Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Section Officer Austen, Women's Auxiliary Air Force Meteorologist (1944)

Evelyn Dunbar Section Officer Austen, Women's Auxiliary Air Force Meteorologist 1944 (1' 8" x 2' 6": 50.2 x 76.2cm) RAF Museum, Hendon

There's such a palpable change evident in this quite haunting and beautifully light and balanced painting, compared with Evelyn's two previous Women's Auxiliary Air Force studies (Women's Auxiliary Air Force Store and Portrait of an Air Woman), that I think it's legitimate to suggest that something positive happened in Evelyn's private life to account for it. At the time, the second half of 1944, she was also working on two major canvases, both with Women's Land Army subjects: A 1944 Pastoral: Land Girls Pruning at East Malling and A Land Girl and the Bail Bull, two of her most finished wartime canvases.

While Evelyn was working on the WAAF commission from her employers, the War Artists Advisory Committee, her husband Roger Folley was serving with 488 (N.Z.) Squadron. This squadron flew De Havilland Mosquito night-fighters. Roger's year-long training was not only in navigation but in in-flight radar operation as well. Mosquitoes had 2-man crews, pilot and navigator. Roger's pilot was Squadron Leader Ron Watts, a New Zealander who was eventually promoted to Wing Commander and took command of the squadron.

The Watts/Folley team flew 116 night-fighting sorties from various RAF stations, among them RAF Colerne in Wiltshire. It was at RAF South Cerney, conveniently near Colerne, that Evelyn completed her preliminary sketches for Women's Auxiliary Air Force Store and Portrait of an Air Woman.

In October 1944 Roger and his squadron were transferred to Amiens, in northern France, in the wake of the advancing Allies, and in the spring of 1945 to Gilze Rijen in Holland, where the squadron was disbanded a few days before the war ended. Roger had served continually since July, 1943. During these six months Evelyn and Roger saw very little of each other. Unable to follow him abroad, Evelyn lived at home at The Cedars in Rochester and looked for subjects nearby.

The preliminary sketches for Section Officer Austen, Women's Auxiliary Air Force Meteorologist were made at RAF Gravesend, almost within walking distance of Strood, the trans-Medway area of Rochester in which Evelyn lived. What was once RAF Gravesend is now a housing estate and leisure centre, so nothing remains of the wooden huts or brick offices, hastily built in the great UK airfield expansion of 1938-39, which once housed the meteorological department where Section Officer Austen worked.

Section Officer Austen, who looks about 25, is a study in concentration as she leans forward over a large map. We can't tell what the map is of, but it's likely to be of the Western Approaches, maybe stretching as far south as the Azores, so often the origin of the weather systems which would affect aircraft movement in support of advancing Allied troops in northern France and the Low Countries. The rolls of paper around her suggest tracings, maybe reports from weather patrols far out in the Atlantic, which Austen is adding to the overall weather map. At last Evelyn, or the censoring authorities through whom she worked, is allowing us to see a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force actually engaged on work of tactical importance. We know nothing about her other than her surname. If she is still alive she will be in her 90s.

A blonde colleague, equally concentrated, is sitting beyond Austen, within reach of a telephone typical of the 40s (then - and maybe still - popularly known as 'the blower'), and another, with a hairdo so splendid that it might be mistaken for a hat, is sitting in an office through the doorway.

Roger Folley, who died in 2008, was a quiet and unassuming man, not alone among ex-RAF aircrew in being almost pathologically reticent about his wartime experiences. However, in an uncharacteristic opening-up that was never repeated, he did once show me a home-made decoration his squadron colleagues had given him. I must have been about 13 at the time. I asked him, crudely, how many German planes he'd shot down. As so often in matters he  didn't want to talk about he ducked the question (in fact the answer was 1). It wasn't really for that, he said. The 'decoration', a plywood cross painted black and white like the wing markings of Luftwaffe aircraft, was attached to a large collar of crêpe paper and was inscribed 'Fritz Frier Folley', 'Fritz' being a generic term for Germans. His colleagues had presented it to him in recognition of the various tweakings and improvements he'd made to their in-flight radar sets, making identification of targets easier and more accurate.

Roger's contribution is recognised in a rather end-of-term-reportish understatement in Leslie Hunt's book Defence Until Dawn: The Story of 488 N.Z. Squadron, published privately in 1949: 'Roger had gone about his duties quietly but with a great sense of humour and as the Nav/Radio Leader had done some sterling work for the squadron.' In fact, as a result of his radar improvement work he was seconded to other RAF units, under a scheme called Navigator Lease, to train other navigators in its use.

It's no more than conjecture: something positive and reassuring had happened to Evelyn at the time Section Officer Austen was painted. I wonder if that something was her relief on hearing that Roger had been taken off flying duties?

Thanks to Graham Corner for help in the preparation of this commentary.

(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

Monday, 26 November 2012

Women's Auxiliary Air Force Store & Portrait of an Air Woman (1944)

Evelyn Dunbar Women's Auxiliary Air Force Store 1944 (1' 4" x 1' 8": 40.6 x 50.8 cm) Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow

In the summer of 1944, while Allied troops were fighting furiously to drive the Germans out of Normandy, Evelyn was given the necessary passes to carry out a commission to record the activities of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. I don't think her heart was in it. She set up her easel at RAF South Cerney, a training station in Gloucestershire, not far from RAF Colerne, where Roger's unit, 488 (N.Z.) Squadron, was stationed.

Once again Evelyn seems to have taken her stepladder to give a top-down view of a WAAF clothing store. The two central figures, the nearer with a splendid hair-do which must have been difficult to accommodate inside a WAAF cap, however floppy they may have been, are wearing fatigues or working overalls. The figure on the right, bending forward to retrieve discarded clothing, is also wearing fatigues under a blue overall, and the sharp-eyed will note that they are trousered, a tiny clue confirming a change of attitudes to women's wear at institutional level. The discarded clothing is unidentifiable, the strips of pink a mystery. They're certainly not outerwear. Slips? Suspender belts? Surely not. We move on.

In Evelyn's default style we're led into this painting from the left, just as we are in so many others, like Women's Land Army Hostel or The Queue at the Fish Shop. The three WAAFs forming the queue (again, very elegantly coiffed) are also dressed in fatigues. They appear to be lining up to receive RAF blue battledress uniform, as being tried on by the figure on the left centre, contorting herself to get into her tunic, under the eyes of a WAAF corporal. Will we meet this little WAAF again in a moment?

On the counter there's some discussion going on about a blouse or shirt, and there's nothing remarkable about this except to note that very often shirts of the period had detachable collars, held in place by a simple stud at the back of the neck and at the front by a more complex stud with a hinged button on a stalk long enough to pass through and fasten four layers of fabric, the two sides of the shirt neck and the two ends of the collar. The advantage of having a detachable collar, which older readers will remember and which dog-collared clergy will struggle with daily, was that it could be laundered and maybe starched daily or at will, while the shirt needed less frequent laundering.

