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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 Walk: Llanmadoc to Crofty

Ivy House, Landimore

Part 1: Llanmadoc to Llanridian

I was feeling very nervous about this walk as I would have to change buses in the middle of nowhere. I very nearly chickened and got in my car after a fellow blogger commented that I “should not bother with rural buses but drive. However, it was a long walk, just over six miles, and I did not want to break it up into two or three circular walks. I wanted to walk the length of the north Gower coast in one go, if I could.  So I got up and packed sandwiches, lots of biscuits, a banana in its strange yellow banana “gimp” case and two bottles of water. I had decided that thirst was the worst torment on my last two solo trips and I was going to be better prepared this time.

Map of North Gower
North Gower Coast

I had caught the same bus to Port Eynon (the number 119 to Rhossili, if you interested) and had changed at Scurlage but this time I had to change at a location called Llanridian Turn. I have studied the map and I think I know where it is. I don’t remember passing it from the previous bus journey and it doesn’t really seem to be “on the way” to Rhossili. So I check with the bus driver as I buy my ticket.

Buses at Llanrhidian Turn
Buses at Llanrhidian Turn

The bus arrives at Llanridian Turn and it pulls in behind another bus, a number 116, but its not the one I want. So I ask the driver about the 115 to Llanmadoc and he says that he’s driving it and walk towards a small bus that has just arrived and he swaps buses with the new driver. He’s a friendly chap, with a sparkly diamante earring in one of his ears. So we set off. I am the only passenger.

St Madoc's, Llanmadoc
St Madoc’s, Llanmadoc

I end up standing at the front of the bus (holding on to the special rail) chatting to the driver for most of the journey. “You couldn’t ask for better weather” he says. He’s right. It’s a sparkling bright spring morning. It’s cold though. Only 7 degrees Centigrade (that’s 44 in Fahrenheit). He fishes out a timetable for me from his rucksack. It’s a timetable that covers all Gower buses. I have not seen this before, it certainly wasn’t to be found in the bus station anyway. “Where do you want to get off?” I have never had a bus driver ask where I want to stop before. This must be one the joys of rural bus services. I eventually get off by Llanmadoc Post Office. I wave at the bus driver as he drives away as if we are old friends.

I find a path, not an official coastal one, but it is sign posted for Whiteford Burrows, which seems the right direction, so I take it. It’s more of a farmers’ track than a path. I walk down a long muddy track, pass cattle, sheep and an old tractor and eventually reach the same point as we did on our detour from Cwm Ivy (to avoid the breached sea wall). I find it more by luck than any thing. It is very muddy.

This is Landimore Marsh. It’s a saltmarsh, an area of coastal grassland that is regularly flooded by seawater. Springs, small rivers called “pills”, flow out into the estuary, in meandering lines that make maze-patterns in the marsh. The main pills crisscrossing the area are Burry Pill and Great Pill.

Pill House, Llanmadoc
Pill House, Llanmadoc

For hundreds of years, the people who lived along its edge have used the marshlands for grazing their animals. They still do today.  The lambs that are raised on the salt marshes are reputed to have a distinctive and special flavour, but I cannot speak from experience as I am a vegetarian. Although the cows and ponies know to move off the marsh with the advancing tides, especially the spring tide that can move with great speed, the sheep for some reason don’t. The local farmers have to bring them in. Although sheep can swim, as all animals can, for a short period of time, if they get cut off by the tide they will drown.

The walk along the marsh path is very muddy indeed. I have visions of me sliding and twisting my ankle or falling flat on my face, but I manage to survive without incident. I take the low tide route, but I spent much of my times sliding around wondering if the high tide route would have been less muddy.

To my right is North Hill Tor, or Nortle Tor, on which are the remains of a partial fortifications, probably dating back to the Iron Age period (c. 800 BC – AD 43). According the the famous Swansea-born historian, Wynford Vaughan Thomas, Nortle Tor was quarried in previous centuries. During the Napoleonic Wars, one of its extensive caves provided useful hiding place for local young men when the press gang was spotted coming across the estuary from Llanelli.

North Hill Tor, Gower
North Hill Tor, Gower
Landimore Marsh, Gower
Landimore Marsh, Gower

There is a wonderful presence about the marsh. It stretches away as flat as a proverbial pancake. No sea, or River Loughor in sight. The marsh is indented by patterns of muddy pools, creeks and channels. It is very peaceful and I get drawn into the atmosphere of the marsh. The grass has a curious white-ish tinge to it which I assume is from the salt. I see a lot of sheep’s footprints but no sheep, although I can see a few ponies far away on the marsh. It turns out that the sheep are in the farmers’ fields with their lambs.

The path eventually passes a couple of houses and leaves the marsh. I see my first fellow walkers of the day.  I only see one other couple on the path today. I see, however, vast numbers of sheep and lambs, marsh ponies, robins, sparrows, a red kite and a large Great White Egret flying over the marsh.

