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Art in “Difficult Times”

Art in Difficult Times

This is about two very different artists who lived on different sides of the world almost 80 years apart. Although their lives and times were very different their response to difficult times, although superficially seemingly very different, have a lot in common.

The first artist is called  is Evelyn Dunbar. I fell in love with this painting of hers when I happened across it the other day. I had never heard of her before but the painting made my heart sing. Such a beautiful painting – full of poise and elegance. I loved the different shades of green in this neat Sussex garden. The artist had caught the thin light of very early spring perfectly.

A Sussex Gaden 1939 _Evelyn Dunbar
A Sussex Garden 1939 by Evelyn Dunbar

This image appeared in an article about an online exhibition by Liss Llewellyn’s of Hidden Gems,  which included the work of Evelyn Dunbar. I am a keen “collector” of female artists, both famous and overlooked. Evelyn was in the overlooked category. Who was she?

Evelyn Dunbar
Evelyn Dunbar

Evelyn Dunbar (b. 1906) was the youngest daughter of a Scottish draper who grew up in Kent, England. She was a talented student, first winning a scholarship to the local grammar school, and then she later studying art at the  Chelsea School of Art from 1927 to 1929, and then winning an Exhibition at the Royal College of Art.  In 1940 she was appointed an official war artist, becoming the only woman (amongst 36 men) to be given a full-time salaried position by the WAAC  (War Artists’ Advisory Committee).

Her brief was to record civilian contributions to the war effort on the home front. Her initial subjects were the activities of the Women’s Voluntary Service, WVS, and later in the war, the Women’s Land Army, also known as Land Girls. I find her work both beautiful and fascinating. In this series of paintings “Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing,” I am torn between looking at the body language between the two female figures struggling with the unwieldy clothing and the way the light catches the protective clothing and their faces.

Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing
Putting on Anti-Gas Protective Clothing

I loved her paintings of the land girls and the farms they worked on. I love her treatment of warm light on the land and in the rooms of the hostel. The compositions were dynamic, full of movement, and told many micro-stories. These paintings are not about individuals but about community.  We can see the girl’s faces and each of them is an individual but it’s not about individual heroism, as such, but the collective effort. It’s clearly hard work on the farms.

Singling Turnips

Life is not comfortable. Those girls look exhausted.

Land Army Girls Going to Bed

Friendship and warmth are evident in the body language. These are self-possessed women, getting on with their lot in the war.

Women’s Land Army Hostel

What does a painting do that a photograph can’t? Emotion. Colour. Although the tones are muted (lots of mustards and browns) it’s the details that say so much. The girls sitting on the table sewing, head bowed over her work. The strong sense of community and determination. The details of the hairnets, hairbands and rolled hairstyles are fascinating to 21st centuries eyes.

Army Tailor and ATS Tailoress (1943) 

These paintings were commissioned by the government, and in many respects, they were propaganda designed to raise morale, as some of them they were exhibited at the time. They certainly give status to what was obviously back-breaking or even dull manual work as well as being a social record. Look at the earnest concentration on the faces of the ladies in the painting of a “knitting party” – you can almost hear the busy needles clacking – look at those hats too. Centre stage are the blankets they have completed. This event was clearly heavy on the knitting and light on the party! There is gentle humour here, we are not, however, invited to laugh at these ladies but to quietly admire them.

Dunbar, Evelyn Mary; A Knitting Party; IWM (Imperial War Museums);

Compare these with a modern-day response to the “difficult times” we live in. Li Zhong, is my second artist. He is a professional artist from Shanghai. Early this year he created a massive series of paintings called Raging EpidemicFrontline WarriorGrassroots PerseveranceLogistical SupportSuspension of Classes, and Anti-Epidemic Sketches.  Yes, a pithy title. These paintings were completed over a shorter time frame than Evelyn Dunbar’s, Li Zhong painted two a day, and were an unofficial and personal response to the pandemic (although the artist clearly had an official audience in mind).

Like Evelyn Dunbar, Li Zhong is a skilled and assured artist. His series of painting uses a traditional and very anciennt Chinese style of painting, ink wash painting, for a modern subject. The black ink is diluted to various concentrations and shades, and then is painted onto a highly absorbent and delicate rice paper. Once a stroke is painted, it cannot be modified or undone.

