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


  1. I have viewed this painting some years ago at the IWM when it was displayed above in the entrance foyer (no longer) and, have since, wondered at its 'unusual longevity' (length) - seeming to have been painted (one surmises) at a usual landscape shape with full figure and with other paintily items. The cut-off foreground figure is so surprising as if the artist's perusal of the finish decided to cut the painting's bottom off across the whole lower length making a 'usual landscape shape' painting more elongated.

  2. The Que at the Fish Shop. (“Uncle Bert’s Shop”) by Evelyn Dunbar
    Some time ago my two brothers and I were privileged to view the painting in storage at the Imperial War Museum.
    At the time Evelyn produced the painting the proprietor was my great uncle Bertie William Hill (1887-!947). His daughter, Grace Hill, in an audio recording held at the Strood Archives, relates how our Great Grandfather Henry Charles Hill (1852-1917), won the the right to buy the shop by winning a horse race from the Leather Bottle Inn, Cobham to The Angel Inn, Strood.
    Bert, Florence (Nin), and daughters Grace and Daisy did at one time lived over the shop which had, as I remember an inglenook fireplace where fish were smoked. They later moved to Broom Hill in Strood. The shop assistant was a Mr. George Miller. That area of Strood was frequently flooded and I can remember one occasion when they waded about in wellington boots to serve customers.
    Alarge collection of historic photo’s which include the shop can be found here:-
    David Hill.

    1. Thank you so much for this amazing comment! It really is a very special occurrence when someone cloely connected with a painting can bring first-hand knowledge and experience of it and the circumstances behind it. I have in fact looked through the Medway Archive and have found several photos of the old Angel Corner, including your grandfather's shop. If you too have studied them I expect you've noticed how Evelyn has 'doctored' the neighbouring shops, removing E.Bennett (a tailor's shop)at No.89 and making G.E.Onslow (then actually a butcher's)into an empty shop premises, all in order to concentrate on the fish shop. I wonder if you remember what the cat, waiting patiently at the house door, was called?
      Thank you again for a completely fascinating comment and reminiscence, not forgetting the horse race from Cobham!