Sunday, 14 October 2012

Threshing and Baling, Monmouthshire (1943)

Evelyn Dunbar Threshing and Baling, Monmouthshire 1943 (1' 4" x 1'8": 40.8 x 51cm) National Museum of Wales, Cardiff

This is the second of the three Women's Land Army paintings initiated by Evelyn during a particularly cold and rain-sodden January, 1943. She spent several weeks at the Institute of Agriculture at Usk (now Coleg Gwent), in Monmouthshire, housed in a WLA caravan. Despite the comparative nearness of her husband, Roger Folley, then undergoing navigation training at RAF Colerne, it's not hard to imagine her relief at abandoning her caravan with its cussedly nonconformist paraffin stove, and making for the comfort of her studio in Rochester to work up her sketches, probably far greater in number than eventually appeared as finished paintings.

Maybe this scene features one of the few fine days in that very wet January. There's an east wind blowing (the right-hand barn door is jammed open with a plank to prevent the wind catching it), not usually a rain-bearing wind in South Wales. We can orientate the scene by the shadow of the hay-rake, propped correctly with tines uppermost, cast against the left-hand wall by a pale sun, low in the post-midwinter sky.

The barn is old, built of local sandstone and roofed with Welsh slates, patched with mosses and lichens. An unusual feature, although not uncommon in the area, is the vertical ventilation slits on either side of the doors, maybe an indication that the barn was originally built to overwinter cattle in. At any rate the previous summer's wheat harvest has been stored here in the dry, and the time has arrived for a threshing machine, of the same travelling contractor's type that we saw in Evelyn's Threshing, Kent (1941), to be installed in the through passage of the barn. Connected to it is the baling machine, packing the straw into rectangular bales which will be stacked for use mainly as cattle litter and thereafter as manure. The noise must be indescribable, the chaff and dust everywhere, and the scarved and maybe masked Land Girls inside, stripped of their heavy coats, must be as grateful for a through-draught as those outside are grumbling about the sharp edge of the wind.

The design of Threshing and Baling, Monmouthshire is strong, assured and confident, as almost always with Evelyn's work, and I think much may be read into certain features of it. I wouldn't like to suggest that a detailed history of World War 2 can be extrapolated from her War Artists' Advisory Committee commissions, but a glance through the major headlines of January 1943 includes:

Germans Surrender in Stalingrad
Conference of Allied Powers in Casablanca
Berlin Hit by First Daytime Bombing
Allies Take Tripoli as Germans Retreat
(I've taken these from Chronicle of the 20th Century, ed. Derrik Mercer, Longmans, London 1988)

Slowly, gradually, the outlook is becoming more positive. (But then Evelyn's outlook is never negative.) There's room for hope. The tide of war is turning the Allies' way, and the age-old principles for which Britain stands are being vindicated. I expect it's much too fanciful to imagine this barn as a metaphor for Britain, as This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, as Shakespeare makes John of Gaunt say about England in Richard II, but do the ventilation slits remind us of arrow slits in mediaeval military architecture? And it may be equally illusory to note that the barn itself is built of Devonian or Silurian sandstone, among the oldest rocks not just in Wales but in the entire planet, and do these roots to a remote past suggest the time-tested durability of the ideals for which this war is being fought?

(As I re-read this I'm a little ashamed of the sentimentality of this analysis, something that later Marxist and postmodernist historians and critics would give me maybe 2 out of 10 for, if that: but then I remember that the historian Sir Arthur Bryant, with similar flights of often utopian-agrarian fancy, was enormously popular during the war, and that it's a poor historian who visits the preoccupations of his or her own times on the past. But I stray from Evelyn, one of the least sentimental artists I know.)

The threat of invasion and violation has passed, the doors are open to their fullest extent, and what has been temporarily housed and sheltered inside, grain, maybe for re-sowing in spring in several weeks' time, and straw, with its own promise of enrichment for the future, is being processed and disseminated. And by women.

(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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