Li Zhong – artist at work

“The reason why I created the paintings was to show the benefits of a socialist country, and this is different from capitalism in the West. As an example, Chinese people are a people for whom solidarity is key; we are a hardworking people. During New Year’s Eve, Chinese families gather together. However, many people sacrificed this precious time with their families to help fight the virus. Many medical staff went to Wuhan. I was very touched by these actions. They are so noble, but they are just ordinary people like us. They are not only the medical staff, but also grassroots staff and officials, community staff, many people who gave up their traditional festival. And this is difficult for other countries to do,”

These were not straightforward portraits of key workers, but more snapshots of Chinese society in an extreme situation.

There are many parallels with Evelyn Dunbar’s work – especially the focus on gesture and body language to convey humanity and warmth, whilst earnestly working for a common good. This is particulatly, essential in Zi Zhong’s paintings as almost all the faces are obscured by masks, only eyes can be seen.

A citizen is helped to put on his face mask – Li Zhong

What I like about Li Zhong’s paintings as that his work doesn’t just focus on the heroic medical staff but, Like Evelyn Dunbar’s Land Army and WVS workers, those in the background fulfilling vital work, the volunteeers delivering madicines and sewing machinists making medical garments for the battle gainst Covid 19.

The Mercury company is in full production – Li Zhong

I think that we do need to think of this pandemic as a war, one in which we all work together for the sake of the whole community. Asian society are much better at focusing on the importance of the whole society over the wishes and desires of the indiviual. Yet, in the early months of lockdown in Britain the desire to help the vulnerable in society, to support medical staff to pull together was evident.  Within 24 hours of a governmental call for citizens to join the NHS ‘volunteer army’, 500,000 people had signed up. By early April, over 750,000 were enlisted and started undertaking tasks such as delivering medication from pharmacies, driving patients to appointments, or making regular phone calls to isolated individuals. We was very grateful for the volunteers who fetched and delivered medicines to our home when a broken leg mean I could not leave my bedroom. Yet, somehow, people’s focus has been lost and confused over the summer in the muddled messages we receive from the authorities. Infection rates are rising again.

I think we could do with inspiring art like that of Evelyn Dunbar and Li Zhong to remind us that this particular battle, will not be over by Christmas. It’s a marathon and not a spirit. We have to get more creative in the ways in which maintain contact with those who are socially isolated. Donegal portrait artist, Andy Parsons, for example, is painting portraits of elderly volunteers over three sessions via Zoom.

Andy Parsons painting one of his online portraits

However, when it all gets a bit too much to bear (as it does from time to time) we can always calm ourselves by immersing ourself in nature, or failing that looking at Evelyn Dunbar’s beautiful painting of a Sussex garden.

A Sussex Gaden 1939 _Evelyn Dunbar
A Sussex Garden 1939 _Evelyn Dunbar

Read More about Evelyn Dunbar Below:- – includes a great short video about the rediscovery of her work too

See more of her paintings here

Read more about Li Zhong below

Painting an epidemic: An interview with Li Zhong (李钟)

Read about Andy Parson’s project

Over 70s invited to have their portraits painted via Zoom

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Gower Coastal Walks: Whiteford Point


I have a confession to make. This walk was done out of sequence. It was done on March 28th, on the day the clocks went forward. That seems a long time ago. It was a beautiful day but very cold. Back in March when I had only got as far as Pennard and Three Cliffs, I sort of panicked. This was because I could not make head nor tail of the bus timetables and doubted that I could make it around the coastal path by public transport. So my husband, Seamas, suggested that we drive to the most out of the way places in Gower and do circular walks and then I would fill the rest in with public transport. Another blogger has since directed to the invaluable which helped me made sense of the bus connections, when the online bus timetables seemed incomprehensible to me.

So we decided to go to Whiteford Point. It is a mini-peninsula off the northern corner of  Gower peninsula. This is seen by many as the wildest and most remote part of Gower. We drove along the narrow lanes to the northern tip of Gower, to the village of Llanmadoc. Llanmadoc Hill is quite imposing as you approach it from the South East. I generally think of Gower as having two big hills (Cefn Bryn and Rhossili Downs) but Llanmadoc Hill at 152m is pretty high too. You get a sense of how it dominates this corner of the peninsula from Cedric Morris’s painting of it in 1928.

Llanmadoc Hill, Cedric Morris 1928 

If you drive through the ajoining villages of Cheriton and Llanmadoc, you will come to Cwm Ivy Court Farm.

