Unconventional Mentor no. 29 - Anna Airy

“I am sorry that the committee does not like the picture. I am afraid that I cannot do more to better it, or I should have done so before I sent it in!”

Quote: “I am sorry that the committee does not like the picture. I am afraid that I cannot do more to better it, or I should have done so before I sent it in!” - Anna Airy

Quote: “I am sorry that the committee does not like the picture. I am afraid that I cannot do more to better it, or I should have done so before I sent it in!” - Anna Airy

Last weekend I went to the Women 100 exhibition at the Ipswich Art Gallery, which is a project to showcase 100 pieces of Art by women. One of the women featured was Anna Airy. I was particularly taken with her portrait of Mrs Monica Burnand, who is pictured wearing a fabulous rainbow coloured sash.

© the copyright holder. Photo credit- Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service- Ipswich Borough Council Collection

© the copyright holder. Photo credit- Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service- Ipswich Borough Council Collection

I hadn’t heard about Anna before the exhibition, but I loved her work and started to look into more about her life. Luckily my mum had a copy of a book by Andrew Casey, produced in 2014 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Anna Airy award for young Suffolk artists. I say luckily, because there isn’t very much about her online.

Anna was one of the first women to be commissioned as a war artist during the first world war and she became the first woman to be President of the Ipswich Art Society in 1945, a role that she would continue in for 20 years. She was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition and was well known as a painter in her day. Along with the other women who were commissioned as artists during the first world war, her work has become less well known, but with the Women 100 project and a renewed focus on the war 100 years later with the Lives of the First World War project, I hope that her work will become more well known.

Born to a wealthy family in 1882, it was her family’s wealth that allowed her to study art and to make a career out of it. Speaking of her father, Anna said “I can remember him saying to me that if I persisted in going in for art when I left school that he would give me the finest art education either in this country or on the Continent that could be had at the time, after which I must stand on my own two feet.” Anna studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and made a name for herself at the Royal Academy. Her work was often of “everyday” scenes, and she often made trips to less fancy haunts than she would normally reside in along the Thames, where she painted scenes from gambling games and boxing matches.

In 1916 she was asked to make a painting for Canadian Government to mark the participation of the Canadians in the first world war. She was then asked to take part in the British version of the scheme set up by Lord Beaverbrook. She wasn’t able to go to the front line but was instead allocated various ammunitions factories to visit and paint, having to deal with the effect the hot working conditions had on her paints and avoiding being hit by stray bits of metal and hot shell cases.

Anna Airy married Geoffrey Buckingham Pocock in 1916 although the couple never had any children. I wonder if this is part of the reason that her work was forgotten. Women often have to work that much harder in their lifetime to have their work recognised, and if there is no one to carry that job on when they die their work is more easily forgotten. Anna’s husband died 4 years before she did and her only surviving relative was a cousin. I’m glad that I have discovered the work of Anna Airy and I will enjoy doing some more digging to finding out more about her.

Mentor Advice: Know the value of your work and don’t let other people tell you otherwise.

The advice that I take from Anna Airy is to know the value of your work and don’t let other people tell you otherwise. The quote I have used for this piece is taken from a letter to the British War Memorials Committee who had commissioned Anna to paint a munitions factory that was being run by women. It was the only quote I could find attributed to Anna and I think it says something about the confidence Anna had about her own work. Anna had only submitted the painting when she thought it was finished, so to be told that the work looked unfinished and needed to be worked on was a huge insult to Anna. Rather than pandering to the needs of the committee she stuck to her guns and refused to make any changes. According to a letter she wrote to Alfred Yockney in 1919 she went on to tear up the painting and put it in the bin.

I wouldn’t suggest going so far as to bin the work that you have done just because someone else doesn’t like it, but I do like the idea that if you are happy with your work, if you believe it to be the best it can be, then stick to your guns about not changing it. We are often taught that there are hierarchies in work to be adhered to, but more and more people are throwing out the rule book when it comes to work. Good feedback from the right people can be invaluable, I am always happy to take comments and suggestions from people if I think it will improve when I am doing, but there comes a point when you have to know that you have produced the best you can and you have to believe that for yourself.

The Women 100 exhibition is on until the beginning of May, so if you are in Ipswich do go and check it out here. A huge thank you to Andrew Casey whose book on Anna Airy had so much information on her life and works, you can buy a copy here.