Thursday, 26 July 2012

A Canning Demonstration (1940)

Evelyn Dunbar: A Canning Demonstration 1940 (20" x 24": 51 x 61cm) Imperial War Museum, London

With this unusual little painting Evelyn plunges us into the unsuspected but calmly beating heart of the home front of World War 2. The year is 1940, the month is August or September, and the place is a public hall in one of the villages near Rochester, in Kent: Shorne, perhaps, or Cuxton or Higham. It may be still there. Perhaps someone recognises it?

At this moment, in the Kentish skies above this village hall, the Battle of Britain is being fought. The Blitz has started, the Luftwaffe is overflying Kent to bomb London and other cities, including the Medway Towns of Rochester, Chatham with its important Royal Navy dockyard and largely residential Gillingham. We now know that heroic exertions by the Royal Air Force are gradually driving Hitler's bombers out of the sky, although it hardly seems so at the time. If we could hear what is going on in A Canning Demonstration, we would probably notice the white-overalled demonstrator's voice rise and fall in counterpoint with the drone of heavy German bombers, the scream and whine of RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes amid bursts of anti-aircraft fire.

And while this raging battle, on which the nation's survival may depend, is going on the women of Britain are calmly learning how to preserve fruit in tins. What we are seeing is part of a nation-wide scheme initiated by the Ministry of Food, and organised at a local level by branches of the Women's Institute (WI). 1940, like the year before it, was remarkable for the glut of summer fruit and vegetables, an abundance that would go to waste unless steps were taken to preserve it. Small-scale canning was something new: while tinned foods had been available for many years, the techniques and equipment for canning were not generally available.

So Evelyn has set up her easel at the back of the stage of her chosen village hall, not far from her home in Rochester. The woman in what would have been called a red costume is the President of the local WI. Nothing has started to happen yet, so presumably she has just introduced the white-overalled demonstrator. Later, the President will remind the members that the village hall is the Government local centre for canning, that the equipment will be kept there, that no one can operate it in their own home or without recording details of what has been canned.

She will add that any garden or allotment produce can be brought for canning by the WI, plus any fruit, like brambles or blueberries, gathered from the hedgerows. The Government will purchase whatever has been canned. The WI canning centre will be subject to Government inspection. Madam President, or the demonstrator, may stipulate that some fruit, like strawberries, can only be jammed, reminding the audience that sugar is rationed and that serious penalties await WI members who try to filch canning centre special ration sugar for their own purposes. I don't know if the woman towards the left of the back row is wiping her brow in reaction to this information. 

Left to right along the demonstrator's trestle table we can see about 20 empty tins, an apparatus called an end seamer (for sealing cans) clamped to the table, a basket of plums; to the right of the demonstrator, jars of sugar (vital for the sugar syrup in which fruit is preserved) and crockery etc. for making up the various strengths of syrup; Madam President is leaning over more plums, while on her right there are more baskets of what appear to be raspberries and gooseberries.

On the apron of the stage, left to right, there is more sugar, wrapped as it usually was in thick blue paper. 'Sugar paper', for painting on, will be a term familiar to anyone who ever attended a British primary school: here's the origin of it. A basket of runner beans and carrots lies next to a basket of what I can only think are tomatoes, not nearly as common in 1940 as now. A sort of bain marie lies next to a primus stove, fuelled by pressurised paraffin, with a saucepan on it ready to blanch the produce or heat the water for the sugar syrup.

In her brisk and entertaining book A Force To Be Reckoned With: A History Of The Women's Institute, the author Jane Robinson describes the activities of Margaret Leech, a Rural Domestic Economy Instructor with a special training in the preservation of soft fruit. Margaret Leech was employed by the WI to tour the country giving canning demonstrations of the type Evelyn has painted. She is quoted as saying 'The WI audiences were marvellous. Nothing like a good war to cheer up the WI.'

We don't know if the white-overalled demonstrator was Margaret Leech, or whether the cans and equipment were those imported from the United States under a Government scheme, subsequently sold to WI branches for £24 or rented for so much by the week.