Oil painting of Cheriton Gower by Emma Cownie
Far Hill Above Cheriton, 2016 (SOLD)

On the opposite side of the leafy lane is an open gate to a field, which acts as a temporary but well-used car park. When we arrive after lunch, it is pretty full.  There is an honesty box built into the wall for walkers to put their car park fee of £1. Considering the National Trust charge up to £5 at Worms Head, it seem like a bargain.


We then walk down the lane past a small number of houses, the last one has a ice-cream tub of drinking water for passing thirsty dogs. Once you pass through the five-bar gate you are on National Trust land.

In 1953 it was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest as it is an internationally important feeding ground for wading birds and wildfowl. Not long after in 1965, Whiteford Point came up for sale by auction and there was great worry that it might fall into the “wrong hands”. Fortunately, the National Trust was able to buy it. This was the first property to be acquired as a result of something called “Enterprise Neptune”, which was the National Trust’s campaign to protect Britain’s coastal heritage.  So this area is a now a nature reserve owned by the National Trust.

Whiteford Point Map
Whiteford Point

If you follow the lane down hill there there is a choice.

Straight ahead is are the marshes and sands dune and eventually open beach that joins with the wide expanse of Broughton Bay, to the west. If you take a turn right through another wood gate you are then in Whiteford Burrows.

Pine Trees

Whiteford (pronounced Whit-ford) is apparently derived from the Danish ‘Hvit-Fford’, meaning white ford. The Vikings left their mark on the outward-facing west coast of Gower, in their placenames at least. Look at left side of the map above. Worms Head, Burry Holmes and Whiteford are all derived from Scandinavian words. Perhaps, the Viking who traded and marauded up and down the Bristol Channel as late as the 11th Century, only ever gave names to the landmarks they could see from the water, but they certainly stopped by at Swansea, whose name is also Scandinavian in origin. It means “Swein’s Eye” or Island. There used to be an island at the heart of Swansea until the Victorian diverted the river. The Welsh call it “Abertawe” which means the mouth of the River Tawe.


Once into the the nature reserve you pass the very cute Burrows cottage, which used to be a forester’s cottage (you can rent it) and further along the path Cwm Ivy Bunk House (which you can also rent by the night). There  are no other houses on Whiteford Point. It is a very lonely place from a human point of view. It is however, full of undisturbed wildlife.


Either side of the path are many grand pine trees, smothered with massive pine cones. They are Scots and Corsican pines. I think gives the place a Mediterranean air. They were planted from the 1930s onwards. There are hundreds them, thousands. I have read somewhere that there were 20,000 in the 1970s. They help certainly help stabilise the dunes and stop the sand blowing away.  You can see these trees from miles around.

The pine trees as Seen from Hills Tor

I get excited when I see what I think are public toilets in a very tasteful wooden chalet on the path ahead. I am always looking for “proper” places to relieve myself instead of the inevitable bushes.


Not toilets!

Ah, what a fool, I am. As I get closer I realise my mistake. Its not a nice artisan toilet block. It’s a bird hide for watching wildlife on the salt marsh to the right.  The door is open and we can see its empty. So we go in and peer across the flat marsh. We don’t have the patience to wait.



Oil painting of Wood at Whitford Sands Gower
The Woods at Whiteford Sands Professional Quality Print 50×40 cm (with mount) £45.00

[wpecpp name=”Woods at Whiteford Sands Large Mounted Print” price=”45″ align=”left”]

Once we have passed the bunk houses we follow a sort of path through the pine woods, climb a stile over a wire fence and we are on the burrows.  Whiteford Burrows, or sand dunes, cover an area of three square miles. It’s bigger than it sounds. There is a vast expanse of beach on the other side of the dunes, leading out along the edge of the Loughor Estuary.

It was a long walk along the beach – it a very empty beach. Two miles of it to Whiteford Point. People are small dots off in the distance.

Whiteford Sands (towards Broughton Bay)

The landscape here is reduced to stripes of colour: Sky-sea-beach-dunes. The tide is out and the sea is very distant.

Whiteford Sands

I am slightly unnerved by the signs saying informing me that Burry estuary was used as a shelling range by the British army during World War Two and the unexploded bombs are still likely to turn up in the sand dunes. Yikes! I take this seriously, I remember a World War Two bomb that was recently found in the near by Loughor River although I can’t find the story online. In 2015 a family found what they thought was a “buoy” covered in barnacles on the northern side of the estuary, at Burry Port. The kids spent quite a bit of time jumping on the strange object and had their picture taken next to it.  You have probably guessed it by now. It wasn’t a buoy it was an old Second World War bomb. The beach was cleared and the “buoy” was blown up.

