By Melva Duley
Anna Airy was born in Greenwich, London on 6 June 1882. She married in 1916 to artist, Geoffrey Buckingham Pocock. For many years the couple lived at Haverstock Hill, Hampstead prior to moving to Playford, near Ipswich. She died on 23 October 1964.
As an English oil painter, pastel artist and etcher, Anna Airy was one of the first women officially commissioned as a war artist and was recognised as one of the leading women artists of her generation.
During WW1 Anna was given commissions in a number of factories and painted canvases on site in often difficult, and dangerous conditions. For example, whilst painting “A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London” in a very hot environment, ‘the ground became so hot that her shoes were burnt off her feet’. The painting featured in the Imperial War Museum’s 2011-2012 exhibition, ‘Women War Artists’.
In June 1918 the Munitions Committee of the IWM commissioned her to create four paintings representing typical scenes in four munitions factories which included:
- National Projectile Factory at Hackney
- National filling factory at Chilwell, Nottingham, WG Armstrong Whitworth’s at Nottingham
- Aircraft Manufacturing Co. at Hendon
- South Metropolitan Gas Co.
The Chilwell commission was replaced by a request for a painting of work at the Singer factory, Glasgow.
She was also commissioned by the Women’s Work Section of the IWM throughout the war.
In 1917 she was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorial Fund, and in 1940 by the Ministry of Munitions.
Publications – She is the author of ‘the Art of Pastel (1930) London: Windsor and Newton’, and ‘Making a Start in Art (1951) Studio Publications London, New York’.
Anne still found time to become a member of several artistic societies. She was elected as a member of the Pastel Society in 1906, joined the Royal Society of Painters and Etchers in 1908 when elected by the Society. She was also an elected member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters (1909), Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours (1918), and Member of the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts (1952). She was elected as the President of the Ipswich Art Society in 1945.
The commissioning of artists generally during WW1 reflected a curious and marked change in attitudes. These paintings not only recorded and acknowledged the workforce’s contributions to the war effort, but also demonstrated to all that the resources to fight the war were there and being used. A hint of propaganda too?
Prior to WW1, women’s roles were in the home. Post WW1 many new laws were passed to improve women’s standing. More education became available to women and that paved the way to further reform that favoured and enhanced women’s position in society generally.
WW1 thus represented the turning point for the role of women in British society. Circa one million women joined the workforce between 1914 and 1918 – jobs from train drivers, train cleaners, to postal workers, police patrolling, and not forgetting the commissioning of war artists.