There's another possibility. In the trans-Medway Rochester suburb of Strood the Metal Box Company had a factory specialising, in 1940, in the manufacture what they called 'open top', i.e. cans of the type Evelyn has painted. In the pre-war years Metal Box also employed experts to tour the country explaining the canning process to small-scale producers, private and commercial. They also hired out 'end seamers', also made in Rochester, which sealed the cans in a way like a tin-opener in reverse. I wonder if Evelyn's demonstrator is a Metal Box expert?

A Canning Demonstration was quickly and simply done, and maybe there was no need for a very highly finished canvas. Evelyn has once again shown her very remarkable ability to create an imaginative and balanced composition taken from an unusual angle. Again she has applied her sense of fun to the occasion, in a way a bit reminiscent of Brueghel: I've mentioned the woman wiping her brow, but the secretary at the door waiting for late-comers to come in and register - there are empty chairs - with her head on her hand is a master-stroke of balance. The President's posture suggests an amiable lady of the manor, maybe a little out of her depth, and as for the row of feet just visible beneath the trestle table...

But there's a lot more than engaging detail. The canned fruit and vegetables will be distributed to forces' canteens, quartermasters' stores, army messes, navy wardrooms, the NAAFI, sustaining British servicemen and servicewomen. We aren't far from Evelyn's constant theme of the Covenant between Man and Nature: as promised, the land that Mankind has looked after has in return delivered its bounty. Some may add the comment along the lines of women providing for those very men at that very moment risking death in aerial dogfights thousands of feet above their heads.

(Text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2012. All rights reserved.)

Further reading...
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing (1940)

Evelyn Dunbar: Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing 1940 (2' x 3': 61 x 76cm) Imperial War Museum, London

This most unusual composition was the first painting Evelyn submitted to the War Artists Advisory Committee. After her appointment as an Official War Artist in April 1940, she was advised to put herself in the hands of Lady Reading, who had founded the Women's Voluntary Service two years earlier. As a result she was directed to Bisham Abbey, near Marlow in Buckinghamshire, to observe and record the various forms of civilian training for wartime emergencies that took place there. One of these was for dealing with chemical weapons, particularly poison gas bombing.

At the outbreak of war in September 1939 it was widely expected that poison gases would be used. There was good reason to think so. Mustard and other poison gases had been used in the trenches in World War I, occasionally with the unintended consequence of an unexpected change of wind direction causing as much harm to attacker as to attacked. Despite an ambivalently worded clause in the Geneva Protocol of 1922, the development of poison gases and chemicals as strategic weapons had developed in the inter-war period. The simultaneous development of heavy bombers for the indiscriminate delivery of chemical weapons involved civilian populations in a way never before experienced. People were aware that in 1924 the Spanish had used gas in their colonial wars in Morocco. They believed that Mussolini's armies had used gas more widely in the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Neither showed much discrimination between civilians and combatants.

Why gas was never used in World War II is a question sometimes asked by military historians. Probably the reason lay in mutual fear of retaliation. However, gas was expected, and precautions were taken. The entire British population was issued with gas masks. Older readers will remember them, close-fitting rubber masks held on the the head by adjustable webbing straps, with a flexible perspex window and a cylindrical snout supposed to filter out noxious substances in the air. People were expected to carry their gas masks everywhere, in a cardboard, or sometimes leather, box with a shoulder strap. (We will see one of these in one of Evelyn's most significant war paintings, The Queue at the Fish Shop, later on.) There was a special gas-suit for babies. Small children were equipped with gas-masks with a rubber non-return snout for breathing out, which made agreeable farting noises if you exhaled hard, I remember. Special  masks were designed for horses and dogs too.  Here are some regular gas-masks of the period:


And by the time the photos below were taken it was clear that the risk of gas attacks had lessened, and that the whole business of gas-masks had become leavened with the British propensity to make light of adversity:


It isn't recorded, as far as I know, what Sir Kenneth Clark, chairman of the War Artists Advisory Committee and also director of the National Gallery in London, thought of the extraordinary first painting Evelyn submitted. It was accepted immediately for display at the National Gallery, and later went on tour, eventually reaching the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1941 as part of an exhibition entitled Britain at War.

