Sunday, 30 December 2012

Dorset (1946-47)

Evelyn Dunbar Dorset 1946-7 (1' 7" x 1' 11": 48 x 58cm) Photograph Ben Taylor ©The present owner. Private collection

Writing towards the end of his life in his unpublished 2007 pamphlet Evelyn Dunbar: The Husband's Narrative, Evelyn's husband Roger Folley states: 'My sister offered us the use of a vacant cottage adjoining her house at Long Compton. With more pull than push, we leaped at the chance. The Dunbars gave us some furniture, and we moved there, [..] our married life began. Evelyn had her first experience of housekeeping, but her painting was handicapped. The cottage had few rooms, low ceilings and low windows. Nevertheless she made her first portrait and [..] Dorset was sold to a patron.'

The patron was Mary Landale, a student at the Ruskin School of Drawing and of Fine Art in Oxford, where Evelyn taught part-time as a Visitor. In March 1951 Mary Landale's niece, then 15, wrote to her parents from her aunt's house -

Auntie Maydie [the family name for Mary Landale] has bought a picture by a well known artist. It is an allegorical figure of a woman symbolising Dorset (I think it is Dorset) sitting in a background of (presumably) Dorset countryside. It is a lovely picture, very graceful & done in a colour scheme [of] dullish greens.

- which if nothing else suggests that its purchaser bought it for its own sake and not out of any great familiarity with or special fondness for the county of Dorset. Nor is it certain that Evelyn ever went there, apart from one occasion in the mid-1930s when she spent a few days near Wimborne child-minding for some friends. Why did she paint it?

Dorset was lent back by Mary Landale for showing in Evelyn's only solo exhibition, at Wye College, Kent in 1953. I went to this exhibition. Rising 12, I was very much struck by this image, I think falling in love a little with this lovely but slightly troubled woman, unique in Evelyn's work, but apprehensive of raising with her the boyish conundrum that if you asked Dorset to stand up she would be so monstrously tall that the breeze evident in the painting would blow her over. But who was she?

A year or two later, in the course of a conversation about what I was doing at school, I told Evelyn that in English we were reading Thomas Hardy's Far From The Madding Crowd. She was pleased. For her, Hardy was an important writer, the most elemental of English novelists and one she often mentioned. She told me his The Trumpet Major lay behind Dorset. After a teenage failure to persevere with it, I didn't read The Trumpet Major fully until very much later, many years after Evelyn's death in 1960. There was a sudden, eye-blinking epiphany: Evelyn's hint from so many years before was very loaded indeed. She had done the same with Dorset as she had with so many of the Brockley mural spandrels, where the image shifts from mere decoration to something much more lively and meaningful once the viewer penetrates to the underlying narrative, which may be obscure, not to say hermetic. But why The Trumpet Major? Clearly Dorset - the woman - is a personification: if for Evelyn the spirit of Dorset - the county - was best expressed by Hardy, the choice of suitable Hardy heroines on which to base such a personification is not wide. Tess Durbeyfield? Bathsheba Everdene? Susan Henchard? Hardy is not kind to his women. There is one exception: Evelyn's choice of Anne Garland in The Trumpet Major becomes clearer.
Towards the end of The Trumpet Major Anne Garland trudges from Weymouth to a high point towards the extremity of Portland Bill, which she reaches at about midday. From here there are wide views of the English Channel. Anne Garland settles herself and gazes out to sea. Presently what she has climbed the hill to see comes into sight to the south-east: HMS Victory, outward bound on the voyage that will culminate in Trafalgar. On board HMS Victory is one of Anne Garland's suitors, Bob Loveday, whom she eventually marries.


