – and the self-portrait 'Myself with cadger's pipe' (1950); the latter was exhibited at the Royal Academy (RA) in the year of his election. The National Portrait Gallery, London, holds his portrait (c.1930) of pianist Harriet Cohen (1895–1967) and his portrait (1935–45) of the actor and playwright Emlyn Williams (1905–87). His portrait (c.1953) of ballet dancer Sally Gilmour (1921–2004) is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. His wide representation in British provincial galleries owes to the accessibility of his subjects and style to a large audience, and the relatively modest prices at which such institutions could procure his works. The Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, holds a landscape, 'Snow at Walberswick' (c.1932).
As a boy Dunlop often returned to Ireland with his family on his father's annual visits to the Dublin horse show. He made his first painting trip to the country in 1937, executing scenes in Dublin city and environs. After the war he was a frequent visitor, painting landscapes, seascapes and townscapes on and near both the east and west coasts. On five occasions he exhibited at the RHA, in 1940 and annually from 1954 to 1957, showing one self-portrait (1954) and landscapes of West Sussex and of Dublin ('The river Dodder, Dublin' (1940)).
The scope of Dunlop's appeal was reflected in the eclecticism of his professional affiliations. He became a member of the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA) (1929), the progressive London Group (1934), the traditionalist New English Art Club (NEAC) (1935), and the eclectic National Society (1930s). Elected an associate member of the RA in 1939, he became a full member in 1950. A part-time instructor at Epsom School of Art, he was a frequent lecturer to local art societies and sketching clubs throughout Britain. He wrote books on art history and appreciation, and instructional manuals on painting and sketching, the titles including: Modern still life painting in oils (1938); Understanding pictures: from primitive art to surrealism (1948); Painting for pleasure (1951); Sketching for pleasure (1954); and Landscape painting: Ma Yuan to Picasso (1954). He insisted that his memoir, Struggling with paint (1956), was not an autobiography, as it only dealt with those aspects of his life that he deemed relevant to his development as an artist; the text is peppered liberally with his ideas about art, assessments of the major modern artists, and descriptions of his working methods and technique. He generally signed his paintings as 'Dunlop'; signed correspondence and published books as 'R. O. Dunlop'; and was known informally to family and friends as 'ROD'.
Dunlop remained faithful to the fundamental tenets of his early emotionism, holding that the artist's primary aim must be a visceral engagement with his subject, and that his keynote must be sincerity, a steadfast commitment to be entirely himself in his work, and not the pawn of stylistic fads or commercial pressures. Regarding emotionism less as a movement than as a constant tenor or tendency in the arts, he was critical of most of the twentieth-century artistic 'isms', largely for their failure to invoke an emotional response, a 'quiver of the heart', and regarded them as phases in the history of art, logical and necessary developments of the experiments of nineteenth-century impressionism and post-impressionism, but historical cul-de-sacs.
A man of great energy and will, Dunlop was determinedly unsophisticated socially, with a reputation for blunt speech and impetuous, unpredictable behaviour regardless of company or setting. Fiercely independent in his private and professional lives, he suffered no distractions in the single-minded devotion to his art. He married (1914) Flora Durrant Pascall (1884–1945), a hospital nurse, daughter of a successful businessman and public official in Hammersmith; within a short time they separated (though never did so legally), whereafter he had little involvement with her or their one daughter. Subsequently he had many relationships, of varying duration, with women. After Flora's death, he married his housekeeper, with whom it is reported that he had one son and one daughter. He died 18 May 1973, probably in Sussex.