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Technically, we could consider it as an unusual historical document, because the thrust of some areas of research undertaken by East Malling was to develop cultivars for heavy-fruiting apple trees with limited upward growth,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


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I was intrigued by your reference on Dunbar painting 'Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook' which you don't have illustrated. After 'googling' I see your ref (to your un-illustrated) may be referenced via copy/paste link

  3. ...and another thing (14th paragraph) 'bout border - None of the circuiting secateurs indicate an auto-sprung scissor action. Are these a type of secateurs of the age that required dexterous digits to open and close said secateurs?

  4. Greetings, Anonymous, old friend: thank you for these comments. Firstly, I took down the image of Men Stooking and Girls Learning to Stook at the request of the person who claimed to own the copyright of the photograph. It is indeed visible via the link you so kindly provide.

    Secondly, I think those secateurs would have been fitted with narrow steel leaf springs in one or both handles.