Hardy is quite specific about the season (' this time of mist and level sunlight...') and the weather ('...the wind is to the south-west...'). HMS Victory passes her and begins to disappear, and as the topmost masthead disappears over the south-western horizon she murmurs to herself a line from Psalm 107: 'They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters…' In a typical Hardy coup de théâtre, someone who has come up behind her unnoticed carries on: 'These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.' The voice is that of Bob's brother John Loveday, the trumpet major of the title. (In fact, according to the ship's log, HMS Victory passed Portland Bill in the early afternoon of 16th September 1805.) Dorset herself is looking out of the frame, to the south-west, the direction from which a watery sun is shining and from which the wind is blowing her hair back, billowing out her robe like a man-o'-war's sail behind her left shoulder. Resting her forearms on her upraised knees, she is holding her fingertips together in an attitude of deep thought, of prayer, and forming her hands and fingers into a symbolic roof of protection. What is she concentrating her worried gaze on? What is she seeing that we cannot see, and whom is she protecting, framed between her fingers and thumbs, at an angle a little below the horizontal, gradually receding from her view and eventually dipping below the horizon, far out to sea? And of course Bob Loveday, unlike his Admiral, survives Trafalgar and eventually comes home safe, and England is saved from the threat of invasion by Napoleon's armies. Whatever echoes of The Trumpet Major there may have been, Dorset stands for protection, emphasised in her figure, in her watchful pose and in the form of her hands.

(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes 2019. 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, 24 December 2012

Christmas 1945

Evelyn Dunbar Christmas Card 1945 Pre-publication presentation (?) 1955 © Estate of Evelyn Dunbar: private collection

Evelyn's vignette of her and her husband Roger's first married home featured on their 1945 Christmas card. 'Our first house' is added in Evelyn's handwriting at the foot. Exceptionally, there is no literary contribution from Roger.

This drawing - it will enlarge if you click on it - is particularly fascinating for me, because at the time, as a very small child, I lived with my mother at The Old Orchard next door, the slightly higher house to the right of Evelyn's drawing. Although its official address was No. 8, Long Compton, Evelyn and Roger called their thatched cottage Vyner's, after a previous owner. This Christmas card is the only contemporary pictorial record I have of Long Compton.

Evelyn had a rather unsatisfactory studio in an outbuilding, and, love sheds though she did, I'm sure that she missed her old studio in The Cedars, the Dunbar family home in Rochester. There's a glimpse of this studio in Winter Garden: the house, seen faintly to the right of the painting between the trees, has a modest tower with a pyramidical roof. The upper room of this tower, well provided with windows, gave a generous light, especially the north light so favoured by artists, with which a tumbledown rural Warwickshire shed could hardly compete.

 Evelyn Dunbar Winter Garden ?1928-1937 (1' x 3': 30 x 91cm) Tate Britain

All the same Evelyn completed some major paintings during her 15 months or so in Long Compton. One was Dorset, which will feature here shortly. Another was Mercatora, whose location, ironically for a painting about navigation, is unknown. This painting took its name from Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594), the Flemish map-maker whom everyone knows of, even if unwittingly, because he developed a method of representing a three-dimensional sphere as a two-dimensional rectangle. The rectangular map of the world that we are all familiar with is due to Mercator's Projection. According to Roger, by December 1945 an ex-RAF navigator, Mercatora was an allegorical figure representing aspects of navigation. If this short commentary turned out to be instrumental in finding Mercatora, it would be wonderful.

Equally tantalising is the disappearance of another painting from this period, Cottages at Long Compton, which Evelyn exhibited in Oxford in the winter of 1949 and sold for 20 guineas (£21). Was Evelyn's Christmas card drawing accurate? There's no reason why it shouldn't have been, but it was fascinating to come across, while searching the internet for any clue relating to Evelyn's lost painting Cottages at Long Compton, a startling - and much more recent - photograph of the very thatched cottages in Evelyn's drawing.

 Thatched cottages at Long Compton © Stephen Mole Photography

Many thanks to Stephen Mole (whose photographs are much sharper and more splendid than the above reproduction, which seems to have gone through the Blogger mangle, might suggest), of Stephen Mole Photography, for his 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

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A Land Girl and the Bail Bull (1945)

Evelyn Dunbar A Land Girl and the Bail Bull 1945 (3' x  6': 91 x 183cm) Tate Gallery, London

In 1956, 9 years after its completion, Evelyn wrote a short description of The Land Girl and the Bail Bull:

It is an imaginative painting of a Land Girl's work with an outdoor dairy herd on the Hampshire Downs. The bail is the movable shed where the milking is done. Soon after dawn in the early summer the girl has to catch and tether the bull: she entices him with a bucket of fodder and hides the chain behind her, ready to snap on the ring in his nose as soon as it is within her reach - a delicate and dangerous job.¹

With this magnificent canvas Evelyn takes her leave of the War Artists Advisory Committee, the Women's Land Army and indeed of World War 2. Having 'defied completion', in Evelyn's words, it was finished in September 1945, in time for exhibition at the Royal Academy the following October.

