Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Hospital Train (1941)

Evelyn Dunbar Hospital Train 1941 (1' 10" x 2' 6": 56 x 76cm) Imperial War Museum, London

In carrying out the terms of her contract as an Official War Artist, by early 1941 Evelyn had covered most areas of contributions by civilian organisations to the war effort, to a large extent involving women. One area of activity she had not covered was nursing, and to fill this gap she was directed firstly to the measures the Government had taken to deal with expected air-raid casualties.

In the expectation of the need to evacuate casualties from German bombing raids of United Kingdom cities, trains were held in readiness, almost from the outbreak of war. There were about 30 all told, the majority covering London. Hospital trains as such did not exist, but had to be improvised out of goods wagons. Trains of ten wagons, able to accommodate about 350 casualties of various types and severity, were linked by corridors and were staffed to a set quota.

Evelyn's Hospital Train shows a goods wagon, originally belonging to the London and North Eastern Railway (the fire extinguisher in the foreground is lettered LNER), converted into a makeshift ward with rows of blanket-covered brackets designed to take stretchers. In the foreground, in what may, a few weeks earlier, have been the guard's compartment, there are controls for a primitive form of steam heating. On the right, two nurses, one from the Red Cross, the other from the St John Ambulance, are preparing dressings or checking lists of supplies. In mid-picture, in the centre, a St John Ambulance orderly is arranging blankets. He appears to be of military age, and thus liable for call-up: I wonder if Evelyn has included him because, although clearly not in any of the reserved occupations like shipbuilding or coal mining, he has been exempted because of his beliefs. Is he a Conscientious Objector, maybe a Quaker? He is also one of the few men to feature in Evelyn's work from this period.

Hospital Train was one of only four colour plates used to illustrate Dermot Morrah's book The British Red Cross (Collins, London, 1944), one of a series of morale-boosting books under the general title of Britain in Pictures: The British People in Pictures.

Evelyn Dunbar Standing By On Train 21 1941 (1' 10" x 2' 6": 56 x 76cm) Imperial War Museum, London

The 'pair' to Hospital Train is Evelyn's Standing By On Train 21, maybe another contender for The Most Bizarre Title for a Painting by Evelyn Dunbar. I don't know if it's the same train or not. The steam heating pipes running the length of the roof are similar, but the windows, hung with drawn-back anti-splinter blackout curtains, indicate a converted passenger carriage.

Evelyn was encouraged to paint Standing By On Train 21 by a Miss Lees, shortly to become Superintendent-in-Chief of the St John Ambulance Brigade. At this point it's maybe well to remember that once Official War Artists' paintings had been accepted by the War Artists Advisory Committee, they were exhibited immediately in the great London galleries. Thereafter they went on tour in the provinces, and were sometimes sent abroad, particularly to the USA. There was a snap-shot immediacy about Evelyn's paintings, reflecting not just civilian women's home front activities but their unfailingly positive morale as well. Very occasionally her subjects may show boredom, like the woman in the bay window in A Knitting Party (who was in fact her own mother Florence), but the overall impression is of industry, of sleeves-rolled-up-and-let's-get-on-with-it determination. Her women are solid, dependable and fully aware of their responsibilities. They may not all be cheerful, but they're not glum, either. And they are legion, a mighty army, at a time when Britain stood alone against Hitler: at no time in her career did more canvases pour from her brush. The composition of both paintings is ordered, calm and assured. Evelyn's contribution to national morale is not to be underestimated.

This Miss Lees had earlier shown her mettle in demanding of Sir Kenneth Clark, chairman of the War Artists Advisory Committee and director of the National Gallery, that nursing should feature more heavily in war artists' work. Accordingly, by October 1941 enough security red tape had been cut through to allow Evelyn to take herself from Rochester to Ilford, in Essex, to record hospital train No. 21. This fully equipped hospital train stood full-time in the extensive marshalling yards (now built over) by Goodmayes Station, ready to move into Liverpool Street Station, in the City of London, to take on bombing casualties, evacuate them from the danger areas and distribute them to hospitals where there was less risk of bombing.

