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

....it 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

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