This is a painting that always used to make me pause if I passed through the gallery in Tate Britain where it hangs – even though I knew nothing at all about its painter Evelyn Dunbar and didn’t understand its title A Land Girl and the Bail Bull. I knew what a Land Girl was – one who signed up to work on farms during World War Two for the Women’s Land Army replacing the men who’d left the fields for the forces.  But what precisely is this "bail bull" that the land girl is approaching with distinct nervousness? The farmworkers in the middle ground are getting on with their own tasks – whatever they are – and paying her no heed.  Beyond them lies a wide stretch of English down land and a few distant cultivated fields and over the whole scene the sky casts a spooky dawn light, with bizarre cirrocumulus clouds, so unusually patterned – a mackerel sky or a peacock sky? It really looks more like the hide of a giraffe.

Evelyn Dunbar was born in 1906 the daughter of a Kent master tailor. She adhered to her mother’s devout Christian Science all her life and – though she knew many of the leading artists of her generation – membership of this particular religious group rather tended to set her apart.  Graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1932 her first professional job was as a mural painter at Brockley School in Kent, working with her old tutor, and new lover, Charles Mahoney in collaboration with two other young women artists Violet Martin and Mildred Eldridge.


During this time she was friendly with Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, members of a generation of British artists who also included Winifred Knights, Rex Whistler, Stanley Spencer and Mary Adshead. These artists had a good deal in common. They rejected the extreme distortions of modernism in favour of a kind of heightened naturalism, constrained by a meticulous attention to technique.  Most of them worked for some of the time as mural painters – in other words as public artists and Dunbar was very familiar with the belief many shared that art should play a vital political, social or educational role in public life.

When war broke out in 1939 Dunbar was 33. The affair with Mahoney had ended and she was now wondering what war work to do. Women who wanted to serve had various options, and one of these was to join the Land Army.

It was founded and commanded by the formidable Lady Gertrude Denman who set up its headquarters at her home in West Sussex. The organisation gave volunteers a basic uniform, a small wage, a crash course at one of the country’s agricultural colleges and a posting to farms big and small all over the country.  The posters shamelessly glamourised this work, but the advertising worked. From meagre beginnings – just over 4000 volunteers in the first year – it grew to a mass movement and by the end of the war more than 100,000 women had served in the Land Army, which continued on a diminishing scale until 1950. But it wasn’t as an actual “Land Girl” that Dunbar served the Land Army: she became instead its artist in residence. The Ministry of Information had established the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) in 1939, chaired by Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery. Its brief was 'to draw up a list of artists qualified to record the war at home and abroad'.  Dunbar was one of the first women to be signed up, with the job of drawing and painting women’s war service and in particular the Land Army. She was a very shrewd choice. Not only was she an experienced public artist but she knew a lot about horticulture and had always preferred outdoor subjects involving gardening or land work. So when in June 1940 she was sent to Sparsholt Farm Institute near Winchester where Land Girls were in training she threw herself into the study of a wide variety of farm activities.


In this page of her notebook are several that would result in finished painting. They also fed into A Book of Farmcraft in which Dunbar collaborated (as illustrator) with one of the Sparsholt teachers Michael Greenhill. This was  a primer for the Land Army trainees many ­––  if not most –– of whom were from towns or suburbs and knew nothing whatever about farm work.  Note the didactic distinction between the right and the wrong way of doing things.