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, 300 illustrations. £25

1 comment:

  1. I'd never heard of a "snood" until I bought one only 'the other day' (rather fetching - a neck tube of a length of sown fleece with equal attached length of patterned cotton). And, here we are having a 'snood' mentioned as of use in the 1940's.