PRESS CUTTINGS in the Imperial War Museum archive describe Anna Airy as ‘a painter, pastellist and etcher, daughter of an engineer, granddaughter of the educated astronomer Royal Sir Biddel Airy, educated at the Slade, and a contemporary of Augustus John’. The press reports from the early part of this century emphasise the intrepid side of the young woman artist’s character: ‘She went in search of human nature in the raw, visiting Thameside haunts of vice and crime, witnessing bare-fisted prize fights and card sharps at play’.
These experiences were reflected in the titles of some of the first paintings she had hung in the Royal Academy: Scandalmongers, 1909; The Expert Player, 1912; and The Gambling Club, 1913. Her ability to depict the tougher side of life must have influenced the commissioning body to select her as a woman war artist. She was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum in 1918 to produce a series of paintings of the work being done in munitions factories. Interviewed in Pearson’s Magazine in 1924, Airy describes painting in a shell forge on Hackney marshes. The red hot six-inch shells would be brought out of the furnace in batches of 20 to 40 at a time and put on the earth floor to cool. She had to paint very quickly before the metal cooled and lost its colour. The heat was intense, it turned the floor black hot, sometimes burning through the soles of her shoes.
Her oil paint dried as quickly as ink on writing paper. The men working in the factory were supportive, providing copious mugs of government issue coffee, beer and beef extract. They fed her kippers that were cooked by being placed directly on the red hot shells. They rigged up a corrugated iron shelter to protect her from the heat, but the shells would often roll against the side of the screen and create an oven-like effect inside. Her paint rags caught fire if they touched the metal. On one occasion the whole contraption collapsed and she had to grab her painting from its easel to prevent it bursting into flames. The result of this stoic work can be seen in the finished picture A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes in the collection of the Museum.
The terms of the commission were exacting. She was visited by members of the committee while the work was in progress. The subject had been agreed before the painting was started and the completed picture was presented to the committee for either final acceptance or rejection. For each picture that was accepted by the Imperial War Museum, she was paid 280 [pounds sterling] plus 30 [pounds sterling] expenses. The first commission that she painted, Munition Girls leaving Work, was turned down, and it is clear from the correspondence in the archive that she destroyed the painting in 1919.
The Singer Manufacturing Company Works, Clydebank Glasgow, were used for painting A Shop for machining 15-inch Shells. In the picture, Airy shows clearly the hard physical work that women factory workers were doing in the First World War. The description of the painting in the Museum’s catalogue reinforces this: ‘In this large shop, turning and fitting on of copper-driving bands is being carried out on 15-inch shells. Although very heavy work is done here, the shop is staffed entirely by women, under a foreman. A derrick has been arranged to each machine so that there is no unnecessary waiting and the shell may be handled without delay by two girls. Each shell has its little wooden bogey to run about the shop …’
These paintings have recorded in a factual and unsentimental way the essential war work done by women.
A change in subject matter post war is clearly illustrated again by the titles of pictures hung in the Royal Academy in the 1930s: July Piece, 1935; Mirrored Summer, 1936; Blackberry Harvest, 1937; Messages of May, 1938. The titles of her pictures are always descriptive, and it is with sadness that one reads the title of her last painting to be hung in the Royal Academy after a long and successful artistic career: Verdue and Decay, 1956.
1899-1903 studied at the Slade, taught by Frederick Brown, Harry Tonks and Wilson Steer. She was awarded a Slade scholarship. She won the Melville Nettleship prize on three consecutive years, and also won Professor Thane’s prize for anatomy.
1905- Exhibited at the Royal Academy for the first time: Michael Lee Esq. Indian Mutiny.
1907- Exhibition at Carfax and Co’s London Gallery.
1908- Her signature A. Airy gave no clue to her sex and she was elected as a man to the Royal Society of Painters and Etchers.
1909- Elected member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters.
1911- Exhibition at Peterson’s Gallery, London.
1912- Became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painters and Etchers.
1914- Elected member of the Royal Society of Painters Etchers and Engravers.
1915- Exhibition at the London Fine Art Society.
1917- Commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund.
1918- Elected member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. She spent two years painting scenes in munition factories and produced six large canvases. Her first commission was in May 1918 to do a munition works picture for the British War Memorials Committee: Munition Girls leaving Work.
In June 1918 she was given a second commission for four paintings of munitions factories for the Imperial War Museum Committee:
An Aircraft Assembly Shop, Hendon, oil on canvas, 72 x 84″;
Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells, oil on canvas, 72 x 84″;
The “L” Press Forging the Jacket of an 18-inch Gun, oil on canvas, 72 x 84″; A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London, oil on canvas, 72 x 84″.
1919- Before these were completed she was given a third commission in March 1919 by the Women’s Work Committee:
Women working in a Gas Retort House, Scene in the Works of the South Metropolitan Gas Company, London, oil on canvas, 72 3/4 x 85 1/2″.
Of these six pictures the latter five were accepted, the first picture Munition Girls leaving Work was destroyed by her in 1919 after being rejected by the committee.
1931- Exhibition of 60 art works at the Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead.
1948- In ‘Who’s Who in Art’ she is listed as a member of the Council of A.G.B.I. and President of the Ipswich Art Club.
1951- ‘The Art of Pastel’ and ‘Making a Start in Art’ were published by Studio Publications.
1959- She was included in ‘Women War Artists’, an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum of paintings and drawings by women war artists from World War I and World War 2.
1964- She died.
1985- The largest collection of her work ever assembled was exhibited at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich.
HM Queen Mary, The British Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Imperial War Museum, The National Gallery of New South Wales, The Canadian War Museum, The Toronto Art Gallery, HM Queen Elizabeth, The City Art Galleries of Vancouver, Sydney, Leeds, Huddersfield, Doncaster, Harrogate, Ipswich, Liverpool, Blackpool, Rochdale, Leicester, Lincoln, Birkenhead.
She exhibited in international exhibitions in London, Rome, Milan, Venice, Sweden, New Zealand, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Ottowa, as well as the New English Art Club and the Paris Salon.
She exhibited at the Royal Academy for 45 years.
She lived in Playford near Ipswich, and was an occasional Inspector of Art to the Board of Education.
Her works were reproduced in ‘Studio’, ‘Drawing and Design’ and ‘Colour’ and even in art companies and wholesalers in many countries. I saw many great art reproductions, especially oil paintings from China. There are lots of art companies and galleries reproducing famous artworks to sell in the worldwide art market.