Clearly these collars loomed large in the eyes of inspecting WAAF officers. Joan Wyndham, a particularly lively, indeed racy, World War 2 diarist who signed up as a WAAF a year or two before the date of Evelyn's painting, confided the following impression to her diary for August, 1941:

    [...] Every morning at crack of dawn we have to hit the parade ground and all day long there are lectures in the Nissen huts in how to be an administration officer.
    Here is a typical day's programme - parade (and at least four things found wrong with my appearance - 'Ropy do, Wyndham, your collar is filthy!'). Then a lecture on VD and scabies, followed by compulsory hockey in a thunderstorm - then another lecture on pregnant WAAFs. As if this wasn't enough we have a compulsory cello concert after dinner - can you imagine after all that a cello concert?

Evelyn Dunbar Portrait of an Air Woman 1944 (1' 8" x 2' 6": 50.2 x 76.2cm) RAF Museum, Hendon

I wonder if this Air Woman is the same person as on the extreme mid-left, putting on her tunic, in Women's Auxiliary Air Force Stores? We don't know who she was or anything about her. The badge on her shoulder, a stylised eagle, was common to all WAAFs. Normally there was an embroidered A (for Auxiliary) badge below the eagle, but for an unknown reason it's missing from this portrait. The inverted chevron on her left cuff had nothing to do with rank. It was awarded for good conduct.

There was an interesting exchange of correspondence about this portrait between Gregory, the secretary of the War Artists Advisory Committee, and Evelyn, who had submitted these two WAAF paintings in the spring of 1945. (Her usual method of delivery to the WAAC offices was by train, travelling herself with her paintings in the guard's van.)

Gregory wrote expressing the WAAC's delighted approval of the consignment 'with the exception of the small one of the Airwoman, and quite frankly they did not think this was of very great interest. The sitter was not a very good one and the picture did not add much to our war records'.

Evelyn replied: 'In defence of my little Waaf, I will say she is extremely typical, as you might agree if you lived among several hundred of them. [...] I must own that the aesthetic mood didn't flourish very vigorously on the Raf Station I was at, but I did not realise it at the time...'

The late summer of 1944, when the preliminary sketches for these two paintings were made, and maybe others unaccounted for, was a troubled time for Evelyn. Roger's squadron was flying continually. 488 (N.Z.) squadron was equipped with De Havilland Mosquito night-fighters. These fast, lightly constructed aircraft (they were largely made of wood) carried a crew of two, pilot and navigator, usually a permanent pairing. Roger's pilot was Squadron Leader Ron Watts, a New Zealander who was eventually promoted to command the squadron. Roger, as his navigator, was required not only to find their way about the night skies but to operate the in-flight radar, known popularly as the 'gubbins', as well. This radar enabled enemy aircraft to be located and attacked.

At this time Evelyn was working by day and Roger flying by night, never the happiest of circumstances for a young marriage. RAF aircrew life expectancy was the shortest in the armed services. Of the 40-50 aircrew establishment in 488 (N.Z.) Squadron, 8 were killed in action, some 16%. (25 lost their lives in flying accidents, mostly during training.) Evelyn never knew whether Roger would be returning from the previous night's sortie.


Portrait of an Air Woman is the first formal portrait we have seen from Evelyn's hand. It was by no means the first portrait she had ever completed. During the war Evelyn continued to exhibit her non-WAAC paintings sporadically. Joseph's Dream was shown at the New English Art Club's 1944 exhibition (she was elected a member the following year) and other exhibited paintings included portraits entitled Roger Folley (watercolour), Mrs Dunbar and Paul and Mrs Dunbar and the Snog.

This is extremely tantalising. Portrait of an Air Woman hardly takes us inside the character of the sitter, and although it's not quite a 'ropy do', to use Joan Wyndham's inspecting officer's period phrase, it doesn't tell us much about her. There's a certain diffidence about it, as though Evelyn hadn't, or couldn't, engage fully with 'her little Waaf'. Her later portraiture shows great skill and commitment, indeed often a fascination with her sitters. 'Paul' was the Dunbar family dog, an Aberdeen terrier. Evelyn had a habit of coining familiar nicknames, of affectionately corrupting everyday names into something else. In Dunbarese 'Snog' meant 'dog'. 'Mrs Dunbar' might be her sister-in-law Jill, who married Alec, the younger of Evelyn's two brothers, or her recently deceased mother Florence. The Mrs Dunbar portraits may be one and the same, or they may be two different paintings. One, or both, has/have not been located, so it/they can't be quoted in any assessment of Evelyn's acumen for portraiture. Nor has the whereabouts of the watercolour Roger Folley been found.Can anyone help?.

For another war artist, Charles Cundall, maybe the aesthetic mood generated by the Women's Auxiliary Air Force flourished a bit more vigorously. But although there's sometimes dramatic tension in Evelyn's painting, it's never theatrical.

Charles Cundall Women's Auxiliary Air Force Kitting Up 1943 (2' 6" x 4' 2": 78 x 126 cm) RAF Museum, Hendon

I am grateful to Graham Corner for his help with this commentary.

(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, 300 illustrations. £25

Thursday, 22 November 2012

An Army Tailor and an ATS Tailoress (1943)

Evelyn Dunbar An Army Tailor and an ATS Tailoress 1943 (2' x 1'6": 60.9 x 45.7cm)
 Imperial War Museum, London

Maybe as a result of a continual flow of Women's Land Army paintings, and of pundits downward from Sir Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery and Chairman of the War Artists Advisory Committee, remarking on their apparent lack of war content, it was suggested to Evelyn that she should record the activities of the various women's branches of the armed services.

This rather unusual painting has a question mark over it because I can't accurately assign a chronology to it. There appears to be no account of Evelyn visiting an army depot to record the scene above. I have a problem with the title, too: certainly there's an army tailor at the upper right of Evelyn's painting, but there are four ATS women in it, so maybe the title should be An Army Tailor and ATS Tailoresses, a title echoing in its categorisation of the sexes her earlier painting Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook. At any rate, that's how I should like to refer to it hereafter. With some reserve: there never was a designated army tailoring service. The manufacture and supply of uniforms was put out to civilian contract. The people in Evelyn's painting are doing individual alterations and sewing on badges.

ATS, for the record, stands for Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women's branch of the army. The ATS was founded a few days after the outbreak of war in September, 1939, and volunteers served as clerks, orderlies and telephonists among other fairly lowly occupations. In December 1941 unmarried women between 20 and 30 were conscripted into the various women's services, including the chief subject of Evelyn's brush, the Women's Land Army. For some reason the ATS was the least popular of the women's services, acceptance into the somewhat exclusive Women's Royal Naval Service being the most sought after, closely followed by the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. Despite expanding its scope to include more prestigious paramilitary activities like radar operation, decyphering and encrypting codes, gunlaying and ammunition inspection, the ATS remained the Cinderella of the women's services. However ATS members (known popularly as 'Ats', like 'Wrens' and 'Waafs') felt their image had received a welcome and necessary boost when in February 1945, and apparently of her own free will, the 18-year-old heir to the throne Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) volunteered to serve in its ranks as a driver.