It's another of Evelyn's compartmented paintings. The last one we looked at was An English Calendar, with 25 boxes. Evelyn has reduced the number to 6, and has possibly invoked the idea of progression in the strip cartoon to show the various stages.

I don't know who Evelyn's models were. Maybe there weren't any: the faces are very simply drawn. For observers of the gender implications of dress it may be notable that both women are wearing trousers, the dresser as everyday wear and the dressee as part of her work clothing. She is also wearing a tie. By box 3 her chief model is wearing an ordinary British military helmet painted black with a white A on it, showing she's a member of an ambulance crew, maybe the driver. Her mission will be to rescue the suffering from gas-affected areas, most likely London. She's protected against the various forms of chemical weapons that were commonly expected, those that affected respiration or the nervous system and those that left lesions and blisterings on the skin.

But somehow Evelyn has managed to turn something grim and appalling into a triumph. The last box sees her model looking determinedly out of the frame, ready to face whatever mortal danger there is in store for her. In between we can feel the unwieldy stiffness of the cumbrous material, in strong contrast with the leisurely slacks, blouse, cardigan and slippers of her dresser, who has disappeared once the putting-on is finished and her agent of protection equipped. She is safe. And both are women, fully involved in activities that had hitherto been almost exclusively the province of men.

And there's a certain majesty about her principal figure. Except in box 2, her head is held high.  The folds of her protective gear are strongly painted, suggesting confidence and determination. Little is going to daunt this woman. She stands for Britain: at the time Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing was first exhibited, in July 1940, invasion was expected every day, and apart from the Royal Air Force, there was little to resist it. Evelyn's model perfectly represents the quietly defiant mood of a proud nation in great danger. 

(Text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2012. All rights reserved) 

Further reading...
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25

Friday, 6 July 2012

Milking Practice With Artificial Udders (1940)

Evelyn Dunbar: Milking Practice with Artificial Udders 2' x 3' (61 x 76cm) Imperial War Museum, London

In the winter of 1939, after the failure of The Blue Gallery, Evelyn's art gallery above her sisters' shop in Rochester High Street, she heard from Sir William Rothenstein that the Ministry of Information was setting up a scheme for the employment of artists to record wartime activities. Sir William Rothenstein, one the great names in British art in the first half of the 20th century, had been Principal of the Royal College of Art during Evelyn's 1929-33 studentship. He thought very highly of Evelyn's work and remained as a sort of mentor to her until his death in 1945. Evelyn applied, and the following April her appointment as an Official War Artist, answering to the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), was gazetted in The Times. Her application coincided with some exterior pressure on the WAAC to recruit women artists, and Evelyn was one of the first three to be appointed, the others being Dorothy Coke and Ethel Gabain.

Her initial brief was to record home front war-support activities undertaken by the Women's Voluntary Service and the Women's Institute, but subsequently she was directed to the Sparsholt Farm Institute, near Winchester, a centre for the training of Women's Land Army recruits. Among the first batch of paintings submitted to the WAAC in September 1940 was Milking Practice with Artificial Udders.

Evelyn threw herself into this new work with huge energy and enthusiasm. She had been at a crossroads of depression before her appointment, what she called her 'crisis' years. Her separation from Charles Mahoney in late 1937 with its attendant miscarriage had been painful, although they continued to correspond occasionally. The Blue Gallery hadn't been the success she hoped. Her work had seemed purposeless and without direction, and she was condemned to live at home and work behind the counter in her sisters' shop. Now a broad, bright highway beckoned her urgently. The work accorded well with her beliefs about the contract between Man and Nature and even allowed her to promote them, especially when the Women's Land Army was the subject.