Evelyn's painting shows the staff recreation area. The woman in the central foreground is very likely to be a Dr Gibson, in overall charge of the train. Beside and behind her are nurses from various nursing organisations. Dr Gill Clarke (Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country) identifies the blue-cloaked nurse on the right as belonging to the Civil Nursing Reserve, and the woman on the left as a member of one of the religious nursing orders. Most of the others belong to the Red Cross. There's a lot of knitting going on, perhaps comforters and balaclavas, with winter coming on. In the far distance a nurse is hanging up washing, which makes me wonder if the staff actually lived on the train.

There are several male orderlies, apparently in RAF uniform. Have they been seconded from military hospitals? A woman standing in the middle of the corridor, possibly from the Women's Voluntary Service, may be asking the nurse looking up at her if she would like milk in her tea. There's an air of calm resignation, of order and assurance. No one is talking much. The hospital train is ready to move into action.

For all that, in fact these hospital trains were rarely used. In due course, particularly as the intensity of the blitz diminished, they were put to other uses or broken up. By 1944 some had been adapted as military hospital trains, for bringing the wounded back from theatres of war in France and Italy.

(Text © Christopher Campbell-Howes. 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

Monday, 13 August 2012

Threshing, Kent (1941)

Evelyn Dunbar Threshing, Kent 1941 (9" x 30": 22.5 x 75cm) UK Government Art Collection

Evelyn submitted Threshing, Kent to the War Artists' Advisory Committee in 1941. The exact dating is vague, but it's likely to have been sketched and completed some time after the harvest of 1940.

The 1940 harvest was the first in which the Women's Land Army played a full part, of necessity because farm labourers of fighting age, who would otherwise have brought the harvest in, were to a large extent serving in the forces. Threshing was mostly undertaken by contractors with the necessary machinery, the threshing machines themselves and the steam-driven traction engines that hauled them from farm to farm and powered them by means of belt drives.

Few farms had their own threshing machinery. Often farms had to wait their turn, and consequently threshing might take place at any time between September and April. Harvested wheat would be stored neatly in large stacks, built on a base of hazel branches to allow airflow, and covered with tarpaulins, or sometimes thatched, until the day came when the contractor appeared with his machines and crew. Women's Land Army members were sometimes formed into threshing teams, operating with the contractors and with any other labour that could be recruited locally.

As usual there's a great deal in Evelyn's painting, and she has been at pains to present her subject from an unusual perspective. The two women on the right are standing on top of the box-like threshing machine. I expect they're being continually shaken by the vibration of the machine. The one on the extreme right is the team leader: her job is to cut - she's holding a rip-hook in her right hand - the twine holding the sheaf of wheat together, and she sets the pace at which the threshing machine is fed with loosened sheaves. Evelyn knew exactly what she was recording: almost contemporary with Threshing, Kent is her drawing from A Book of Farmcraft (Longmans, London, 1942):

Evelyn Dunbar: illustration from A Book of Farmcraft (Longmans, London, 1942)

What Evelyn hasn't shown us is that the threshing machine has been drawn up next to the corn stack, and that somewhere out of picture a traction engine, or maybe a tractor, is pounding away, driving the belts, cogs, travellers, riddles, elevators and fans inside the threshing machine. The noise is extraordinary, and as the day goes on there will be dust and chaff everywhere. Everyone in the painting is standing on top of the corn stack, maybe 12' (c.4m) above the ground. One of them, the becapped man in the centre wielding a pitchfork, we've met already: he's Alf or Bert, the slenderer of the two Dunbar gardeners. (I never knew which was which.) Has he been called out of retirement to help with the harvest?

On the extreme left are four schoolboys armed with sticks or poles. Mike Horner explains that groups of boys like these came in from the locality at threshing time to kill the rats and mice trying to escape from the stack as the level of sheaves reduced. (Occasionally evacuees were invited to help, but relations between farmers and evacuees were often strained.) The elderly man to the right of the four boys explaining how to do it, maybe in concert with the farm dogs on the ground at the foot of the stack and therefore out of sight. These lads, aged 11-13, will have volunteered, or have been volunteered, by their parents to help. William Browns (of Richmal Crompton's irrepressible Just William) every one, their uniform of shorts, shirt and tie, caps and blazer were what boys of that age wore all the time, in school and out. One of the revolutions of the second half of the 20th Century has been in children's wear.