An Army Tailor and ATS Tailoresses shares with several other contemporary mid-wartime paintings, for example Land Army Girls going to Bed and Women's Auxiliary Air Force Store, a top-down viewpoint that makes me wonder if one of Evelyn's first requests on arriving at a venue was the loan of a stepladder.

The high viewpoint, while creating problems of foreshortening, does give us a panoramic view of what's going on, if panorama is the right word to describe five people variously arranged round a long table. It's clearly a warm room, probably in the depot stores: three of the women have taken off their tunics. We can't see exactly what the woman in the foreground is doing, but we can imagine that she's sewing on red arm strips. There's a box of such strips in the lower foreground. Beside the box are the tools of their trade: reels of white or khaki cotton, scissors, a steel sleeve slide, to prevent accidents like the inadvertent sewing of both sides of a sleeve together.

It's possible that the two women in the foreground are working on the same garment, a winter greatcoat. The left-hand woman appears to be sewing an embroidered crown on to one of the shoulders, indicating that the coat belongs to a major. It may be the major's cap that's seen upside-down in the right foreground, awaiting the addition of a corps or regimental cap badge. The addition of one or more red strips to his sleeve would show firstly that he belonged to an infantry regiment and secondly to which brigade his regiment had been assigned. Tentative and conjectural though this suggestion is, it would tally both with the organisational changes in the British army that followed the series of defeats in the earlier years of the war, and with preparations for the Normandy landings. Dating this painting to September or October, 1943, can't be far out.

The second woman on the left is sitting on the table in the traditional cross-legged pose of tailors, or as cross-legged as skirt-worn modesty allows. Unlike her colleagues, she has abandoned her services issue stickback chair. The underside of the seat would have a crown, or possibly the letters WD (War Department) branded into it: the rear edge of the seat would have had GVIR die-stamped on it, i.e. Georgius VI (6) Rex, to mark it as Ministry of Defence property. (Thousands of these chairs were issued. I owned four of them once, bought at an auction of ex-MOD furniture. They served as our family dining chairs for many years.)

At the far end of the table another ATS is operating a sewing machine. Completed battledress tunics, trousers and greatcoats cover the rest of the table, and the nearer floor spaces show that scissors have been well used.

On the right is the tailor of the title, a simple private, no Goliath, no warrior by all appearances. He's ironing something on a sleeve board, warming his flat-iron on a little trivet probably heated by short stubby candles like night-lights. When I contemplate this diminutive figure, I begin to wonder if Evelyn, maybe not entirely enamoured of this commission and wishing she was out of doors, isn't making an elaborate and sophisticated joke. She would be perfectly capable of it. So, how many people do you see in the picture?

While Evelyn was no feminist, as we understand the term today, she was proud of her sex and proud too of the very small, as she saw it, contribution she had made in the cause of the emancipation of women. She was too modest to give much value to her own personal contribution, but her wartime work in no way detracted from a general re-evaluation of the place of women in a largely male-dominated society. Exploring the social consequences of war, especially World War 2, was practically an academic cottage industry in the 1970s and 80s. One of the ideas suggested, one particularly associated with the now rather old-fashioned sociologist Stanislav Andreski and rather grandly entitled Military Participation Ratio, was that the more any section of society (e.g. women, blacks, scientists) contributes to a war, the greater the levelling of social inequality in that section's favour afterwards. I'd like to explore this idea further in the context of Evelyn's last, and greatest, Women's Land Army painting, A Land Girl and the Bail Bull, in due course.

It would be crass to suggest that the notion 2 women = 1 man ever fell from Evelyn's lips, but I wonder if in sketching An Army Tailor and ATS Tailoresses from the top of her stepladder the fleeting thought crossed her mind that if each woman represented two men, and if you added in the army tailor, you would endorse the old saying that 'nine tailors make a man'. She would certainly have enjoyed the story of Queen Elizabeth I welcoming a deputation of 18 tailors by saying 'Good morning, gentlemen both'.

There are two other features I'd like to single out. The first is the hairdressing, and the contrast between the elegantly-coiffed ATS and some of the nondescript hair-dos of Evelyn's Land Girls. Perfectly natural: the Women's Land Army worked long hours out of doors in all weathers, while these ATS are sedentary, their perms not subject to sudden downpours or sweat-soaked, chaff-ridden scalps. But then the WLA had no ranks, all were theoretically equal, while the ATS had its full hierarchy of officers. Hairdressing and military discipline have often marched together. 

The second is the floor, which - unexpectedly - is extraordinarily beautiful in its balance of abstract shapes and subtle colours, complementing but in no way drawing attention away from the activities round the table. I hope Evelyn enjoyed painting it.

(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

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Christmas, 1943

Evelyn Dunbar Christmas Card 1943 Pre-publication presentation (?) 1955 © Estate of Evelyn Dunbar: private collection

The second of Evelyn's and Roger's Christmas cards shows two hands, one reaching down and the other reaching up, on a rock climb in Yorkshire. This is Almscliffe Crag, not far from Harrogate, and a pitch well-known to rock climbers called The Flake. Roger knew it well from his student days, 1932-36, at Leeds University, and had introduced Evelyn to it at some time during his RAF leaves. I can imagine that he found in rock climbing not only a freedom and release from the mortal pressure and claustrophobia of constant sorties as a navigator with 488 (N.Z.) Squadron, but also a deep delight in discovering that Evelyn could share his passion for rock climbing as well.

Roger chose the text, an extract from The Pilgim's Progress:

This Hill, though high, I covet to ascend;
The difficulty will not offend;
For I perceive the way to life lies here;
Come, pluck up, Heart; let's neither faint nor fear:
Better, tho' difficult; th' right way to go,
Than wrong, though easy, where the end is wo

(In this section of The Pilgrim's Progress, the hero Christian arrives at the foot of a hill called Difficulty. At the foot of the hill his two companions, Formalist and Hypocrisy, duck out of climbing the steep path up the hill and take the easy paths left and right round the foot, not knowing that one path leads to Danger and the other to Destruction. Christian is later described as changing 'from running to going [i.e. walking], and from going to clambering on his hands and knees, because of the steepness of the place'. So Roger's quotation and Evelyn's drawing are particularly apt.)

There are several paths to follow from all this, not necessarily leading to Danger and Destruction, but maybe not to anywhere else in particular either. Certainly, the two hands suggest mutual assistance, support and encouragement in difficult times between husband and wife, but I think Evelyn's later comment, in her own handwriting, 'The War continues: courage and patience are tried' reaches outwards to the wider world.

