Friday, 19 October 2012

Baling Hay (1943)

Evelyn Dunbar Baling Hay 1943 (1' 6" x 2': 45.8 x 61cm) National Museum of Wales, Cardiff

Baling Hay is the third, and maybe the most remarkable, of the three Women's Land Army paintings which had their genesis in Evelyn's stay at the Institute of Agriculture, Usk (now Coleg Gwent) in January, 1943.  It's such a bold, confident and compelling composition that I find myself wishing Evelyn had executed it on a larger canvas than on the modest 18" x 24" she gave it.

The baling machine previously seen in Threshing and Baling, Monmouthshire (the subject of the previous post) has been moved to the haystacks of another farm in the area. Or maybe it's another part of the same farm. I don't know where it is, but readers who know Monmouthshire may recognise the location. Tarpaulins will have been removed from the stacks of hay mown the previous May or June, and the Land Girls, who may form part of a team assigned to the baling machine contractor, are pitchforking what some used to call 'birds' nests' of hay into a hopper, in which the hay is compressed.

A guillotine, suspended above the hopper, drops down to slice the compressed hay into the required length; a belt-driven rack - you can see the drive-belt on the extreme right - inches the bales forwards to where two Land Girls seated either side of the rack are ready to tie the familiar rectangular bales with prepared wires, using pliers to twist the wire securely and to remove excess. The Land Girl in the right foreground, clad in winter greatcoat (with the WLA shoulder title, a red crown on a green background) is bringing forward a bundle of pre-looped wires, and judging from the amount of hay to be baled they will all have been used by the day's end.

Hay - and straw - bales tied with wire may be familiar to older readers. I remember as a youth occasionally manhandling such bales, loud with complaint about the wires cutting into my fingers. Wire ties have long since been replaced by automatically-tied baler twine, or by plastic netting enveloping much larger drum bales. Baling machines like the one Evelyn has meticulously painted are only found in farming museums. Although this can't have been her intention at the time, Baling Hay has become a historical document, a valuable record of past agricultural practices.

Evelyn claimed that during her extraordinarily rain-sodden stay of several weeks at Usk that January, there were only three fine days. Baling Hay must show one of them. It will have been important to ensure that the hay stayed dry: wet hay will become mouldy and unfit for animal feed the next winter. Once again we have the Dunbar message of promise and confidence in the future.

There are certain clues as to how the various tasks are divided up to make the most of a fine day. Speed is essential. There are nice contrasts between the disparity of uniform and different layers of clothing. It's cold: the Land Girl in the centre foreground, who has commandeered a bale to sit on, has a full, if unorthodox, uniform of boots, overalls, whipcord or corduroy breeches, plus a non-uniform plaid lumberman's jacket or fleece and a sack to cover her lap and knees. Maybe she's also wearing the familiar WLA green jersey underneath. She's sitting on another sack. She finds she can work more deftly without gloves, and you can imagine her having to warm her hands every now and then, maybe by placing them inside her jacket. For the Land Girls on the haystacks, however, the work is so physical and warm that they've stripped down to their breeches and green jerseys. The one in the centre, feeding the hopper, has even got her sleeves rolled up. As always, Evelyn is observing very accurately.

The Land Girl on the right of the bale rack is curiously under-dressed compared with her opposite number: she has probably just come off haystack duty in a muck sweat, grateful to be able to hand over her pitchfork to the previous occupant of her bale-seat, sit down and do a bit of wiring until the next change-round. In a few minutes will she too be looking for extra layers to put on? She has already pulled up the shoulder-straps of her overalls.

This painting is unique in a curious way. It's the only one of Evelyn's entire oil-on-canvas output as I know it - although an unknown quantity of her work is lost or unaccounted for - in which hills figure prominently. In several of her husbandry or allegorical paintings downland, often the Downs of Kent and Sussex, defines the often vague horizon, as in Joseph's Dream:

Evelyn Dunbar: Joseph's Dream Oil on canvas: 1' 6" x 2' 6" (46 x 76 cm) Cambridgeshire County Council

In Baling Hay, however, there's an imposing hill in the nearer background, beyond a vast field of what seem to be turnips, another crop with the promise of winter livestock feed, and which, en masse, do have a remarkably milky turquoise colour that might at first glance be taken for the sea. Beyond this hill, in the far background, the slightly ambiguous arrangements of clouds hint at higher mountains, perhaps the Brecon Beacons.

