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 in 1941. The first two, Hospital Train and Standing By on Train 21, were the subjects of the previous post.

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 next in this series, is St Thomas' Hospital in Evacuation Quarters.

Overworked civilian nurses at the time of Dunkirk and during the blitz which followed very 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 been unable to withstand the demands put upon them.

Evelyn has portrayed just such a convalescent home. As far as I know its whereabouts isn't documented, but we can imagine it somewhere in the south-east of England, because at the time of painting Evelyn didn't move very far from her home area of Kent. 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 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 wasn't a very popular activity.

The house appears to be a solid Victorian or Edwardian mansion which has perhaps been requisitioned by the Government, or maybe lent by its owners, as a convalescent home for nurses. The scene is set in a large room, dining room or drawing room or even the ballroom, somewhere large enough to spread the immense camouflage nets the convalescent nurses are working on. 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.

Aesthetically we can admire the balanced construction of Evelyn's painting. It's solid, secure, four-square, resting on sound foundations, like the principles for which it is claimed the war is being fought. The portraits on the back wall suggest not only that that solidity extends back down the generations into history, but that the clearly wealthy and maybe aristocratic owners of the house are sharing in the war effort just as wholeheartedly as the convalescent nurses, who will rejoin the civilian front line as soon as they have recovered.

Evelyn's mastery of figure drawing is shown to advantage here in a way that hasn't always been evident in the paintings we've looked at so far. I'm aware of a gradual and cumulative gear-shift upwards in her renderings of the human figure in her wartime paintings. Each of the figures in Convalescent Nurses Making Camouflage Nets is frozen in mid-movement, and it's Evelyn's skill that allows us accurately to tell what the previous movement was what the next move will be, to imply, through the snapshot, the continuum of movement.

Apart from anything else, Evelyn was a very skilled draughtswoman. Here is a rare, and very fine, example of her figure drawing, dating from her student days at the Royal College of Art:

Evelyn Dunbar: Kneeling nude in three-quarter profile 1929-33 Image courtesy of, and with thanks to, Paul Liss of Liss Fine Art.

(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

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