A Land Girl and the Bail Bull had its genesis in a much simpler idea, that of recording the morning milking, and especially the pristine, almost secret atmosphere of a very early summer morning, probably some time in 1942, the year of Evelyn's and Roger's wedding. They had no married home. Roger was serving with the RAF. Evelyn, when not following Roger's various postings about the United Kingdom, was based at the Dunbar family home in Rochester. Despite spending little time together during the first three years of their marriage, I think Roger's influence on A Land Girl and the Bail Bull was crucial.

Several months before he died, in August 2008, at the age of 95, Roger wrote what he called Evelyn Dunbar: The Husband's Narrative. He had to dictate this 3500-word account, or at any rate pass his own chaotic typescript for a friend to edit, because towards the end of his life he had grown very blind. It's outside the scope of this essay to discuss why he felt it necessary to leave behind his account of their marriage nearly half a century after Evelyn's untimely death in 1960 brought it to a conclusion. There are two versions, dated May and October 2007. The later version, with some significant additions, is shown below in italics.

May, 2007: When we both travelled, or with an occasional passenger, we used our recently acquired car: a red, open four-seater Jowett touring car. [...] This was the car in which we drove overnight to Sparsholt so that Evelyn could make drawings of the 5 a.m. milking at the bail. (p.5)²

October, 2007: When we both travelled, or with an occasional passenger, we used our recently acquired car: a red, open four-seater Jowett touring car. [...] This was the car in which we drove overnight to Sparsholt, on my initiative, so that Evelyn could make drawings of the 5 a.m. milking at the bail. (p.4)²


May, 2007: Not significant in itself, the trip marks the start of a 3-year gestation for the flagship War Artist painting of The Land Girl and the Bail Bull. Evelyn's colour sense was as sharp as at the first sighting. (p.6)²

October, 2007: Not significant in itself, this journey was noteworthy as the inception to a three-year period during which Evelyn worked, at intervals, on her concept of The Land Girl and the Bail Bull, now her best-known work. From the drawings and notes she made at the time she was able to convey the atmosphere of the occasion in the finished product. (p.4)²

Evelyn gave a short account of the inception of A Land Girl and the Bail Bull in a September, 1945 letter to the Secretary of the War Artists Advisory Committee:

[...] All the observation had to be done before 5am and once we did an all night journey of about 100 miles to the farm where the idea came into being, arriving at 4 o'clock in the morning and came back the next day!¹

No date is given for this overnight drive from Rochester to Sparsholt Farm Institute, near Winchester in Hampshire, where A Land Girl and the Bail Bull is set. Taking into account both an open-top car and pre-5am dawn, cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) in flower and teazels (Dipsacus fullonum) past their spring flowering, it's fairly safe to conclude that this happened in midsummer 1942, in the rich and heady - to use a frequent expression of Evelyn's - days of Roger's leaves shortly before their marriage.

Why they needed to go all the way to Sparsholt, with wartime driving restrictions, blackout and severe petrol rationing, when there were dairy farms much closer to Rochester is easily explained. They were both welcome there: before the war Roger had worked at Sparsholt, indeed he and Evelyn had met there. As Costings Officer, with a brief to train agriculture students and established farmers in the keeping of their accounts, he was familiar with the farms in that upland area of Hampshire. Evelyn was well known and popular at Sparsholt, from her frequent visits in 1940 and 1941.