By Christmas 1943 the presence of American troops in Britain, in preparation for the Normandy landings the following year, was universally felt. 'Hands across the sea' wasn't only the name of an 1899 Sousa military march given radio airing occasionally alongside Bing Crosby's I'm dreaming of a white Christmas or Glenn Miller's Moonlight Serenade or the Mills Brothers' Paper Doll on the popular American Forces Network: it was a metaphor for the assistance, support and encouragement given by the USA to the British and other allied forces. (It was borrowed for the title of a 1980s TV series about the relations, not always trouble-free, between US troops stationed in England and the natives.)

So much for any allusions in Evelyn's drawing, historical now but very present then. And the sharp-eyed will notice - the drawing should enlarge if you click on it - that wittingly or unwittingly she has been unable to escape, in the lower right-hand side where far below a river flows, a suggestion of fields neatly enclosed by drystone walls. Agriculture is never far away.

(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, 300 illustrations. £25

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Queue at the Fish Shop (1942-45)

Evelyn Dunbar The Queue at the Fish Shop 1942-5 (2' x 6': 62 x 183cm) Imperial War Museum, London

(Evelyn took several years to finish The Queue at the Fish Shop, known affectionately in the family as The Fish Queue. She started it in the spring of 1942, and finally submitted it to the War Artists Advisory Committee in 1945. She 'borrowed' it back from the Imperial War Museum for her only solo exhibition in 1953. I wrote the essay below almost 10 years ago, as part of a joint biography I planned to write of Evelyn and her husband Roger Folley. The title, drawn from the implications of this painting, was to have been The Artist, the Airman and the Promise of Plenty. One day...)

There are 24 women and children, and there may well be more, extending out of the frame and further along the pavement. Apart from the RAF officer, there are only two men, both too old for military service. They're all very patient. Forming an orderly queue is something they're used to. It was the same yesterday and will probably be the same tomorrow. It hasn't needed anyone to organise them, to shout orders and shepherd them into line, to cordon off part of the pavement and make sure no one jumps the queue. These people can regulate themselves.

The youngest is an infant of about 18 months. The oldest is possibly the elderly woman at the head of the queue. There are a few children, a little blonde girl in a blue coat in the centre of the picture, one of the few characters showing any sign of boredom or fractiousness. There's a toddler in arms, a small child in a balaclava and reins, a girl of about 14 in a black beret talking down to her restless sister in bobble hat and raincoat. There are only two men in the queue, both of retirement age. There's a third just beyond the airman on his bicycle, but he's on his way elsewhere and in a moment he will have disappeared out of the frame like the woman on the extreme right. All the rest are women, mothers, grandmothers, housewives, landladies, providers. It's important to them to dress well, to keep up appearances. Some have dressed very carefully, all belong to a generation unused to going out without a hat. The mirrors inside countless front doors will have been well used. Some are aloof, some are chatting in a desultory, doctor's waiting-room way, others are deep in conversation.

All are well covered against the freshness of the morning. There's no evidence of poverty, ill-health, deprivation or fear. These people are comfortable in their resignation, determined, confident. The fish will arrive, the queue will shuffle forward, Mr Hill the fishmonger will greet his regulars by name. This is an image not just of hope and optimism but, more powerfully, of guarantee.

It doesn't take very much detective work to date the scene fairly exactly.  First of all, it's wartime, so it takes place sometime between 1939 and 1945. If we didn't know this already, the kerb-stones are painted white at intervals as an aid to driving at night in blackout conditions. There are clues to the season. It's probably term-time: there's only one child - the girl in the bobble hat - who is obviously of school age. If schools were on holiday there would be more children, although it's possible that they may have been evacuated to avoid the bombing. The people are wearing winter clothes. They have a settled look, as though they've been out of the winter clothes wardrobe for some time. Many are wearing scarves and gloves, although the airman's gloves are part of his uniform. Nobody is wearing boots, however, so the cold can't be extreme. Some have open necks and coats undone, and the airman isn't wearing his greatcoat.

An upstairs window is open, with a hyacinth in bloom. It's a fresh morning with a watery sun shining, casting pale shadows that are too short for midwinter. It's February or March. A viewer with an astrological bent would agree: everything suggests Pisces, the fish, and maybe there's a visual pun here. In any case the year has turned. Sunnier days lie ahead.

But which year? War wasn't declared until September 1939, and hostilities were fairly low-key until May 1940. On the civilian front, apart from a flurry of V1 self-propelled bombs which the people in the queue, like everyone else, referred to as 'doodlebugs', things had calmed considerably by 1944 and in the early months of 1945 the end was in sight. The strong probability is that the scene is set in 1941, '42 or '43.

It has to be a weekday: even in wartime fishmongers don't open on Sundays. It might be a Saturday: the comparative absence of children is ambivalent. No housewife ever bought fresh fish on a Monday, even if she could take time off from the weekly wash to go and queue. Then, as now, there was a lingering vestige of a tradition of eating fish on Fridays, which might weigh slightly against the other available weekdays. The time of day isn't hard to calculate from the shadows and the orientation of the scene: it's about 10 o'clock in the morning. Tentatively the scene can be set on a February or March weekday morning in the middle years of World War 2.

There are other figures besides the people in the queue. A man in a blue and white striped apron is washing down the slab on which the fish will eventually be displayed. His colleague is similarly occupied inside the shop. One of the two is likely to be the son of the H.Hill referred to on the upper wall of the shop: if the business was established over 50 years previously, H.Hill, the Victorian founder, will very probably have been dead for some years. Mr Hill junior or his colleague will serve each customer, will weigh the selected fish and take it to the back of the shop to be filleted, dressed and wrapped first in a thin greaseproof paper and finally in newspaper. The package will be returned to the customer, and the assistant will take the money. There won't be any ration books, with coupons to cut out, like there were at the grocer's and butcher's. Fish was never rationed during World War 2, hence the queue. The assistant will carry the payment to the cashier in a little office at the back of the shop, who will give change. A lot of to-ing and fro-ing, as evidenced by the wear on the shop threshold.

It's possible that the cashier is Mrs Hill, and that the family lives over the shop. Maybe the hyacinth in the upstairs window has been grown by Mrs Hill, kept over the winter in a dark cupboard and taken out to flower as the days lengthen perceptibly. Perhaps it's her little black cat waiting at the side door with the same confident expectation as the people in the queue. This cat is not to be under-considered, because cats, although generally beloved of the British, are not common in national painting, even as details. A random backward glance only lights on two instances, both Williams: William Hogarth, master of Enlightenment irony, and William Holman Hunt, dull Pre-Raphaelite moralist. As it happens, both represent the traditions within which the artist is working.

Most of the people in the queue - none of them is recognisable, by the way - would remember the day, some twenty years after The Queue at the Fish Shop was painted, when Mr Hill's shop, Onslow's next door and several other neighbouring properties in Strood High Street, collectively known as Angel Corner, were demolished to widen the road. The artist could hardly have chosen a location more redolent of embattled England. This road is one of England's major arteries, at the time the principal link between London and Nazi-occupied France, a road of historical significance: it's Watling Street, the A2, linking London with Dover and passing through Canterbury. News of the destruction of the Spanish Armada by English fireships would have passed this way en route for London, as would despatches from Marlborough at Blenheim and Wellington at Waterloo.

