Saturday, 15 September 2012

Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire (1943)

Evelyn Dunbar Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire 1943 (15" x 15": 40 x 40cm) Manchester City Art Galleries

After her marriage in August 1942 to Roger Folley, Evelyn's tempo changed. Historians might consider that the tempo of the war had changed, too. Britain was no longer alone: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 had brought the United States increasingly into the war on the Allied side. Hitler's attention was more drawn towards his armies invading Russia than towards attempting to crush Britain. The Battle of the Atlantic and the mortal threat of Hitler's U-boats, although far from won, was just beginning to go Britain's way, and after the Battle of El Alamein there appeared to be room for a very cautious optimism for British arms in North Africa. Despite appalling setbacks against the Japanese in the Far East, Churchill could feel justified in claiming that while the end of the war was hardly in sight, at least 1942 marked the end of the beginning.

Against this background of a world in turmoil and the great nations in arms it may seem difficult to assign much significance to a small painting of some women picking brussels sprouts in Monmouthshire. However, I think there are significances, and evidence that points to changing attitudes, in this and the other paintings of the trio that resulted from the January weeks Evelyn spent in a Women's Land Army caravan at the Institute of Agriculture (now part of Coleg Gwent) at Usk in 1943. It surely wasn't coincidental that at that time Roger, by now Flying Officer Folley, was stationed at RAF Colerne, not impossibly far away across the Severn estuary. Wittingly or unwittingly, he may well have influenced Evelyn's changing outlook and tempo.

Sir Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery and chairman of the War Artists' Advisory Committee, is quoted in Meirion and Susie Harries' The War Artists (Michael Joseph, London, 1983) as saying 'the trouble about war pictures of agriculture is that they are rather hard to distinguish from peace pictures'. He wasn't necessarily referring to Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire, but I wonder...

Leaving aside for a moment their outstanding artistic qualities, Evelyn's war paintings so far have been remarkable for showing women doing things, especially on the land, that were ordinarily the province of men. One or two commenters on these essays have enjoyed Evelyn's evocation of the farming techniques from sixty years and more ago, but I don't think Evelyn ever intended her paintings to be records of agricultural history.

All the same, I think there's a lot to be inferred from this little painting. In the early years of her appointment as an Official War Artist, 1940 and 41, Evelyn makes her women tell us about their - and I hope it's fair to say hers also - attitudes to the war and the danger Britain was in. Their activities, their expressions, the set of their bodies, express hope, determination, a quiet and unassuming confidence. Their morale, and by extension the morale of the nation, is positive, at least steady.

We know about Evelyn's own credo, her trust in a Nature that would always provide in return for Man's looking after it, and as it happened her beliefs dovetailed very neatly with the work the War Artists Advisory Committee asked her to undertake. Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire, is yet another statement of her beliefs: there is the same husbandry at work, the same tidy and disciplined rows of plantation, the same prepared earth with its elements of promise on either side of the vegetables, the same carefully pruned fruit trees in the background, the same Covenant in operation that we've seen continuously in Evelyn's husbandry paintings since Winter Garden of 1928-37.

Many of Evelyn's extraordinary output of paintings from 1940-41 deal with summer or autumn subjects. The winters of 1940-42 were taken up with interiors like the nursing paintings, or completion of canvases in her studio in Rochester. Her subjects at Usk were her first winter outdoor paintings. Sprouts are best harvested after frost has touched them, and while there's no frost in Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire (the Land Girls aren't wearing gloves) the scene is wintry, with the sort of lowering sky that betokens snow later, there are no leaves on the trees and the women don't appear to be evincing much pleasure in, let alone taking moral strength from, being bent double working the rows of brussels sprout stalks. Mike Horner comments below on what back-breaking work it is. You can imagine impatient queues of dressing-gowned Land Girls waiting for a hot bath back at the hostel when the day's work is done.

Something has changed. So many of her earlier paintings are clad in the drab colours of wartime, as though her paintings were camouflaging themselves. At last green is paramount in Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire. The cabbage-like heads of the sprout plants are little symphonies of green. Spring is round the corner, the year has turned, we're past midwinter, we're into 1943. Better days lie ahead, the darkest days are past. Better days won't come of their own accord, they will have to be worked hard for. The focus has widened: no longer is the Women's Land Army clutching at temporary expedients like in Milking Practice with Artificial Udders or undergoing basic training in Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook. In Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire, the Womens' Land Army is trained and is in full production. The work may be laborious, repetitive, uncomfortable and dull, but the outlook is brighter. On a personal level, Evelyn's outlook was brighter still: her husband of a few months wasn't far away, close enough to visit her as regularly as his RAF leaves allowed. Even among the brussels sprouts, hope is springing eternal. It takes a remarkable artist to express this.