Sparsholt Farm Institute may have been responsible for introducing to local farmers the use of bails. 'Bail' in this sense was originally an Australian term meaning a fixed wooden halter in which the cow's head was secured during milking. It took on the meaning of a mobile shed fitted with milking stalls, capable of being towed by tractor from field to field. Roger himself described them thus:

...bails were a wartime alternative to new farm buildings [...] They were four or five stalls under a roof with suction and vacuum hoses and a vacuum pump at one end and the theory was that you kept them in the field and didn't bring the cows in and the cows were attended and then walked out at the back and then you got the milk. They were also made mobile because of the treading effects after a day or two if there was wet weather they became bogged down. So they were moved on. They were particularly peculiar to Hampshire, because of the Hampshire Downs' very light soil [...] There were one or two [...] on the College farm.³

Ar first Evelyn found the bail and the activity round it uninspiring, too busy and not what she had originally envisaged. However she made a quantity of sketches (how many, and of what type, is not known: virtually all her sketches and drawings disappeared after her death in 1960), presumably in water colour in view of Roger's remark about the sharpness of her colour sense. They did indeed witness the extraordinary scene of a Land Girl capturing the bull, not an easy task and not without risk. Roger again:

She made careful drawings of [the bail] and set it in the landscape and made further sketches of the activity at milking time: there was too much of it for her liking, but after the cows in milk had passed through the bail there were a few dry cows lying and standing about and the more dramatic scene of the young bull, who ran with the cows but was fed separately, confronting the landgirl. Evelyn did not see the possibilities of a composition (as distinct from a pictorial record): in fact, the idea was slow to develop and caused much heart-searching. Negative thoughts prevailed at first.³

These impressions matured over the next three years. Much later, in 2003, Roger gave a detailed account of the composition or assemblage of A Land Girl and the Bail Bull to Gill Clarke, Evelyn's biographer:

[Evelyn defined] the precise colour and thickness of paint required on the canvas. In this modus Evelyn was infallible. To apply the rules of composition was not straight forward, there were only three elements to be combined, but they were disparate - one inanimate, one animal, one human - and would only make a whole under the unifying influence of the prevailing light. Of the elements, the landgirl had to show to advantage, the bull was amorphous and not a subject in its own right, and the bail a rectangular shape and potentially interesting to paint, was something of a foreign body. So the landgirl was positioned by Golden Section (and the extent of her dominance decided after experimentation), and the bull was placed centrally with lowered head making a diagonal line to the developing mackerel sky, and the bail was pushed into the background, away from the action.³

The model for the Land Girl was Evelyn's sister Jessie, a neat, tidy and cheerful person we last saw crossing the road in The Queue at the Fish Shop. Posing for the Land Girl, in the summer months of 1945, was the last modelling Jessie did. Jessie was usually conveniently available to model, without fee, for Evelyn at home at The Cedars when she wasn't occupied with running, together with her other sister Marjorie, their two Rochester High Street shops, The Children's Shop at No. 90 and The Fancy Shop at No. 168. Artists' models are all too often forgotten. Towards the end of 1945 Evelyn left Rochester and the family home to go and live with Roger in Warwickshire. This may have contributed to something of a breach with the remaining Dunbars, Ronald, Jessie and Marjorie, none of whom married, which was never entirely healed. The roles that both Jessie and Marjorie played as their very talented sister's models should not be underconsidered. They gave her a great deal of help.
Jessie as the Land Girl leads us, as ever when Evelyn has something important to say, into the painting from the left. We don't see her full face, not in this instance because Jessie had a wall eye, but because her gaze is focussed on the bull. With her right hand she's holding a chain with a snap link. It's hidden from the bull, but not from the viewer. In her left hand the Land Girl is holding by its rim a bucket, offering it to the bull, enticing him  to approach her, allowing her to move closer. We can't see what is in the bucket: Evelyn wrote 'fodder' in her short description at the head of this commentary, but we can guess cattle feed pellets laced with liquorice or molasses. The bull, casting a delectably painted wary eye on her, will lift his head from the grass he is eating, and, lured by the irresistible scent of the pellets, will put his snout into the bucket and at that moment the Land Girl will deftly attach the snap link to the ring in the bull's nose. The bull, throughout history a feared symbol of unprovoked aggression and ferocity, will have been captured, controlled and tethered. By a young woman. For those whose imaginations are nourished by such things, A Land Girl and the Bail Bull is a kind of reversal of the legend of Europa and the bull.

