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, 300 illustrations. £25


  1. A cold and back breaking job - sprout picking. I didn't (and even now still don't) even like the end results. Ghastly tasting vegetables. At Christmas though, I always eat two of the damn things to prove to the grandchildren that it can be done. The only seasonal job I know that is nearly as bad as sprout picking is gooseberry picking. At least sprouts don't have thorns.

  2. They are rather small plants(wartime fertiliser shortages perhaps) and this would make the work harder and less rewarding (pay is generally by piece rates), but technical carping aside this is one of my favourite pictures (and sprouts are one of my favourite veg.

  3. Hello, S, bnw: Thank you for calling in - I think Women's Land Army members were paid a flat weekly wage of £1.90 (over 18s) and £1.60 (17-18 year-olds) for a 48-hour week, regardless of the activity. I don't know what this would multiply up to for today's values. Enjoy your sprouts!