Evacuated troops from Dunkirk reaching the safety of the Cinque Ports would have continued their onward journey along this route. A quarter of a mile or so out of the picture to the right Rochester bridge carries the road over the River Medway, almost in the shadow of the Norman keep of Rochester castle. Leftwards out of the picture the road continues through that part of trans-Medway Rochester called Strood, rises to Gad's Hill, where Charles Dickens lived for many years, where Shakespeare's Falstaff had certain adventures, and which leads in its direct Roman way to London Bridge via the Old Kent Road.

The postal address of the fish shop would have been H.Hill and Son, 89-91 High Street, Strood, Rochester, Kent. The shop, a property dating back at least to the time of Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada, was actually a minor local landmark. The artist has distorted the building slightly, squashing further down an already squat building for the purpose of including in the narrow frame the upper floor of Mr Hill's shop with its inscription and its open window. If you wanted to look out of this window you would have to go down on all fours. 

Evelyn Dunbar The Queue at the Fish Shop (detail)

A woman is crossing the road with a capacious basket on her arm, and indeed anyone interested in baskets will find a rich harvest in this painting. She's there to add balance to the composition, but, curiously, we will meet her again in quite another context.

Evelyn Dunbar The Queue at the Fish Shop (detail)

And so to the airman. Where he is, life burgeons, the future is assured. In his immediate ambit, indeed occupying the area of the canvas between him and the woman looking at us out of the painting, there are four children so spaced in age that they could, theoretically, be siblings. The rings on the airman's sleeve identify him as an officer and the half-winged badge on the left breast of his tunic indicates that he's a navigator. For the sharp-eyed, there's a tiny fleck of red below: it's the ribbon of a decoration. The bag slung over his shoulder contains his regulation gas-mask. We know exactly who he is. He's a man originating from Colne, in Lancashire, and his full name and style is Flying Officer Roger Roland Westwell Folley, BSc. (Hons.), B.Comm., RAF. It's unlikely that he ever cycled down Strood High Street in uniform.

We know the identity of the woman looking at us, indeed challenging us, so directly out of the picture too. She is the artist, Evelyn Mary Dunbar. Her signature appears in the bottom right hand corner. The airman is her husband. They were married in St Nicholas' Church, Strood in August, 1942, while preliminary sketches for The Queue at the Fish Shop were on the easel in her studio.

(This is where my earlier essay ended.)

Curiously, The Queue at the Fish Shop is as much about Roger as the people in the queue and their circumstances.

Evelyn sketched the background from the first floor of the premises opposite, the rather grandly-named Strood Hall, a shop selling bicycles and electrical goods run by Evelyn's older brother, Ronald. (Ronald Dunbar, incidentally, taught me to play chess.)

This isn't the only Dunbar family connection: the woman crossing the road is the elder of Evelyn's two sisters, Jessie. Jessie modelled frequently for Evelyn. A year or two later she modelled for the greatest of Evelyn's war paintings, A Land Girl and the Bail Bull. We never see Jessie, a busy, willing and cheerful person, in more than half- or quarter-profile, because she had a wall eye. (Evelyn's other sister, Marjorie, was reckoned to be the family beauty. In the 1930s she was happy to model for Evelyn: we see her in the Brockley murals, An English Calendar and often in Gardeners' Choice. Later she developed an unpleasant and unsightly condition called lupus, which disfigured her face with something like a pronounced and virulent eczema and which spread continually. She became more and more reclusive until she died in the 1970s. Maybe it should be remembered that the Dunbars, apart from Ronald and their father William, were Christian Scientists.)

There are some curious anomalies concerning Roger in The Queue at the Fish Shop. Evelyn has included him - they were engaged at about the time she started the preliminary sketches - as a symbol. I'll come to this in a moment, but at the time of painting Roger held a very junior commissioned rank, Flying Officer. By the time The Queue at the Fish Shop was submitted in 1945, Roger had been promoted to Flight Lieutenant. Nevertheless Evelyn left him with one ring on his sleeve, instead of the two his promoted rank would have required. Nor, at the time of painting, did Roger have his Navigator's half-wing. Evelyn has added it later. None of this matters: it was what he stood for that interested Evelyn, not his badges of rank.

However, there is a tiny fleck of red just below and to the left of his Navigator's half-wing. This is the ribbon of General Service Star, dismissively referred to in the services at the time as the Naafi Gong, because it was distributed so universally that it lost its value and could thus in theory be earned by merely leaning against the Naafi counter. The Queue at the Fish Shop was submitted before Roger was awarded it. Did Evelyn include it in anticipation?

This seems unlikely. But there's another explanation: in 1953 Evelyn mounted the only solo exhibition of her career, at Wye College in Kent, an outpost of Imperial College, London, where Roger was working as a lecturer in the School of Rural Economics and Related Studies. Evelyn asked the various galleries then displaying her paintings if she could borrow a total of six of them for this exhibition. The Imperial War Museum had no objection, and The Queue at the Fish Shop was loaned back to its creator for several weeks. On this occasion that Evelyn added the red fleck of the General Service Star. This is probably of no interest whatever, except to raise the much more engaging question of what right an artist has to modify his or her work after its supposed completion.

As usual when Evelyn has something significant to say, we're led into The Queue at the Fish Shop from the left. Roger is cycling in from what is actually the west, from the direction of London and the great fish market and distribution centre of Billingsgate. (Or possibly Deptford, the Kentish Thames-side town that replaced Billingsgate for a time while bomb damage was repaired.)

No one in the queue is looking at him. It's as though he was being taken for granted. Not individually, as Roger Folley, of course, but as a representative of the armed services that protect and guarantee the nation's food supplies, in this instance allowing fishermen to fish and the fish wholesaler's van to draw up presently outside Mr Hill's shop.

Evelyn, in self-portrait, is looking at us. She's impassive, unsmiling. How it would have transformed the whole painting and minimised its impact if she had been smiling! Nor is she angry. (Evelyn never was: impatient sometimes, but never angry.) She's challenging our complacency. Let's explore this in a little detail.

There are certain lines, actual or implied, in The Queue at the Fish Shop. If you extend the line of Roger's handlebars (it does no harm to do it with a transparent plastic ruler on a reproduction), if you extend the line of the fold of his fore-and-aft cap, if you follow the line of heads in the left-hand queue, you arrive at the same point: the beginning of the inscription LARGE SUPPLIES OF FRESH FISH FROM THE COAST DAILY. Just at the moment, of course, there aren't any fish at all, and superficially Evelyn is pointing an inescapable irony. But there will be. It's a promise. The guarantor of that promise is Roger. It must have been very exciting for Evelyn to cast this mantle, in some ways similar to that of Joseph in Joseph's Dream, on the shoulders of her fiancé/husband.