There are two other human figures in The Land Girl and the Bail Bull, a Land Girl working at the bail and the white-overalled dairyman, a curiously ghostly figure because the spars of the hurdle show through him. These two play no part in this drama, although various lines - the painting is rich in geometry - lead directly towards the dairyman. Like the people in The Queue at the Fish Shop disregarding the RAF officer cycling past (who we know is Roger), the bail staff are not even looking in the direction of the bull and the Land Girl.  No help is at hand for her should things go wrong, should the bull decide to revert to type. (The prickly nature of bulls is maybe reflected in a little visual pun: the scrubby tree to the right of the bull is a hawthorn, and we've already mentioned the needle-sharp teazels.) The viewer may detect certain echos from Pieter Brueghel the Elder, for instance in The Fall of Icarus (attrib.), where a momentous occurrence is taking place, but no one is actually taking any notice.

The Land Girl has earned the dairyman's complete faith in her courage and trust in her ability to get things right, even to take it for granted. She, representing the Women's Land Army in general, has come a long way since those first tentative volunteers ventured into agriculture, as shown in Milking Practice with Artificial Udders and Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook. The initial reluctance of farmers to take on Land Girls is clearly a thing of the past, too.

Pausing to admire the consummate draughtmanship of the foreground flora and of the cattle - the calf curled up in the centre would grace any Renaissance Nativity - the landscape beyond the bail and its associated sheds is pure Evelyn, the Evelyn of the Covenant: neat, organised, productive farmland as far as the eye can see, Hampshire stretching away eastwards into Berkshire and Surrey, to the horizon and beyond, a landscape worked and loved in equal measure.4

The extraordinary mackerel or peacock tail sky did not feature in Evelyn's original Sparsholt sketches. It was something Evelyn had observed, to her surprise and pleasure, at least ten years earlier, during her student days in the early 1930s: one summer morning she woke early, saw this dramatic dawn sky, hurried into some clothes, snatched up her water-colour equipment and rushed outside to capture it before it disappeared.

So the mackerel sky was pasted, so to speak, into The Land Girl and the Bail Bull. The sun will appear over the eastern horizon, in the centre of the picture, in a few minutes' time: the various cloud formations diffuse and soften its light, something like frosted glass does. The pre-dawn light that so captivated Evelyn is so convincingly rendered that, after the landscape, it becomes a strong unifying factor. The war has been won: is this the light of the new dawn?

Throughout the war a project called Mass Observation attempted to gauge the British mood, outlook and aspirations by sending occasional questionnaires to some 500 volunteer correspondents. It's never easy, and indeed can be misleading, to extrapolate a supposedly objective statement from a diverse set of opinions from a minuscule section of the population, but it's remarkable how often the same ideas are put forward. (The entire Mass Observation Archive is now held in the University of Sussex.)

In October 1941, when wartime days were bleak, Tom Harrisson, an anthropologist and principal moderator of Mass Observation, put the question 'What Britain means to me' to his correspondents. Some of the typical responses show a sentimentality never present in Evelyn's work: 

My own little niche in the world....where I can revel in and appreciate beautiful nature in the glorious English countryside

A dear familiar landscape whose every tree and wild flower I know means English pastures with streams running through them and overhanging willows and cherry blossom and shorthorn cows and elms and oaks and ashes...

Harrisson notes that the land and countryside come out first in a list of 14 positive expressions of 'What Britain means to me'. He sums up:

 The feeling for the land, the soil of Britain under our feet, the firm base for all our work and play and hopes and fears, is the foundation of so much feeling. People seldom consider whether their land is better or fairer or firmer; this is the land you were born and brought up on, that is the beginning and end of it. Both among those living in towns and in the country, the land and landscape are more mentioned than any other single item.5

From here it's a short step to the conclusion that in A Land Girl and the Bail Bull Evelyn has shown that the land and its promise is safe: it has been protected, defended and saved through the efforts, determination and patience not only of the armed services, but through the women of Britain as well, equally ready to look danger in the face as men in uniform.