(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, 301 illustrations. £30

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Lake District interlude, 1941

"No one can know what induced her to glance a second time at the quiet young fellow in airman's uniform she met while working at Sparsholt Farm Institute. A former member of staff, he was there on a 48-hour pass and had nowhere else to go. Or whether it was entirely by chance that they found themselves alone in the Common Room after the others had retired. They did not stay up late, just long enough for mutual interest and latent friendship to develop. Subsequently there was no courtship - how  could there be? - only occasional rendezvous as circumstances permitted. Two years later, in 1942, after a short engagement, they were married."

The writer - writing of himself in the third person - is my uncle Roger Folley, then a very junior Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve officer stationed at Titchfield, a village between Portsmouth and Southampton, about 20 miles from Sparsholt. Before the war he had been Costings Officer at Sparsholt, living in on the premises. Roger's home was in Colne, a small town in Lancashire, so distant that 48-hour pass would be mostly spent getting there and back.

So Roger tended to spend his shorter leaves at Sparsholt, and some of these coincided with Evelyn's visits to observe and sketch the various Women's Land Army training activities going on there, and also to collaborate with Michael Greenhill, the Sparsholt Instructor of Agriculture, on A Book of Farmcraft, the farming primer written by Greenhill and illustrated by Evelyn.

By the spring of 1941 Roger and Evelyn had got to know each other well enough for him to invite her to spend an April week rock-climbing in the Lake District. Roger was a devoted fell-walker, rock-climber and cragsman with a deep and abiding love of the Cumbrian hills and Yorkshire fells. Some time before 1941 he had written an account of a previous Lake District expedition with his former Leeds University student friend Glynn Burton entitled Diary I: An Episode in the History of the Lake District.

One result of the April 1941 expedition was Diary II: An Episode in the History of the Lake District (unpublished, private collection). This time the party consisted of Roger and Evelyn, together with Glynn Burton and, as female companion for Evelyn and maybe to act as a sort of chaperone, Evelyn's former Royal College of Art student friend Margaret Goodwin.

Coincidentally, the Royal College of Art had been evacuated from blitz-stricken London, to Ambleside, a small Lake District town a short distance from Middlefell, in Langdale, where the party was staying. Charles Mahoney, Evelyn's former RCA tutor, colleague and lover, was installed as warden of the students' hostel in the Queen's Hotel. Roger's tactfully expressed account reads: A visit to the Royal College of Art in its new habitat ought to have been included, but with the understanding compliance of all the members of the party, was set aside.

Roger's text is written, for reasons best known to himself, in the orotund style of William Cobbett, the 19th century Radical with strong views on agriculture. The account was delectably illustrated in pen and ink by Evelyn, with the various characters depicted as mice.

Margaret Goodwin, who later married under the name of Iliffe, was not attracted to rock climbing and spent her time sketching and painting. As a fellow-student some ten years before Evelyn had rendered her thus:

 Evelyn Dunbar Margaret Goodwin at her Easel 1929-1933 Pen, ink and wash: courtesy of, and many thanks to, Paul Liss of Liss Fine Art

 - but as a non-climbing mouse in An Episode in the History of the Lake District she appears like this:

 Evelyn acquitted herself very well, conquering such notorious climbs as Napes Needle, among others:

 And the other drawings speak for themselves:

 At one point Roger's (and my, incidentally) cousin Moira Rayner, staying nearby, cycled over to spend a day with the party:

The week ended with a Commemorative Song, chiefly commemorating, it seems, the poor fare on offer at the farm at which they stayed:

Mice sometimes appear in Evelyn's lesser work, friezes for children's bedrooms, letters (which she loved to illustrate), decorated gift tags, home-made birthday cards and elsewhere.

As Roger's and Evelyn's attachment deepened, a change came over Evelyn's work. Where possible she followed his various RAF postings, and consequently she was able to record mostly, but not exclusively, Women's Land Army activities further afield than Kent and Hampshire. They married in August 1942, but had no home of their own until after the war had ended. Evelyn's practice was still to do the preliminary work on site, and complete her canvases at home in Rochester.

Roger and Evelyn Folley: Wedding day, 17th August, 1942: Photo in possession of the author

However after their marriage Evelyn's focus changes. She seems less concerned to cram in as many different (mostly) women's home-front activities as possible. The frantic output of 1940-41 reduces. Instead she concentrates on fewer canvases, more highly finished. The change is gradual, the great wartime paintings are yet to come.

Evelyn Dunbar in fell-walking mode in Langdale, Cumbria, on a later occasion, probably July 1955.

