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 that the Ministry of Information was setting up a scheme for the employment of artists to record wartime activities. Evelyn applied for consideration, and the following April her appointment as an Official War Artist, answering to the War Artists Advisory Committee, was gazetted in The Times.

There's a brief account of her appointment here, and a much fuller one in Dr Gill Clarke's biography Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country. Her initial brief, to record in painting home front war-support activities undertaken mostly by women, was extraordinarily wide. As the war progressed she focussed more on the work of the Women's Land Army and less on other civilian contributions to the war effort.

Evelyn threw herself into this new work with huge energy and enthusiasm. She had been at a crossroads of depression before her appointment. Her separation from Charles Mahoney had been amicable but painful, although they continued to correspond. 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.

Now a broad, bright highway beckoned her urgently. The work she was paid - and generously paid - to undertake accorded exactly with her beliefs about the contract between Man and Nature. Canvases flowed from her brush. One of the many early war paintings was Milking Practice with Artificial Udders. Never had a painting a more bizarre title. How Evelyn, with her great capacity for fun and laughter, must have enjoyed it.

One of the advantages of working as a war artist was the travel involved, for which she had a special allowance. Although most of her work was completed in her studio at home at The Cedars, in Rochester in Kent, she travelled widely for her subjects and preliminary sketches. An early visit to Sparsholt Farm Institute, near Winchester in Hampshire, where many members of the recently formed Women's Land Army received their training, resulted in several paintings. Milking Practice with Artificial Udders was one of them.You can view it in detail here.

It's a balanced and beautiful composition that tells us so 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 II. 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 pretend 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, suggested that they should 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 - for instance 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 Anne Hall, a senior Sparsholt recruit, herself responsible for the initial milking training of each monthly intake. 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 encourages reluctant cows to give milk.

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

I don't know in what circumstances Evelyn's 'right' way was transformed into a delightful little oil painting, apparently measuring 8" x 12" (20.3 x 30.5cm), which at one time was in the possession of Wye College, Kent. 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.
 Evelyn Dunbar: Land Girl Milking c.1940 c. 8" x 12" (20.3 x 30.5cm) Location unknown

Evelyn's contract with the War Artists Advisory Committee left her free to submit whatever paintings she wished. Not everything she submitted was accepted, and provided no breaches of national security were involved, she was allowed to keep and dispose of any paintings not taken up by her employers. Some of these she gave away. Possibly Land Girl Milking (my title) was intended as a present for Anne Hall. There is no complete record of Evelyn's wartime work.

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, and with thanks to, Paul Liss of Liss Fine Art.

And which of the three girls is going fill her pail first? Why, the one in the middle: her posture is by far the best.

(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. Another wonderful post, Christopher. My grandmother was an expert at hand-milking. She'd have enjoyed this piece.

    Sparsholt is just a hop and a skip up the road from us.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.