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


  1. Splendid. Gorgeous artwork. I'm now reminded of formative years spent in Shorne & Higham.

  2. English Village Halls are, you'll be glad to learn, still much the same as the one your aunt depicts in such lovely, and clear, detail (so, come to think of it, are the denizens thereof). I can just remember those food canning devices, and your description of the end seaming device working like a tin opener in reverse is exactly how I remember them. Sometimes the process worked - sometimes it din't, and I think bottling (Kilner jars)was a more popular process - certainly a more reliable one. I wasn't very old at the time, and it amazes me how much of it, and in what detail, still lingers in the memory. Thank you for triggering those memories.

  3. This is so like the Village Hall at Boughton Aluph where as kiddies b4 the days of digitisation, comprehensives and the un-monitored salt content of digestives we, of a summer's Saturday evening, sat about small round rickety occasional tables amongst similar floral clad biddies occasionally playing raucous Whist in the season's advertised Whist Drive.