(Evelyn Dunbar's pen-and-ink drawings: © The artist's estate
Original 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, 301 illustrations. £30

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

St Thomas' Hospital in Evacuation Quarters (1942)

Evelyn Dunbar St Thomas' Hospital in Evacuation Quarters 1942 (3' x 5': 91 x 152cm) Imperial War Museum, London
8th September, 1940:

I did my night rounds, and watched the bombs dropping for a bit, then wandered about having tea here, and ovaltine somewhere else, as nearly everybody else was also doing, and then about 2 am went to bed in my basement and got to sleep. The next thing was I found myself sitting up in bed – chaps were rushing here and there. St Thomas’s has been hit by a bomb.
I donned my dressing gown and slippers and went out into the corridor and was met by a pall of dust. I asked a few questions and found that the wing opposite Westminster Bridge – the nurses’ home – had been hit. I went along and joined a party which was hunting for people who were trapped. Then from 2.30 to 3.30 am we climbed about in the ruins calling out and searching for people. The nurses’ home had been demolished – was just a heap of ruins.
Everybody who was near when the bomb exploded was absolutely covered in black dust – was quite unrecognisable. We found five nurses who were trapped and let them out by shifting some enormous piece of furniture and thus allowing a piece of wall to fall down. They seemed quite cheery.
All the while the bombs were falling round about – but we did not take much notice of them then. The amazing thing was that only five nurses were killed, and a lot of them had cuts and bruises but nothing serious. One was pinned under the ruins for hours before she died.
In the morning what a spectacle! I can’t describe it but it must have been a high explosive bomb to do all that damage. Then last night the whole hospital, doctors, nurses, maids, pundits and pinkies all slept together in the basement! A most incredible sight – one could hardly move without stumbling over a sleeping form. We all slept very well, partly because we were so tired and partly because we were now getting used to bombs….

This is an extract from a letter written on September 10th, 1940, by one of the St Thomas Hospital housemen, Dr Frank Crockett, to his family in Australia.

8th September, 1940: St Thomas Hospital, Lambeth, bombed. Houses of Parliament in the background. Photo credit: unknown.

St Thomas Hospital, on the south bank of the Thames, almost opposite the Houses of Parliament, was hit by bombs a dozen times in World War 2. In 1941 the hospital was evacuated partly to Hydestile and partly to Pyrford, both villages in Surrey. In Pyrford various departments of St Thomas moved into the premises of St Nicholas' Orthopaedic Hospital, a Victorian children's foundation later known as Rowley Bristow. 

St Nicholas' Orthopaedic Hospital (Rowley Bristow), Pyrford, Surrey, to which St Thomas' Hospital evacuated in 1941

In March 1942 Evelyn spent several weeks at Pyrford recording hospital activities, which in due course she transformed into the greatest and most finished of her four nursing paintings. She felt the best way of presenting the many different facets of hospital life was to incorporate them in the multi-compartmental form she had made particularly her own. We've seen it already in the 6-box Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing and, before her appointment as Official War Artist, An English Calendar and to a lesser extent in the Joseph's Dream diptych. In St Thomas' Hospital in Evacuation Quarters Evelyn uses it in a yet more imaginative way. There are no margins or borders or separators, and the overall impression of this large, and beautiful, canvas is one of wide and varied hospital activity, but a controlled, unified, orderly and calm busy-ness, indeed evoking the same devotion and detachment that Dr Crockett's letter shows. Hitler's bombs may have caused some material damage, but they've barely brushed the spirit, determination and professional pride of these nurses.

More than a year after its completion, Evelyn wrote a few notes about the painting of it for a programme for a touring exhibition entitled War Pictures by British Artists, in which St Thomas' Hospital in Evacuation Quarters was to be included. Her notes arrived too late for inclusion, but all the same it's very good to be in a position to let Evelyn speak for herself, as quoted in Dr Gill Clarke's Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country:
It arose from the vivid impressions I received on first going into & going about in a big hospital. My original idea before I went there, was to do a record of the different Nurses in their various uniforms, but their activity transmuted this...

The hospital is St Thomas's, or a part of St Tho evacuated to Pyrford, in Surrey, & I stayed there for some weeks, with freedom to wonder
[sic] about as I chose. The staff consisted of Pyrford nurses and sisters, and the various wartime auxiliaries - Red Cross, Nursing Auxiliary (N.A.) Civil Nursing Reserve (C.N.R.) and, of course, the Matron of St Tho. It was chiefly orthopaedic, and not entirely military. That is, they had a good many service men, but civilians as well, including a great many blitz cases. It used to be a children's hospital before the war.

I think, if people look at the picture, it's pretty simple (They usually send out a cloud of prejudicial steam and say they can't make head or tail of it...) - the nurse in the left upper corner is sterilising, the one next, filling hot water bottles, - the two in the ward bed making, the next one doing a dressing - The one on the left in the next tier is taking a temperature (I think). The little one in the spotted frock is a Sister in her office (their work is chiefly office work) & the back view red x nurse is going in to g
[illegible] keys. Then comes the matron, interviewing a Pyrford sister. The next one - in her spotted lace cap  - is measuring pdrysic [sic: physic?], the next two are doing a dressing.