And we aren't so very far, once again, from Evelyn's driving notion of the Covenant, the contract between the Creator and mankind: in return for mankind's love for and care of the earth, the Creator promises endless abundance. It's this that Evelyn, in an earnest stare that some feel uncomfortable to confront for very long, is asking us not to forget.

(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

Monday, 12 November 2012

Potato Sorting, Berwick (1943)

Evelyn Dunbar Potato Sorting, Berwick 1943 (12" x 2' 6": 300 x 750cm) Manchester City Galleries

Potato Sorting, Berwick, is the third Women's Land Army painting Evelyn completed during her stay in Berwickshire, in southern Scotland, in the spring of 1943. At the time her husband Roger Folley was completing night-fighter navigation training at RAF Charterhall, between the villages of Greenlaw and Duns. This final training course would qualify him for active service posting the following July to 488 (NZ) Squadron, a night-fighter unit mostly staffed by New Zealand volunteers but with several British members and at least one Dutchman. 

RAF Charterhall closed in 1946, and is now a desolation of ruined huts and unmanaged pinewoods set among the broad upland fields of Berwickshire, one of which is the setting for Potato Sorting, Berwick. Unusually, Evelyn unfolds her narrative from right to left.

It's a bleak scene, at some remove from the sunny and idealised recruiting poster below:

In looking at Potato Sorting, Berwick it doesn't need much of a stretch of the imagination to feel a keen April east wind blowing in from the North Sea: all the Land Girls except one are wearing headscarves and coats, mostly uniform greatcoats. The Land Girl in the centre, however, has found her work warm enough to discard her greatcoat, and nobody is wearing gloves, so it can't be that cold.

If we could hear what is being said, we would probably be struck by the muddle of accents, frequent requests to repeat what has been said, probably some mimicry, especially back at the Women's Land Army hostel after work has finished for the day. The two men on the left will presumably speak with the local Borders accent, in their dialect calling potatoes 'tatties', while the Land Girls, who will have come from all over the United Kingdom, will have their own manner of speech in which 'taters', 'spuds', 'teddies', 'murphies' and of course the English middle-class 'potatoes' all mean the same thing. Maybe we can imply from Evelyn's painting the unity-within-diversity that was such a feature of wartime propaganda films.

And then there's the noise of the machine. Some surviving Land Army accounts of potato sorting describe the stultifyingly boring process of picking through potatoes and sizing them by hand: this farm is lucky enough to have a machine to help things along. All the same, it's not very different in principle from the drawing below, dating from about 1908:

- but it shows some advance. The machine, which appears to be fairly new from the pristine-ish state of its paintwork, is operated by a crank turned by the second Land Girl in from the left, the counterpart of the bowler-hatted and nattily-dressed gent on the left above.

On the extreme right, Land Girls are shovelling main crop potatoes from the clamp they've been stored in since harvest the previous autumn, using tools called graips, forks with more tines than usual and with each tine flattened at the end to prevent damage to the potatoes.

The potatoes run along a riddle which sorts them into sizes, then up a short open elevator, from which damaged or diseased potatoes can be picked by hand. The crop appears to be an especially good one: the relaxed, leaning, cross-legged pose of the left-hand Land Girls - suggests that there isn't much weeding out of below-standard potatoes to be done. The sorted potatoes arrive at the top of the elevator and fall into a sack held by a farm labourer. When full, the sack will be weighed on the scales on the extreme left and the contents adjusted until exactly 1 hundredweight (45kg) is reached. Older readers will remember that 20 hundredweight (cwt) made 1 ton. By the end of the day several tons of potatoes will have been sacked up, especially if the not inconsiderable spillage is included.

Sub-standard or damaged potatoes, incidentally, were stained with purple dye, marking them as unfit for human consumption, and were used as animal feed, chiefly for pigs.

Potato Sorting, Berwick and its companion pieces Land Army Girls going to Bed and Women's Land Army Hostel were exhibited - with other paintings - at the National Gallery in London later in 1943. The critic Jan Gordon, writing in that year's November issue of The Studio, commented:

The pictures are capable and in many ways excellent, but as the collection grows, a conviction becomes equally strong that something is lacking from them, and that lack seems to be a lack of war consciousness...Evelyn Dunbar's set of four [but which was the fourth?] 'Land Army' paintings are works of a very respectable talent indeed, but good as they are they are examples of what I mean when I suggest a lack of war-substance.

I don't think these three paintings are among Evelyn's best, although it's still possible to pick up from them, as in all her War Artists Advisory Committee work, her themes of determination and hope. I think they are revealing of something else, of preoccupations not always connected with her work. She was under pressure: in letters from this period to the Secretary of the War Artists Advisory Committee she asked for more time, for the final date of her contract to be extended. The WAAC was very accommodating and gave her all the leeway she wanted, but it seems clear that her 1943 output had reduced considerably compared with the non-stop outpourings of 1940-42. There's no proof, of course, as so much of her work is unaccounted for, but if the first six months of 1943 accounts only for these three paintings plus the work she produced during her stay in Usk, i.e. six mostly small paintings in total, then a change has come over Evelyn. Few of the early 1943 paintings are highly finished, in the way that Women's Land Army Dairy Training or St Thomas's Hospital in Evacuation Quarters are. What has happened?

Firstly, her private painting was occupying her more, maybe at the expense of her WAAC commissioned work. In 1943 she exhibited, possibly among other non-war paintings, the talismanic Joseph's Dream, at last now complete and highly finished.

Secondly, Evelyn had had on her easel since before her marriage in August 1942 one of her largest wartime canvases, The Queue at the Fish Shop. Although this painting wasn't submitted until 1945, I would like to take it next in the canon, because I think it's a celebration of her marriage and a strong statement of what Roger Folley had become for her. Completion may well have eclipsed, for the moment, her interest in the Women's Land Army. Here's a foretaste of what is one of her greatest paintings:

Evelyn Dunbar The Queue at the Fish Shop 1945 (2' x 6': 62 x 183cm) Imperial War Museum, London

Thirdly, marriage, as it was bound to, altered Evelyn's outlook in many ways. Despite wartime marriages being fraught, it worked. They were as suited to each other as the two Georgian brass candlesticks which my mother gave her brother Roger and Evelyn as a wedding present, and which I now have in my study as I write this. At the most basic level, from now on she could rely on Roger's service pay, particularly as they had no married home: after marriage Evelyn continued to have her home and studio in Rochester, at The Cedars, although she followed Roger's various postings wherever she could. Having nowhere else, Roger considered The Cedars as his home too, but he was only able to spend odd leaves there.

