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

1 comment:

  1. Of course - you needed to be careful as to how and in what circumstance you rolled that churn of milk from dairy to pickup point to town or city which might be a mere stone's throw. Otherwise, that milk in the churn rolled or bounced about in the back of a cart or trundled to-and-fro between interminable village stretches to be ladled out into varied biddy's bowls could be curds-and-whey when Mrs Biddy dipped her ladle into the churn.