Through her husband Roger, a skilled cragsman and fell-walker, Evelyn came to love mountains. Her wedding night in August 1942, after a post-nuptial stopover in Roger's parents' home in Colne, Lancashire, was spent in a tent on the summit of Fountains Fell, a 2,172' (662m) height in the Yorkshire Pennines. Occasional climbing and fell-walking expeditions continued until the mid-1950s. In the later 1940s and early 1950s Evelyn and Roger went skiing in the Alps. In July 1955 they took me for a week to the Lake District to teach me the basic techniques of climbing. Clearly Evelyn had no problem with drawing mountains, as the mouse-drawings from An Episode in the History of the Lake District (1943) show. Why no mountainscapes in her serious painting? Roger sometimes found it hard to reconcile her acquired love of mountains with their absence in her painting, and deplored what he thought was as a blind-spot in her aesthetic vision. Not too plaintively: he didn't interfere with her work in any way. (As a footnote to this, in the spring of 1945 she exhibited a painting called The Mountaineer at the Royal Academy Galleries. I've never seen this painting, which I imagine is at least as much about Roger as about mountains, and its location is unknown.)

I think there are two answers to this. The obvious answer is that although some volunteers (and after 1941 conscripts) were assigned to forestry work via a subsidiary organisation called the Women's Timber Corps in the Scottish Highlands (an activity recorded by Evelyn's Official War Artist colleague Ethel Gabain), few Women's Land Army activities took place in upland settings.

More importantly, moor and mountain are mostly barren and unproductive. It was a wonderful coincidence that Evelyn's Official War Artist appointment focussed largely on the work of the Women's Land Army, while the work of the WLA chimed resoundingly with the convictions Evelyn had held since she was able to think for herself. Her endlessly cheerful belief in the Covenant, that the Creator promised the earth and all its produce, abundantly and without end, in return for Mankind's undertaking to love that creation and to look after it, returns again and again in considering her paintings. (Some of the implications for Mankind's responsibility for this appear to have just struck Joseph in the diptych above.)

Evelyn's mother Florence, who died in 1944, first instilled the principles of Christian Science into her and her older sisters Jessie and Marjorie. Her brothers Ronald and Alec appear to have been more resistant. Several aspects of Christian Science took firm root in Evelyn. She was too level-headed and complete a person to accept or trouble herself with some of the more abstruse metaphysical notions of Christian Science, but she did believe profoundly in the Garden of Eden, not as something that may or may not have existed, but as an allegory, a metaphor for the perfection of Nature and Mankind's part in it, a perfection of synergy to be striven for at all times. And the great thing about this is that it works: you don't have to believe in, or force yourself to believe in, complex and unavailing theologies and doctrine when the daily miracle of the mutual interaction between Mankind and Nature is right there in front of you in your window-box, your garden, fields and farmland.

In 1929, when Evelyn first met Charles Mahoney, three years her senior and one of her tutors at the Royal College of Art, she may well have gradually discovered in him a kindred spirit and a comfortable confirmation of her own beliefs. He too loved gardens and plants. In the course of their relationship, which lasted the best part of six years, they visited many gardens, sent each other plants through the post, talked endlessly about, lived and breathed gardens. There are references in Mahoney's lesser work to himself and Evelyn as Adam and Eve (a deliberate play on names?) in the Garden of Eden. The book they produced together, Gardeners' Choice (Longman, London, 1937) is an eloquent - and useful - testimony to their love of plants and gardens and, I believe, of each other.

It's merely flippant, although true, to observe that according to Genesis there were no mountains in the Garden of Eden. (I wonder if the same is true of other creation stories?) Evelyn's beliefs found all they needed to feed and confirm them in what she saw around her: in the carefully tended family garden at The Cedars, in the fertile landscapes of the Weald, in the opulent and efficiently farmed acres of southern England. However picturesque, and whatever fun might be had scrambling about on them, mountains - and, for that matter, seascapes or urban landscapes - were an irrelevance. The Covenant was all.

(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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