Up until 1943 Roger had seen no active service in the air. Completion of his flying training, which started in 1941, at RAF Charterhall would mean active service to follow. Life expectancy among RAF aircrew was not high. However inured RAF personnel were to tragedy at this stage in the war, a cloud hung over RAF Charterhall to which both Roger and Evelyn would have been sensitive: shortly before Roger arrived in Berwickshire, Flight Lieutenant Richard Hillary was killed on a training flight from RAF Charterhall, when his aircraft crashed into a nearby field. Hillary had been a celebrated and successful Battle of Britain pilot who had suffered appalling burns when his Spitfire caught fire. He recounted his Battle of Britain experiences in a then famous book, The Last Enemy. After intensive treatment at the famous East Grinstead, Sussex, burns hospital under Sir Archibald McIndoe, Hillary insisted on returning to flying, meeting the last enemy while re-training.

Roger joined 488 (NZ) Squadron, then based in Ayr, Scotland, in July 1943. The first mention of him in Leslie Hunt's Defence until Dawn: The Story of 488 N.Z. Squadron, reads ' this time [July 1943] Roger Folley had turned up ahead of his pilot, Flight Lieutenant Ron Watts, of Auckland; Roger hailed from Rochester, Kent, and was a professor in days of peace.'

('Professor' was prophetic: only after the war did he become a university lecturer.)

I think Evelyn was terrified of losing him. With final training at a RAF station haunted by the spectre of the iconic Richard Hillary and with active service looming, she wanted to spend every possible moment with him. It's surprising that her commissioned painting didn't suffer more.

(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

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Land Army Girls going to Bed & Women's Land Army Hostel (1943)

Evelyn Dunbar Land Army Girls going to Bed 1943 (1'8" x 2' 6": 51 x 76cm) Imperial War Museum, London

Evelyn Dunbar Women's Land Army Hostel 1943 (9" x 9": 22.5 x 22.5cm) Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth

In the spring of 1943 Roger Folley, Evelyn's husband, was posted for training in night navigation and the use of in-flight radar to RAF Charterhall, in Berwickshire, Scotland. As usual Evelyn did her best to follow his postings, and for a time they lived in a rented cottage on a farm called Edington Mains, near the Borders village of Greenlaw. (The farmer's name was Clark: his son James, then a 7-year-old known as Jim, was later to win two World Formula 1 championships.)

At least three Women's Land Army paintings ensued from Evelyn's stay in the Borders. The two above, Land Army Girls going to Bed and Women's Land Army Hostel, are set in a so far unidentified hostel in Northumberland. They're unusual in that they show Land Girls off duty and not actually engaged in agricultural activities.

Before setting off for the Borders Evelyn had contacted the secretary of the Northumberland branch of the Women's Land Army, via Lady Gertrude Denman, Director of the WLA.. Evelyn was warmly welcomed, according to a letter she wrote to Elmslie Owen, secretary of the War Artists' Advisory Committee: 'She [the Northumberland secretary] was very pleased to hear that I thought of going there, some of the best work is apparently done up there, and people hear and see little of it.' It's maybe a little ironic that the paintings shown here should be of Land Girls preparing to sleep or eat, but in fact the third of the Borders trio, Potato Sorting, Berwick (subject of the next commentary) shows them engaged in uncomfortable and demanding work.

Having been given her credentials, Evelyn settled down to sketch and paint them. Who were these Land Girls?

By 1943, when Evelyn was painting these pictures, the Women's Land Army had largely overcome the strong opposition to employing Land Girls initially voiced by many farmers. Founded by Lady Denman in 1938 as war clouds gathered on the horizon, and based on a similar organisation in the 1914-18 war, the Women's Land Army gathered strength as the war progressed. There are many individual memoirs of service in the WLA, and Dr Gill Clarke, also Evelyn's biographer, has written a concise and readable account of it in her The Women's Land Army: A Portrait (Sansom & Co., Bristol, 2008).

At first the WLA was staffed by volunteers, but by December 1941 the shortage of manpower led the UK Government to conscript women. To be accepted for the WLA recruits had to be between 17 and 40, to be strong and healthy, fond of country life, not afraid of hard work, and prepared to serve for the duration of the war wherever they might be posted.

They came from all backgrounds, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, rural and urban, and from all levels of a British society maybe more, or at least differently, class-stratified than today. Gill Clarke quotes Vita Sackville-West's (an acquaintance of Evelyn in her later years) account of the background of recuits: 'She has been a shop assistant, a manicurist, a hair-dresser, a short-hand typist, a ballet-dancer, a milliner, a mannequin, a saleswoman, an insurance clerk...'

Their first names, all taken from the many former Land Girls who have recorded their experiences, give a sense of period: there are Gwens, Sheilas, Dorothys, Margarets, Joys and Joyces, Eileens, Audreys, Clarices, Muriels, Fredas, Maureens, Gladyses, Doreens, Queenies, Irises and Graces, Veras and Hildas. This - maybe unfortunately -  isn't the place to discuss the outcomes of the social mixing the WLA gave rise to, and the affirmation by the WLA - and other organisations like the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS, the women's branch of the British army) and the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) - of the future place of women in British society would be a digression from Evelyn's painting. Even so, some months after Evelyn's Border expedition, she was commissioned to record the activities of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF).

The majority of Land Girls lived in hostels, mostly large houses, a few purpose-built. Evelyn has chosen a bedroom probably on the first floor - note the size of the window - of a country house for Land Army Girls going to Bed, a room spacious enough for at least 4 bunk beds. There's a girls' dormitory atmosphere about it - at least, I suppose so: I have to declare a working ignorance of girls' dormitories. As in several of her interiors it's difficult to work out exactly where Evelyn has placed herself to record this scene and make it into a viable and striking composition.

Many viewers will have problems with the perspective, and as many will say that it's mere cavilling to observe that the lower of the left-hand bunks doesn't match the one above it; and the joint between the foot and the side rail is conveniently obscured by what some might call a chairdrobe, hung with a pair of shoulder-strapped regulation khaki dungarees and a camisole.

Never mind, there are other unsuspected accuracies. These hostels were very strictly run, with a curfew requiring Land Girls to be indoors by 10pm. Presumably, then, this scene must be taking place after curfew, say 10.30-11.00pm. But it's still light: how can this be, even allowing for the fact that the further north you go in the summer months, the shorter the nights become? In order to tally with what we know of Evelyn's movements in the Borders, the month is probably May, 1943. Suddenly the light dawns: throughout the war years Double British Summer Time was in operation, and the time by the clock is two hours in advance of Greenwich Mean Time. What is 8.30pm by the sun is 10.30pm by Big Ben and the hostel clock.

No one has drawn the curtains, so presumably the bedroom isn't overlooked. Corner posts are hung with greatcoats, maybe a reminder that summer hasn't entirely arrived and that on the East Coast the wind coming in off the sea can be cruel, even in spring. Draw-string bags slung from the bed posts presumably hold shoes. The girl in the lower bunk is applying cold cream to her face, a common practice at the time, before settling down.

The exact centre of the painting is occupied by a pair of fleece-lined slippers, and this is curious: Evelyn herself often wore slippers just of this type. They re-appear (surely not the same pair?) at the very end of her life, in a portrait she painted of my half-brother Richard, who remembers Evelyn lending them to him. (This portrait was among the many paintings stacked in her studio at her death. It was labelled, prosaically, Boy Reading by Roger Folley. In due course it was given to the subject.)