We're towards the start of the operation. It's earlyish in the morning, because the shadows are quite long. It's probably a Saturday, because the boys aren't in school. The landscape background, much clearer in the original than in the image above, shows Evelyn's usual opulent and organised Kentish farmland, with trees in the distance still with their leaves on: it's likely to be late September or October. The night before will have been marked by the drone of hundreds of German aircraft engaged in the bombing raids that became known as the blitz.

The tarpaulin has been removed from the corn stack, the traction engine has been fired up, the threshing machine has started to grind noisily into action, separating the ear from the stalk and the grain from the husk. The straw will be conveyed up the elevator, and the straw stack will grow in height as the corn stack diminishes.

The whole scene may have resembled a mock-up by the Weald and Downland Museum:

- but Evelyn's concern, and that of her employers, the War Artists' Advisory Committee, is to record human activity, particularly that of women, on the home front. Her Land Girls are dressed in khaki overalls, their colour mirroring the battledress of the soldiers at that moment guarding the coasts of southern England against the expected invasion. They are wearing headscarves to protect themselves from the all-pervading dust, and goggles to protect their eyes, apparently available from Ministry of Agriculture sources at 4½d, a sum so small as to be hardly worth converting into decimal currency.

There's a curious companion piece to Threshing, Kent. At some time in the summer of 1940, at a time when Evelyn's output was never greater, she completed Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook. It's an interesting composition, maybe expressing Evelyn's vision of the earth as endlessly abundant: the wheatfield has no limit in any direction. The technique of stooking, of collecting the sheaves of wheat as deposited by the tractor-drawn reaper and binder disappearing into the middle distance, is absolutely correct. As the day goes on the sheaves, which have exactly the same stylised appearance as those in Joseph's Dream, will be collected by wagon and stacked to await threshing.

But somehow, and very unusually for Evelyn, the figures lack life and movement. Her bold decision to render the lines of stubble in an arresting turquoisey blue must also have raised some eye-brows at the War Artists' Advisory Committee and those of its chairman, Sir Kenneth Clark, because Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook was rejected. In due course Evelyn retrieved it, and eventually it was given to her close friend Margaret Iliffe (née Goodwin), one of Evelyn's former Royal College of Art fellow-students.

It wasn't the only painting to be rejected: there are records of paintings entitled Land Girl in Full DressIntroduction to the Tractor and Women Drivers Cleaning Party Cars, this last with a title that seems to me to echo communist Russia rather than wartime Britain. None of these was accepted by the War Artists Advisory Committee, and all three have disappeared without trace.

(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, 4 August 2012

Women's Land Army Dairy Training (1940)

Evelyn Dunbar: Women's Land Army Dairy Training 1940 (1' 8" x 2' 6": 51 x 76cm) Imperial War Museum, London

According to Evelyn's biographer Dr Gill Clarke, by September 1943 a quarter of the 80,000-strong Women's Land Army (WLA) were involved in milking. We've seen something of, and read a lot into, the training that Land Girls underwent a couple of posts ago in Evelyn's Milking Practice with Artificial Udders. Women's Land Army Dairy Training is the pair to it, and has the same setting, the dairy wash house.

Both were painted in the late summer of 1940, and the setting for both was Sparsholt Farm Institute, in Hampshire, where many WLA recruits received their initial training. As previously mentioned, a senior instructor at Sparsholt, Michael Greenhill, was so impressed during Evelyn's visits there by her draughtsmanship that he suggested they should collaborate on a primer of husbandry and basic agricultural practices: A Book of Farmcraft, published by Longmans in 1942 at two shillings and sixpence (£0.125) was the result. It is comprehensively illustrated with Evelyn's very fine pen-and-ink drawings. Here is her recommended method of rolling a milk churn on the rim of its base:

 Evelyn Dunbar: Illustration from A Book of Farmcraft (Longmans, London, 1942)

Her principal model in Women's Land Army Dairy Training must have mastered the art of churn rolling long before Evelyn came to paint her. Her uniform separates her from the young women in the background, engaged in various menial but imperative cleansing tasks. Her name was Josephine Loosemore (known as José), and she was Assistant Dairy Instructress at Sparsholt. In the background her similarly-uniformed superior, Joan Cockburn, can be seen leaning forward over a table in the room, maybe an office, beyond the dairy wash-house.

So José Loosemore is wheeling an empty churn into the dairy wash-house for the Land Girls to clean in the recommended fashion. The washing process is as prescribed and exact as any military drill movement.