That’s NOT a buoy!

Shells still turn up at Whiteford Point too. In September 2014, for example, some sixty shells were exposed at Whiteford Point, and bomb disposal teams were summoned to deal with them. The firing range was also used on a regular basis for the firing of chemical shells during the Second World War, including ones containing mustard gas.  Earlier this year there were reports of the Ministry of Defense blowing “something” up earlier this year in the Loughor Estuary so I don’t fancy taking my chances and stick to the beaches. I expect most people do the same and the dunes are left undisturbed.

Beware Unexploded Shells!

 At Whiteford Point there is a curious cast-iron light house. It is the only wave-swept cast-iron tower of this size in Britain.

Whiteford Lighthouse

It reminds me of a giant bird cage. The local seabirds, gulls and cormorants use it as a convenient perch. It is not close to the beach but it can be reached at low tide, although its a long rocky walk over the seaweed-covered rocks.

Oil painting Whiteford Lighthouse by Emma Cownie
Wave-Swept Iron Tower, 2018  Professional Quality Print 50x40 cm (with mount) £45.00

[wpecpp name=”Wave-Swept Iron Tower Large Mounted Print ” price=”45″ align=”left”]

It reminds me that much of the Gower coast was always hazardous to shipping. This area in particular was very treacherous and a large number of ships were wrecked at both nearby Broughton Bay (where ships used to be able to anchor in the bay until it was silted up in mid-nineteenth century) and here along Whiteford Sands.

Tragically, the lighthouse failed to prevent a one of the biggest shipping disasters in the area, which took place in January 22nd 1868. On this calm winter night 16 ships out of a fleet of 19 sailing out of Llanelli, sunk in a single night and possibly up to 30 or more lives were lost. These ships had been towed out of Llanelli by steam tugs. They had been cast off and rounded Whiteford point, aiming to clear Burry Holmes with the ebb tide. This was in the age of sail and the ship needed a breeze to power them on their way.

Unfortunately, the wind died and a heavy swell tore the ships from their anchors and drove many of the ships onto the rocks at Broughton Bay, or smashed them against each other. As it was such a quiet night, no one on shore had any idea of the disaster that was happening in the estuary. A large buoy and chain and the remains of a wooden hull near Whiteford Point are all that is left of these ships.

Image from

Although the beach seems utterly deserted the air is filled with the high pitched piping sounds of little wading birds.


They are too far off to identify with any certainly, but I think they might be oyster catchers. We are feeling tired after our long walk along the beach. We sit on the edge of the dunes for a rest and chocolate biscuits, listening to the euphoric trilling of skylark song.


Around the tip of Whiteford Point the path reappears and winds its way along the edge of the pine woods. The path is very water logged and at many points it resembles a series of small still lakes rather than a path. So we hop from muddy patch to muddy patch.

Looks like a lake but its the path!

Here there is lots of bird song – blackbirds, ravens, rooks and we saw linnets, larks and tiny robins. On this side of Whiteford Point, it is very flat marshland. The sea is but a distant memory. This is clearly a river estuary and the river is far off beyond clumps of pine trees. The marshes are covered in lush grass and edged by yellow reeds. There are shaggy marsh ponies, who seem very small in comparison to their cousins who graze on Cefyn Bryn and Fairwood Commons.

Weobley Castle in the distance

As we get closer to Cwm Ivy, our starting point, we can see the village Llanmadoc spread up the hillside. We pass the late Medieval sea wall. There has been a sea wall at Cwm Ivy since the late 17th century when it was used to reclaim the marshland from the sea. The coastal path used to follow the wall round to Llanmadoc. Not any more, not since 2014 when the wall was breached by storms. The Welsh Government Shoreline Management policy stopped the National Trust from repairing the wall and breech.  This ‘No active intervention’ policy of letting nature take its course was a controversial decision at the time. So this fresh water marsh has now returned to being a salt marsh. The breach is too big to jump over, there’s no bridge so you have to take a diversion at Cwm Ivy to reach the rest of old coastal path (which we did on another day).

The walk took us three hours, but as much of it was on sand so it was pretty tiring. We only took 4 biscuits with us, thinking that our lunch would see us through. I decided that I should have taken a couple of bananas and sandwiches too as you always need more food than you think you will need. If you don’t eat them I know of two helpers who will happily finish them off for me.

Biscuit? Yes please!

Next week: My final very long walk around the Gower Coastal Path.


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