Evelyn Dunbar Boy Reading 1960 Oil on wood (c.1'4" x 2': 41 x 61cm) Private collection

I'm not of course suggesting that it's deliberate, but bedroom slippers also lead us, with Evelyn's usual left-to-right directionality, into Women's Land Army Hostel. Worn by the Land Girl at the end of the canteen queue, they're bright blue, and this little painting, only 9" by 9", is possibly the most colourful of all Evelyn's WAAC paintings. She evokes a most lively sense of cheerfulness and camaraderie. The Land Girls, queueing for their evening meal, are not long off duty: few, if any, have changed out of their working uniform, although we can imagine a back room somewhere full of muddy boots. The supply of full Women's Land Army uniform was notoriously erratic, and many of the girls here have improvised their own tops. Which adds to the colour, along with the peonies on top of the radio (almost universally called the wireless in 1943) in the top left hand corner.

It doesn't take much imagination to hear the surround sound, the chatter, the laughter, the retelling of the day's events, the clatter from the kitchen, the banter between Land Girls and canteen staff as they dish up what appears to be a staple of canteen food, sausage and mashed potatoes. Or it might be another standby, spam fritters, slices of supposedly pork luncheon meat fried in its own fat. Nor should we forget the horseshoe, hung from the ceiling at an angle, so that the luck it's supposed to hold doesn't spill out.

Given the attempts in these commentaries to associate, rightly or wrongly, Evelyn's war paintings with the progress of the war, it's not hard to link the ambience of Women's Land Army Hostel with what was going on in the wider world. Within the tumultuous week May 12th - 19th, 1943, the famous RAF Dambusters raid had taken place, destroying the water supply to Germany's industrial heartland, the Ruhr. The surrender of 150,000 German and Italian troops in Tunisia marked the end of the North African campaign. The encouraging end-of-the-month statistics of merchant ship losses showed the U-boat menace was being mastered. In a wary and circumspect way, there was much to be cheerful about.

(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

Monday, 5 November 2012

Singling Turnips (1943)

Evelyn Dunbar Singling Turnips 1943 Private collection Photo © Christopher Campbell-Howes

There's a curious anomaly about Singling Turnips.  In late 1940, Evelyn met Michael Greenhill, chief instructor at Sparsholt Farm Institute, near Winchester in Hampshire, where many Land Girls went for their training, and where Evelyn spent several wartime periods recording their activities. This first encounter, as I've mentioned before, resulted in A Book of Farmcraft, written by Greenhill and illustrated by Evelyn.
Below is Evelyn's drawing from A Book of Farmcraft showing the right way and the wrong way to single, or thin out, plants, that is to hoe out surplus seedlings in order to leave space for those left to grow to their full size without being crowded, and for ease of weeding.

Evelyn Dunbar: Illustration from A Book of Farmcraft (Longmans, London, 1942)

If the correct method of singling, of team hoeing, is on the left in Evelyn's drawing, and the incorrect method is on the right, Evelyn has got it wrong and Singling Turnips (another candidate, by the way, for the most bizarre title for an Evelyn Dunbar painting) is the wrong way round. Michael Greenhill's recommendations in A Book of Farmcraft read:

In the diagram we show you the position which should be taken up by a gang of hoers. Notice how the first hoer in the RIGHT [i.e. correct] picture is working behind the second and the second behind the third. In this way Number One's weeds and discarded plants are not being thrown back on to the row which Number Two is singling, and so on. If the hoers work in a reverse position, as in the WRONG picture, each hoer is confused by the throw-outs of the man preceding him.

It's most improbable that Evelyn could have made such a technical mistake in Singling Turnips after having been so decided about the process in A Book of Farmcraft. Could there be other reasons for her to have painted it as she did?

I think there are, and I think it's to do with impact. Evelyn has come up with, yet again, a stunning design, one that seems to me to be trying to burst out of its frame. This is an immense field of turnips, the ridges disappear to a vanishing point somewhere over the horizon, as though to suggest, as Evelyn so often reminds us, that there are no limits to the earth's abundance if mankind, here significantly represented by womankind, keeps the bargain of the Covenant. The central ridges sweep forward out of the far distance to frame, define and emphasise these Land Girls and their extraordinarily intensive labour. They could hardly be more closely involved with the soil than if they went on hands and knees thinning manually.

When fully grown the turnips will be harvested, stored in clamps and used for animal feed over the winter. (Turnips for human consumption, smaller and tastier, will have a much shorter growing season.) Turnip seed is tiny, each seed not much bigger than the head of a pin. It's practically impossible to sow them individually. They're sown by seed-drill in soil prepared in ridges. So far, so mechanical. A few weeks after sowing the seedlings will have grown in profusion, and so will the weeds. Left to themselves, the turnip seedlings, already overcrowded, will be choked with weeds. At this point they have to be thinned -'singled' in Evelyn's title - leaving one seedling every 9 inches (23cm) or so.

There's no mechanical way of singling, or at least there wasn't in the 1940s, so it has to be done by hand, a task at least as unpopular as the back-breaking picking of Brussels sprouts that we saw earlier in Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire. Turnips, grown for winter animal feed on the limitless scale Evelyn's painting suggests, are sown in mid- to late summer. The Land Girls have their sleeves rolled up, maybe a suggestion of determination to get on with the job and stick at it until it's finished. There's possibly a stiffish breeze blowing. They've all got some form of headgear: the foremost is wearing a snood of the type popular in the earlier 1940s, thought by some to be a symbol of commitment to the war effort; the other three are wearing headscarves, one with the end of the tie blowing in the wind, like the flap of the coat which the foremost Land Girl has knotted by the sleeves round her waist. The seedlings have 7-8 weeks' growth on them. If they were planted in July, singling would take place in September. I think these Land Girls are working on a breezy but warmish day in late summer or early autumn.

Singling Turnips is the fourth of a set of paintings set in the Borders, either Northumberland or Berwickshire, which Evelyn completed after her 1943 stay in a rented cottage near Greenlaw, close to RAF Charter Hall where her husband Roger Folley was undergoing the final stages of his night-fighter navigation training. (The others in this group are Potato Sorting, Berwick, Women's Land Army Hostel and Land Army Girls going to Bed.)

The reverse of Singling Turnips shows, very faintly, Evelyn's name and address in her own handwriting on the frame. The title has been added by another hand. The upper canvas overlap seems of very indifferent quality: at some time earlier she had complained of the difficulty of obtaining good materials. 

Verso of Evelyn Dunbar Singling Turnips (1944?) Photo © Christopher Campbell-Howes

After 1945 Singling Turnips was acquired by the Government of Australia. After many years of exhibition in Castlemaine and Bendigo Art Galleries it was decommissioned and sold.

I am very grateful to Jane England for help with this commentary.

(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