Milking Practice with Artificial Udders is a well balanced composition that tells us much. The apparatus consists of a rickety wooden Heath Robinson frame, from which a canvas bag full of water is suspended. The bag is fitted with several red rubber teats. It's all of a piece with the sometimes quaint, amateurish and makeshift expedients and resources that Britain was obliged to fall back on in the earlier days of World War 2. The painting dates from the summer of 1940, and it gives a sense of context to remember that as Evelyn was recording these trainee dairymaids, whom one feels she has got to know quite well, Britain was in the midst of a terrible crisis: the inept Chamberlain government had fallen, Churchill had become Prime Minister and the remnants of the British and French armies were being evacuated from Dunkirk after severe defeat by Hitler's armies. (Indeed, Alec Dunbar, the younger of Evelyn's two brothers, was serving in the Royal Navy and commanded a minesweeper during the Dunkirk evacuation.)

The girls themselves are showing the right way and the wrong way of milking. These are recent recruits to the Women's Land Army, probably in their late teens and with no experience of working on the land. They're probably living away from home for the first time. There's a quiet, fixed determination about them, but later there will be a minor sense of triumph as one of them manages to fill her pail of 'milk' before the other two. Which one it is I leave you to work out while we look at another aspect of Evelyn's work.

While Evelyn was at Sparsholt, Michael Greenhill, who was responsible for the instruction of recruits, invited Evelyn to collaborate on a manual, a primer of farmwork. In due course A Book of Farmcraft appeared, with text by Greenhill and illustrations in pen and ink by Evelyn. Evelyn's preferred method was to complement Greenhill's text by showing the right and wrong ways of doing things - carrying sacks, harnessing horses, steering tractors and trailers through gateways - in paired illustrations. The book clearly fulfilled a deeply-felt need and eventually more than 40 000 copies were sold.

Evelyn Dunbar: illustration from A Book of Farmcraft (Longmans, London,1941)

Her model for the 'right' and 'wrong' way of milking was a senior Sparsholt recruit called Anne Hall. Evelyn's drawing of the 'wrong' way showed Anne Hall deliberately bent double, her milking stool tipped up, her head well forward, arms fully extended and her milking pail - with off-centre aperture - held between her boots. The 'right' way showed her sitting with a less tiring, more upright posture, in such a position that she could, if necessary, rest her cheek against the cow's flank, an action which apparently encourages reluctant cows to give milk. 

Evelyn Dunbar: illustration from A Book of Farmcraft (Longmans, London,1941)

* * *
Evelyn Dunbar: Land Girl Milking c.1940 c. 8" x 12" (20.3 x 30.5cm) Location unknown
I don't know in what circumstances Evelyn's 'right' way was transformed into a pleasant little oil study, apparently measuring 8" x 12" (20.3 x 30.5cm), which at one time was in the possession of Wye College, Kent, having been gifted by Evelyn' husband, Roger Folley, many years after her death in 1960. I knew nothing of its existence until it was reported by the Kensington and Chelsea Gazette as having been stolen from an address in London in May, 2010.

Milking Practice with Artificial Udders is one of the few war paintings of which we have the original sketch. This would have been pieced together - the background of the dairy wash-room with its duckboards, the artificial udder apparatus, the girls who volunteered to model - on site at Sparsholt. The sketch would then have been taken back to Evelyn's studio in Rochester to serve as the basis of the finished canvas.

Evelyn Dunbar: preliminary sketch for Milking Practice with Artificial Udders, 1940. Image by courtesy of Paul Liss of Liss Fine Art.

Which of the three girls is going fill her pail first? Even allowing for individual styles of milking, it seems that the most distant Land Girl has put herself out of the running. As one whose life is the poorer for never having milked a cow, I hesitate to decide between the other two, but I suspect the Land Girl in the middle, who is not resting her elbows on her knees and whose stance is better placed to lay her cheek against the cow's flank if necessary, will fill her pail first. If she has not cheated, that is: José Loosemore, Assistant Dairy Instructor at Sparsholt, remembered that one such trainee Land Girl, dissatisfied with the flow of 'milk', had poked about in the hole of the teat, trying to enlarge it with a Kirby grip taken from her hair. José Loosemore's robust response was 'For God's sake don't try to ram it up the real thing!'

(Text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2019. All rights reserved)

Further reading...
EVELYN DUNBAR : A LIFE IN PAINTING by Christopher Campbell-Howes
is available to order online from
448 pages, 300 illustrations. £25