Anna Airy: Official WW1 Artist.
I visited the newly reopened Imperial War Museum (IWM) last week (post to follow), where I discovered a truly stunning painting and was introduced to a name that I’m disappointed I’ve not come across before now…
Anna Airy was born in Greenwich, London at the end of the 19th Century and after graduating from The Slade School in 1903, became one of Britain’s most highly regarded female war artists. The Daughter of an engineer and granddaughter of an Astronomer Royal, a love of detail and technology were very obviously in her blood from the off.
Throughout most of the 20th Century it was not considered proper for women to experience war first hand (a situation that shockingly didn’t change until 1982 when Linda Kitson accompanied Troops to The Falklands). As a result female war artists work generally records activities well away from the front line, in hospitals, factories and farms and often of women themselves working hard for the war effort.
Towards the end of the First World War in 1918, Airy was commissioned by the Munitions Committee of the Imperial War Museum to produce a series of paintings recording day to day life in munitions and manufacturing factories across the country.
The painting that caught my attention at the IWM is the one above. Called Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells: Singer Manufacturing Company, Clydebank, Glasgow, it’s a large canvas painted in a slightly impressionistic style using a muted palette of colours. It depicts a huge timber and glass roofed shed from which hang seemingly endless pulleys and chains. The workers, all of whom appear to be women, occupy the center ground and are dwarfed by the massive shell casings which it is their task to produce in what can only be described as a state of organised chaos…
This wonderful image was one of at least five that Anna produced during 1918, the others being, A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London (where according to Wikipedia “the ground became so hot that her shoes were burnt off her feet”)
An Aircraft Assembly Shop, Hendon
Women Working in a Gas Retort House: South Metropolitan Gas Company, London”
and The ‘L’ Press: Forging the Jacket of an 18-Inch Gun, Armstrong-Whitworth Works, Openshaw
All of these powerful and evocative images convey the noise, confusion and determined effort that the war so obviously brought out in people during those difficult times. The attention to detail is particularly impressive and it would appear that Anna particularly enjoyed painting roof structures.
As an aside, it’s fair to say that the role of female war artists has been pretty much overlooked until fairly recently, a combination no doubt of a general sexism and that the more harrowing pictures of human carnage and destruction from the front lines painted by the men, generally grabbed all the headlines. Thankfully this is now being redressed and there is a particularly good piece here by Arifa Akbar for the Independent, if you care to read further.
After the War, Airy concentrated her abilities more on portraiture and images that, like the munitions series above, still captured the day to day, but with a perhaps understandably more halcyon air. Blackberry Harvest (1937) below, is a typically fine and evocative example.