The path reaches Bovehill, where it turns further inland and passes the remains of another fortification, Bovehill Castle, a fortified mansion with walls a metre thick. It was once the seat of the 14th century crusader knight, Sir Hugh Jonys and later Sir Rhys ap Thomas, a support of Henry Tudor (the father of Henry VIII of six wives fame).

Call Box at Landimore
Phone Box at Landimore


Ivy Cottage Landimore

Ivy Cottage Landimore

The “coastal” path then turns off the road onto Bovehill Farm. I can’t see the sea and now I can’t really see the marsh, either.  I don’t see the marsh again for a long time, perhaps for about as much as an hour as the path trails inland. In fact, it turns out its about 2 and a half miles to Llanridian. The path instead, runs through the farmland, parallel to the marsh.

This get a bit confusing. I often enter a field and have little idea of where the path goes. So I set off at a 60 degree angle only to adjust my course when I eventually spot the stile in the opposite corner of the field.

Where is the path?
Where is the path?

There have not been enough walkers recently to make tracks for me to follow across the fields.

Landimore, North Gower

I see swallows (the first I have seen this year) over the fields by Landimore. Weobley Castle, another fortified manor house, is a dark presence looming on the cliff above me. From the time of the Norman conquest of Gower to the 15th century, Weobley belonged to the de la Bere family.

Weobly Castle, Overlooks Llanridian saltmarsh
Weobley Castle, above the path

Just below Weobley Castle there is a road that leads out into the marsh.

The saltmarsh by Weobly Castle
The salt marsh by Weobley Castle

Where does it go? It doesn’t seem to go anywhere, as such.

Marsh Road by Weobly Castle, North Gower
Marsh Road by Weobley Castle, North Gower

At the end of the track, there is a odd wooden structure out in the estuary. I can see it with my naked eye but my camera is struggling to get a good picture. I think its made of wood. I can’t tell. You can see it from miles around.

What is it? Wooden structure in Burry Estuary, Gower.
What is it? Is it a wooden structure in Burry Estuary, Gower?
What is it?

According to historian Wynford Vaughan Thomas, the American army used the marshes as a firing range during the Second World “War. It turns out that it was the US army that built the causeway out into the marshes. The strange building, is not wooden but made of concrete and brick. It was a look-out built by the Americans. I have to search online for close up photographs.

Photo credit:

There is a very dark tale about the Burry Estuary during the Second World War that Wynford was probably not aware of, as it was kept secret until 1999. There had been rumours about the secret testing of chemical and biological weapons in the estuary during World War II for many years. This story is to do with the British government and experiments in biological warfare, not the American Army.  The wartime government had asked Porton Down, its chemical warfare research installation, to conduct trials of an anthrax bomb. Anthrax, is a lethal bacteria, which was seen as having “enormous potential” for biological warfare. I would like to point out that biological warfare was, and still is, banned under a 1925 Geneva protocol. This is why countries will make a big fuss about its use on civilians in Syria or even Salisbury, England.

Bristol Blenheim
Bristol Blenheim

In 1941 there had been a series of tests of anthrax bombs on the uninhabited Gruinard Island, off the west coast of Scotland. These tests had produced contradictory results, primarily due to the soft, boggy ground at Gruinard, so it was decided at short notice to carry out a single replacement test on the firm sand of the Burry Inlet.

On a Wednesday afternoon, in late October 1942, the scientists carried out an experiment over the north Gower salt marshes,  dropping an anthrax bomb from a Blenheim aircraft. Two lines of 30 sheep were placed downwind of the aiming mark, spread at 10 yard intervals. When the bomb fell it made a crater of about three feet in width and two feet deep. Three days after the trial, two of the sheep died of anthrax septicaemia, and three others were ill for a day or so before recovering entirely. Apparently, the scientists proclaimed the test result ‘very satisfactory’, especially as this was the first time such a bomb had been dropped from a plane flying at operational level.

Warning sign on the marshes
Warning sign on the marshes

According to the report, the site was ‘effectively decontaminated’ by the incoming tide a few hours after the test took place. The carcases of the dead sheep were ‘buried deeply at the seaward edge of the marshland area’. The remaining sheep were observed for seven days after the test, the survivors then being slaughtered and buried.

This all seems a bit of a casual clean up and in marked contrast to the situation at Gruinard island, which had served as the previous test site for anthrax. In that case the entire island was set ablaze and subsequently closed to public access for nearly 50 years. Even today people and animals alike avoid the island, despite efforts to decontaminate the island in the 1980s. All I can assume is that larger quantities of anthrax was used in Scotland.

Update: There’s no need to worry about the dangers of anthrax as it was confirmed in 1987 that “investigations …[after the] trial revealed no evidence of any residual contamination”.

Gruinard Island
Gruinard Island

When the path finally reaches Llanrhidian, it seems like quite a shock after all the open space of the marsh and the fields. I think about walking up to the main road where I could catch a bus home but instead I press on .

My next post will be my final stage of the coastal path, from Llanrhidian along the coastal road to the village of Crofty.