First any container which has had milk in it is thoroughly washed out with cold water. It's clearly a wet business: the right-hand Land Girls, equipped with heavy waterproof aprons, are standing on duckboards, and the whole composition is splendidly dank and watery.

After washing the utensils will have to be scrubbed, this time in hot water, and disinfected with detergent, usually soda. We can see this going on at the far end of the wash-house, where an energetic Land Girl is standing a scrubbed and disinfected pail on a shelf to drip dry alongside other containers, including the (then) newly introduced, slightly bulbous half-covered milking pails, shaped with the aperture off-centre to reduce the possibility of dirt, mud or hair, getting in during milking.

Finally, on the left, a Land Girl is putting utensils into the steam chest for sterilization. The churns, lids, pails, strainers are put in upside-down. The steam chest is securely locked, while steam at a temperature of 210ºF (100ºC) from a boiler housed off-picture is admitted for a period of 15 minutes. Thereafter the chest is opened, the utensils dry by their own heat, and the process is complete. Another of Evelyn's drawings from A Book of Farmcraft explains all the detail:

Evelyn Dunbar: Illustration from A Book of Farmcraft (Longmans, London, 1942)

It's sometimes illuminating to follow - even to the extent of doing it with a clear plastic ruler - the perspective and geometrical construction lines of Evelyn's paintings to see where, if anywhere, they lead. Mostly it's about as practically useful as discovering ley-lines, but just occasionally I follow her lines in the hope that their interaction or convergence may show something, a subtle irony or a telling detail, a minor focus or even a joke, that I might otherwise have missed. There's a very notable one in a later war painting, The Queue at the Fish Shop, which I'll come to in due course, but in Women's Land Army Dairy Training I'm surprised to find that if you prolong two of the major lines, that of the draining shelf at the back of the wash-house and the electric cable above the right-hand window, they converge on the background figure of Joan Cockburn, the Dairy Instructress.

Did Evelyn mean this, or is it merely accidental? Meanwhile many other lines set the central figure, José Loosemore, even more firmly into the foreground she already occupies, while the four Land Girls are all presented facing and leaning away, the faces of three of them being completely hidden.

Evelyn loved Sparsholt. In a letter about it to Michael Greenhill later she wrote '[...] I miss all the nice friendly people, - not in the least staffy in retrospect. I used to like the big trolley full of coffee cups, and the array of knees sticking out of chairs and sofa. Just now I can't think of anything I didn't like!' Elsewhere she referred to '...the same pleasant clatter in the bright dining room, the same comings & goings and coffee drinkings, and puttings on of gramophone records....The same Cambyings, & Tobyings and Joséings...& am still feeling very Sparsholtian at heart.'

(I suspect that by 'Cambyings', 'Tobyings' and 'Joséings' she may have meant their characteristic expressions and habits.)

So I think that in Women's Land Army Dairy Training Evelyn is paying tribute to the Sparsholt staff. In a curious and unexpected sense, this painting has something in common with Joseph's Dream, which she was completing in the odd moments, especially at harvest time in 1940, between her war paintings.

 Evelyn Dunbar: Joseph's Dream ?1938-1942 (1' 6" x 2' 6": 46 x 76cm) Cambridgeshire County Council

As recounted in the later chapters of Genesis, Joseph's dreams reveal to him that he is going to be the agent of the covenant between Man and Nature, assuring that no one goes hungry. We come across this synergy countless times in Evelyn's work, and I don't think  the authority of the Bible is diminished in any way by suggesting that José Loosemore (and her boss Joan Cockburn, a subtly underlined presence in the background) is also, in her very different way, an agent for the assurance that the earth will provide. It would probably be wiser not to imagine what José Loosemore might have thought about having this mantle thrust upon her.

And it could perhaps be noted, as London and other UK cities suffered the blitz of September-November 1940, that Evelyn has given her outward-facing Land Girls the same colouring of drab battledress khaki as the soldiers fighting for the same cause on the military front as they are doing on the home front. It might be a fanciful step too far to equate the posture of these girls with soldiers in the trenches of World War 1, duckboards and all, and to imagine that the wet foreground floor closely resembles camouflage colouring: all the same, José Loosemore and the assurance and promise she personifies make Women's Land Army Dairy Training an outstanding painting in the Evelyn Dunbar canon.

(Text © Christopher Campbell-Howes. 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