Shoes burnt off my feet: Anna Airy on painting the ferocious heat of WWI shell furnaces

14 June 2018

Gender and Sexuality | History | War and Conflict

A newspaper clipping begins with the following account: ‘A lady engaged in painting, for the Imperial War Museum, in a large munitions factory was watched by two workmen. Said one, “She’s sketchin’ for the papers, ain’t she?” His mate, better informed, replied, “Naow, she’s from the Ministry, she is” and added as an afterthought, “but she seems to know ‘er job"’.

Miss Anna Airy, R.E., R.I., R.O.I. Image © Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The workmen were discussing Anna Airy who, whilst considered one of the leading British women artists of her generation, was also one of the first women to be officially commissioned as a war artist. Over one hundred years ago, Airy was employed by the Munitions Committee of the newly founded Imperial War Museum to paint four scenes of munitions factories.

A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London, 1918, by Anna Airy. Image © Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Amongst the collections of Imperial War Museums, featured in Module 3 of The First World War portal, are the commissioning documents relating to the artist. These offer a fascinating insight into the employment of artists as part of the official war record. They also paint a picture of a very determined, no-nonsense woman, who I would love to have met. Confident in her artistic abilities, her contradiction of the traditional idea of the “woman artist” confounded reporters and critics: the accolade afforded to her work by a female journalist, writing in Pearson’s Magazine in 1924, was as follows:

Image © Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Born in 1882, Airy trained at the Slade School of Fine Art in London alongside fellow war artists William Orpen and Augustus John and exhibited at the Royal Academy every year from 1905 to 1956. There are letters discussing her fee (she was offered £250 per painting, the equivalent of around £7200 in today’s money), and her working practices, including one insisting that there is little point her submitting a preliminary sketch:

Image © Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

As regards maintaining her presence at the Royal Academy, she negotiated permission to exhibit her commissions as having nothing to show would be ‘very prejudicial to my reputation’.

Airy painted from life and was willing to work in difficult and sometimes dangerous environments to express the truth of the scene before her. As an art student she frequented gambling dens and prize fights to study raw human nature, on one occasion even witnessing a murder. In the same article from Pearson’s Magazine, she describes her experience of painting the munitions factories; an experience far removed from the safe approach usually expected of women artists at the time:

Images © Imperial War Museums. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Despite recent efforts by institutions to promote the artistic responses to the First World War by women, they are still overshadowed by their male counterparts in popular knowledge. Anna Airy and her fellow artists deserve attention, primarily for their work, of course, but also for their courage in flaunting the traditional concept of the ‘woman artist’ to convey the true nature of the war. To expand on the quote at the start of this blog, they knew their job, they did it well, and they should receive due recognition.

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About the Author

Sophie Heath

Sophie Heath

Since joining the team in March 2013 I have worked on a number of exciting products, from the First World War to America in World War Two, Church Missionary Society Periodicals, Food and Drink in History and Race Relations in America - all very different but fascinating! My academic background is in foreign languages, in particular French and Italian, and I really enjoy putting this to good use when working with the foreign language material in our products.