But beyond this Evelyn disseminates a different message. It would be difficult to imagine any of her wartime images on the cover, say, of the magazines Country Life or This England. Although perfectly capable of it, she doesn't do landscapes for their beauty or picturesqueness. There's no sentimentality about her images, no chocolate-box or jigsaw prettiness, no masking of the truth: man - in fact mostly woman - is the measure of all things, under the Covenant. Her wartime paintings are unfailingly practical, down-to-earth, closely observed, sympathetic, sometimes witty...

...and just occasionally a little half-hearted or rushed, perhaps when the land and its management isn't paramount. The concept of A Land Girl and the Bail Bull, its finish, painterliness, mastery of design and colour is in a different league from her earlier work, like A Knitting Party or A Canning Demonstration, which isn't so very far from cartoon. Over the war years Evelyn has matured, and at least some of that maturity, and some of the insights that contributed to it, were due to the influence of her husband Roger. After the war and after his demobilisation in December 1945, Roger became a leading British horticultural economist: in his infinitesimally modest and backroom way, a sort of Joseph, the agent of provision and abundance, that we saw earlier in Joseph's Dreams.

¹ Quoted in Gill Clarke Evelyn Dunbar: War and Country (Sansom & Co., Bristol 2006) p131

² Roger Folley Evelyn Dunbar: The Husband's Narrative (unpublished) May 2007, revised October 2007

³ Letter from Roger Folley to Gill Clarke, op. cit. pp 130-131

4 'A landscape worked and loved in equal measure': I came across this amiable expression inscribed on a wall at the Teampull Café at Northton, on the Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides. Despite the magnificent view over Scarista Bay with which it was associated being almost all seascape and untouched by human hand, I thought how well it crystallised the feeling behind Evelyn's agricultural landscapes. I've tried without success to discover who first wrote these words. Whoever it may have been, thank you, and I hope you have no objection to them being quoted here.
5 Tom Harrisson, draft of article for World Review, "What Britain  means to me": TH 8.10.41 (Tom Harrisson Mass-Observation Archive, University of Sussex)

Many thanks to Dr Gill Clarke for permission to quote from her work, and to Professor James Hinton for his help with the preparation of this commentary, which went online on the 106th anniversary of Evelyn's birth, December 18th 2012.

(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, 6 December 2012

Christmas 1944

Evelyn Dunbar Christmas Card 1944 Pre-publication presentation (?) 1955 © Estate of Evelyn Dunbar: private collection

Evelyn's husband Roger Folley, serving with 488 (N.Z.) Squadron based at Amiens-Glisy in northern France, is the subject of their Christmas card for 1944. Roger managed to obtain a few days' leave at Christmas time, which he spent with Evelyn at The Cedars, the Dunbar family home in Rochester.

Evelyn has drawn Roger in his flying kit, leather helmet with earphones, night-vision goggles, oxygen mask and very non-uniform cravat. She has signed her drawing E.F. on Roger's right shoulder, and beneath she has written 'From a drawing of Roger on leave from France'. (It should enlarge if you click on it.)

For the first time in their series of Christmas cards Roger has added his own poem:

Wrong was strong for Right to fight-
The struggle's on, it is not won.
Many are freed; they're still in need.
Our counterparts have thankful hearts.
We, their saviours, know what prayer does,
And intercede against self-heed.

During Roger's Christmas leave his pilot, Wing Commander Ron Watts, Commanding Officer of the squadron, had rostered himself for duty and had invited another navigator to take the seat beside him in his De Havilland Mosquito night-fighter. This team brought down a Luftwaffe Junkers 188 in the early hours of Christmas Eve, and I have sometimes wondered what Roger felt about having missed out on what his colleagues would have called a 'kill'.

Roger Folley would have been 100 on the day this was posted, 6th December 2012.

(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

Monday, 3 December 2012

A 1944 Pastoral: Land Girls Pruning at East Malling (1944)

Evelyn Dunbar A 1944 Pastoral: Land Girls Pruning at East Malling 1944 (3' x 4': 91 x 121cm) Manchester City Art Gallery

A 1944 Pastoral: Land Girls Pruning at East Malling is almost the last of Evelyn's Women's Land Army paintings, and almost the last of her wartime canvases. The preliminary sketches were made at East Malling Research Station, not far from Maidstone, in December 1944. At the time her husband Roger was serving with his RAF unit, 488 (N.Z.) Squadron, based in Amiens, in northern France. Home leave was rare, dependent on spare seats on returning transport aircraft, but Roger managed to spend a short Christmas leave with Evelyn at the Dunbar family home in Rochester. Heartened and encouraged by Roger's presence, for this painting Evelyn returned, I suspect with great pleasure, to her beloved Kent landscape.