Down below on the left are the pink-clad domestic staff with their big mob caps. Then there comes a night nurse with torch and keys (she is a charge nurse.) Next is a sluice, with an N.A. at the sink. Then there is the linen cupboard (in constant use) with the little N.A. at work in it. Last the plaster room, where a group of workers - from Pro: to sister, & a masseuse, are putting a patient into a plaster cast. (What a strange procedure this is.....)

The whole is a scene of everyday hospital tasks, a flat chequered background, with its wreath of crisply white aproned figures moving deftly and swiftly over it. Browns, greens, blue scarlet and white with a few sharp spottings of delicate pink - so it seemed to me.

Wish I could do it again - I'd do something a lot better.

The agreed fee, before submission, for St Thomas Hospital in Evacuation Quarters was 35 guineas, £36.75. On reception the War Artists' Advisory Committee was sufficiently impressed by its quality to double Evelyn's fee.

(Original 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, 301 illustrations. £30

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Convalescent Nurses Making Camouflage Nets (1941)

Evelyn Dunbar Convalescent Nurses Making Camouflage Nets 1941 (1' 6" x 2': x 46 x 61cm) Imperial War Museum, London

Evelyn completed Convalescent Nurses Making Camouflage Nets as the third of her four nursing paintings from 1941/2. Looking at this painting I'm reminded of certain passages in Ian McEwan's very fine novel Atonement, which is set - apart from the coda - in exactly the period of the paintings of Evelyn that we're looking at. I'm thinking particularly of Part 3 of Atonement, in which the harrowing narrative describes the experiences of Briony Tallis working as a trainee nurse in a London hospital suddenly confronted with the wounded from Dunkirk. The workload is intense and unending, physically, mentally and (in Briony's case) emotionally. The hospital isn't identified as St Thomas' Hospital until near the end of Atonement. Of course there's no actual connection between Evelyn's painting and Ian McEwan's novel, but there is a coincidental link: the title of Evelyn's last and greatest nursing painting, to be considered later in this series, is St Thomas' Hospital in Evacuation Quarters.

  Overworked civilian nurses at the time of Dunkirk and during the blitz which followed often needed rest and recuperation. Nursing organisations, the Red Cross, St John Ambulance and some of the religious nursing orders, maintained convalescent homes for nurses who had buckled under the huge demands put upon them. One of these was Bisham Abbey, actually in Berkshire but close to Marlow in Buckinghamshire, which Evelyn knew through having painted her first war picture, Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing, there in 1940. A year or two after the war she scribbled a rough chronology in which she mentions 'Marlow convalescent home for nurses - camouflage nets', indicating that she went back there, perhaps picking up on previous acquaintance, to do the preliminary work for Convalescent Nurses Making Camouflage Nets. The nurse in uniform has probably been seconded from the Civil Nursing Reserve, a central register of basically-trained nurses previously known by their 1908 title of Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), to the Red Cross. She is on duty, at the moment showing her patients how to make camouflage nets. The seven other women - apart from the convalescent home Sister looking through the doorway - are nurses in civilian dress who have recovered enough to be able to do a little light work. Contemporary records suggest making camouflage nets was not a very popular activity.

Which room in Bisham Abbey is being used for making camouflage nets is uncertain, but we can safely imagine a dining room, a drawing room or even a ballroom, somewhere large enough to spread the immense camouflage nets - the foreground net stretches leftwards out of the frame - on which the convalescent nurses are working. The basic netting, with a widely separated warp and weft, has been manufactured elsewhere, but the threading through of strips of black, dark green and light brown material has to be done manually. When complete, and when the various sections have been sewn together, the nets will be used to camouflage targets for enemy bombing like anti-aircraft gun emplacements, tank parks, aircraft dispersal areas, fuel and ammunition dumps, and so on.

Evelyn's construction is as sound as ever. To create a sense of space needed to accommodate these immense nets she has used the same technique as in A Knitting Party from the year before: like the knitters, the nurses form an oval set inside a succession of rectangles which includes the frame. The nurses' surroundings are solid, secure, four-square, resting on sound foundations, like the principles for which it is claimed the war is being fought. It just possible that the portraits of two women on the back wall are intended as a tribute to the sisters Phyllis and Elizabeth Vansittart Neale, the owners of Bisham Abbey, who gifted the house to the nation for whatever useful purpose it might serve. It is now a National Sports Centre, with satellite facilities for weddings, conferences, etc. There are rumours of ghosts, maybe - who knows? - including some of the convalescent nurses Evelyn has portrayed.

(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, 301 illustrations. £30