The East Malling Research Station of the Kent Incorporated Society for Promoting Experiments in Horticulture, to give it its full original title, was founded in the 1920s. Evelyn spent some time there in the winter of 1944/5, when one of the principal activities was pruning of fruit trees, particularly of apple trees. Until more disease-resistant rootstocks were introduced from the United States and latterly from Poland, the influence of East Malling Research Station on the British commercial apple industry was vast. Most commercial apple orchards used, and often still use, Malling series rootstocks, identifiable from the letter M in their reference numbers.

Evelyn's entrée to East Malling Research Station may have owed something to the horticultural economist Glynn Burton, a good friend of Roger since their student days at Leeds University. We've met him before: he was one of the four 'mice' featured in An Episode in the History of the Lake District. Glynn Burton had strong associations with East Malling, where he later made his name as an authority on potato cultivation.

Evelyn was excited by this painting, and I think her excitement shows in the size of the canvas, the originality of the design, the care taken in its execution, the exceptionally sensitive colouring, in the inferences she draws and - I think - the little final joke she leaves the viewer with. It's a magnificent canvas that deserves close study.

Technically, we could consider it as an unusual historical document, because the thrust of some areas of research undertaken by East Malling was to develop cultivars for heavy-fruiting apple trees with limited upward growth, thus making them easier and cheaper to harvest. The trees in Evelyn's painting are much taller than commercial apple trees today. So these aren't any old apple trees, as one might say: they are some of the highest quality trees in contemporary Britain, the result of painstaking research, expertise and practical husbandry in selection, grafting and nurture.

Evelyn's squad of Land Girls, a mix of volunteers and conscripts possibly a dozen strong and maybe more disappearing into the far distance, are well wrapped against the cold of a Kentish December. A line of low hills - in fact the North Downs - defines the horizon. The sky is overcast and wintry. This may be Evelyn's only Women's Land Army painting in which gloves are being worn. Once again - disregarding the frame for the moment - we're led into the picture from the left, partly by the angle of the stepladder legs, and I wonder if Evelyn is deliberately drawing our attention to the extraordinary risks these young women are taking with such confidence.

The extreme right-hand figure, in apple-yellow coat, is standing very near the top of her step-ladder - you can see the white top platform to her lower left - and two others are pruning the upper branches of the nearest right-hand tree. Their acrobatics are nothing compared to another figure, to which various geometrical lines lead our eyes, in the third or fourth tree on the right: she's teetering precariously on the stepladder platform, at full stretch to reach the topmost branches. I can feel a slight vertigo just looking at her.

Maybe the Land Girl on the extreme left has no head for heights and has been excused climbing the stepladders, even though the rungs are covered with a non-slip material, or possibly wound round with rope. As evidence of the cold, she has her left hand in her coat pocket. The two aproned Land Girls beyond her, collecting pruned branches and twigs in a tarpaulin, may be looking forward to some extra warmth before so very long, maybe after nightfall, because the short midwinter hours of daylight must be put to good purpose: you can't prune in the dark, but you can make a bonfire of your prunings. In due course the wood ash, rich in potassium and trace elements, will be mixed with other nutrients and dug as required into the 360 acres of the East Malling Research Station. All very good husbandry. Waste not, want not, especially in wartime.

The avenue of apple trees stretches away to a vanishing point. Again, as in Singling Turnips and Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook, there are no limits to this plantation, and by extension no limits to the earth's abundance, if properly looked after. We return yet again to Evelyn's firm belief in the Covenant, the contract between the Creator and mankind: in return for love and care of his creation, the Creator promises it eternally and abundantly. It's unlikely that Evelyn's Land Girls had this thesis very much in mind at the time.

As in so many of her husbandry paintings, so far - there are more to come - stretching from Winter Garden of some 15 years earlier to A 1944 Pastoral, the theme is the unending cycle of promise kept and promise renewed. The apple trees have borne their fruit, and are now being pruned to ensure vigorous new growth in the coming spring, when the trees will be covered in blossom. It's hard and demanding work, but without it the yield will be meagre.

It's possible, once again, to think of A 1944 Pastoral as an allegory not just of Evelyn's Covenant but of the progress of World War 2 in the winter of 1944/5. The downfall of Hitler and the defeat of Germany seems assured, but maybe some distance away yet. The Allied progress through northern France and the Low Countries has been set back by the failure of General Montgomery's Arnhem operation the previous September, and by Hitler's unexpected Ardennes offensive, penetrating deeply into American formations at the very time A 1944 Pastoral is being composed.

The pruning process starts in the far distance, by the vanishing point of the avenue of trees, and slowly and surely approaches the viewer. The team of acrobatic pruners in the foreground will have worked their way up from the far end over several days, and the end may be in sight. We, as viewers, don't know how far the work is going to extend out of the frame, behind us: no more did Evelyn know when the war was going to end, only that it was on the way to being won. All she can indicate is that the fruits of victory can only be harvested after a lot of hard work and endurance. 

Of course, it's not hard to attribute this or that allusion or reference after the event, but it does seem to me that there are similar prognostications in A 1944 Pastoral as in Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire from almost exactly a year earlier. Green, the colour of growth, and - if you take the idea a bit further - belief and trust in that growth, features strongly in both. As gardeners know, and as the old saying has it, growth follows the knife. The people involved in ensuring that growth are devoting themselves to it with determination and energy. I don't expect Evelyn intended deliberately to balance the calculated risk taken by the acrobatic Land Girl high in the apple tree with the risks taken by men on active service, but I don't think she would have dismissed the idea out of hand.

And then there's the border. The central picture is arresting enough in itself, the addition of the complementary border, at one or two points actually obtruding into the main scene, is a stroke of genius. We see the two types of saw, used for pruning the stouter branches, bright, clean and well maintained. Seven leather gloves with rolled cuffs (why?) hold seven secateurs, exquisitely drawn, none of them scissored but all, curiously, of the anvil type, in every conceivable pose, almost a kind of ballet.

Then there are the apples. We can admire Evelyn's subtlety in matching, on the white backgound of her plates and bowl, the colours of her apples with the colours in the pruning scene: the green Bramley, the red-patched Cox's Orange Pippin, the yellowish James Grieve or St Edmund's Pippin. These apples, of course, are the previous year's, so they're hardly yet the fruits of the victory that would be declared the following May 2nd, but in Evelyn's mind they do represent the guarantee that the Covenant promise will be kept.

One apple is missing, from the lower right hand corner of the border. To solve this little conundrum, if conundrum there is, I make a quick trawl through the various things that apples have traditionally been made to symbolise, Discord (in Greek legend), Eternal Youth (in Norse legend), Wit (the Singing Apple, Prince Ahmed's in the Arabian Nights), the ash-flavoured Apple of Sodom that Byron mentions in Book 3 of Childe Harold. I pause for a moment at the Genesis story, remembering that the Garden of Eden is the symbol of what Christian Scientists like Evelyn aspire to, and find to my surprise that the fruit which first Eve and then Adam ate on the Serpent's fatal advice isn't actually named as the apple, although Christian tradition calls it so.

There's another much more likely explanation. The fruits of the earth for which Evelyn invokes the Covenant so often in her painting are there not only for mankind's nourishment, but for mankind's delight, too. I remember Evelyn, who was very widely read, occasionally quoting from Mark Twain, especially the last line of the following passage, which she sometimes used as an all-purpose expression to mean that something, a story she'd finished telling, helpings of apple pie and custard, a visit to the seaside, really was coming to an end despite demands for more:

There's plenty of boys that will come hankering and gruvvelling around when you've got an apple, and beg the core off you; but when they've got one, and you beg for the core and remind them how you give them a core one time, they make a mouth at you and say thank you 'most to death, but there ain't-a-going to be no core. (Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad)

(Original text © Christopher Campbell-Howes. 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