It was initially to be all about Laura – that was my intention. So what happened? I liked her work – it was in a semi-realistic style I am drawn to. As usual, it was one particular image that stood out for me – and as it turned out, that was Laura’s downfall. Two factors put me off doing a complete scribbling about her obvious talents. The first was that she became a dame so therefore was not so much emerging from deep in the shadows of history as do the stories of those I normally like to chase through the ether. And then I checked out the background to this particular daubing of hers.
My beautiful writerly daughter knows pretty well what I am into when it comes to my writings, such as they are. I always bookmark her sendings – and invariably, when I return to them later, I find there is usually a good yarn to be had from them – as was the case here. When she linked me to Arifar Akbar’s article, she knew I would be fascinated. So I will let the columnist herself tell the story of the subject of Laura’s striking painting:- ‘Ruby Loftus (was) a 21-year-old “shop girl” who mastered the difficult skill of screwing the breech ring of the anti-aircraft Bofors gun, a technique that normally took men almost a decade of dedicated experience. Her story was picked up by the Ministry of Information, which was trying to encourage women into weapons production at that point. Her portrait was painted by Knight and promptly exhibited at the Royal Academy.’
The problem was how the already Dame chose, or was pressured into, painting Ruby. Laura had had controversy erupting before regarding her work when, back in 1913, as a woman (shock horror), she chose to paint a nude. With Ruby she came full circle. Now it was the feminist brigade she was upsetting, not her male betters. This contretemps obviously did not develop till more recent times, but did demonstrate how under the male thumb lady painters, doing official work, were in the war years. So the problem with Laura’s image was that it was not ‘feminist’ enough – the Dame had supposedly glamoured Ruby up. There was a hint of lipstick, for heaven’s sake; she was beautiful and her machinery gleamed. It was even suggested that Ruby was some sort of poster girl imported for the occasion, as surely there could be no woman strong or intelligent enough to do the type of task this assembly line worker had the hide to be expert at. Of course, in reality, the work place would more than likely be fiendishly hot, sweaty and grimy – as Ruby would be herself. That type of image, though, would not be good for morale, nor would it entice womanhood into that type of war occupation.
The women who painted the two world wars, with perhaps the exception of Knight, have been largely forgotten. Not for them was the ‘glamour’ of capturing real fighting in oils or watercolour like their male colleagues did. The indelible images we have of these two great conflicts, together with other wars throughout history, have come from men. In our own nation’s experience, think Will Longstaff ‘s ‘Menin Gate at Midnight’ and the work of Ben Quilty in Afghanistan. There were a few women, working as nurses or ambulance drivers, who sketched/painted, in an unofficial capacity, their personal take on events closer to the fronts of both wars, an example being Olive Mudie-Cooke. Evelyn Dunbar, in the second conflict, was commissioned to visit battlefields, but well after the fighting had moved on. So, for the women, it was largely the home front they concentrated on. And once I had forsaken Laura, I decided to see who else amongst them had a story I could tell.
In the end I found one and it really was a case of – ‘And then I saw her face’. In fact it was that capturing my eye, once I typed Anna’s name into Google Images, before I even sighted her product. Statuesque, with a beauty that defied time, I was hooked. Somewhat disappointingly, mostly what on-line delivered was about her painting – little of her personally, but what was there was still worth passing on.
In giving birth to Anna Airy (1882-1964), her mother died. Her father, Wilfred, who was to become the Astronomer General, was thoroughly supportive of his daughter’s artistic ambitions/adventures. She trained at London’s Slade School of Fine Art and was one of the very few women painters to be commissioned by a government body to record the war effort at home. In 1918 the Munitions Commission of the Imperial War Museum and the Ministry for Information – War Memorials Committee both engaged her to produce propaganda pieces. She was posted to Whitney Army Camp in Surrey where she worked along side Laura Knight. Who knows, they may have become friends. And here’s the rub. Anna’s contracts were of far less value than those awarded to forty-seven men doing the same work; the penalty clauses, if she did not meet the allocated time-frames, considerably harsher. She was to required to work under very difficult conditions and although her life was never in danger from a bullet, the places she painted were very primitive by modern day standards. There is a notation to the effect that in a projectile factory, near the Hackney Marshes, the floor was so hot it burnt the soles of her shoes. Due to her gender, it is recorded that there was a deep suspicion of Anna by her immediate superiors who felt put out that a woman had been foisted on them. She was also the only commissioned artist to have an official work rejected. This happened in 1919 – it affected her deeply and she destroyed the offending rendering, one depicting working girls leaving their place of work at the end of a day.
Of course she needed to have some sort of track record to receive a commission in the first place. After she left the Slade School in 1905 she successfully submitted her first work for exhibition at the Royal Academy. She continued to do so at this venue, most years, right up until 1956, exhibiting around eighty paintings there in total. Her first one-woman exhibition was held in 1908. Around this time she married fellow painter Geoffrey Buckingham Pocock. By the end of the decade she was regarded as one of the nation’s most promising painters of the fairer gender. Throughout her career she also took on students and in the end found a vocation in the teaching of art in her eventual home, Ipswich. Here she is well remembered with several schools to this day having bursaries in her name. Many former pupils have recalled how inspirational she was in this role. Later she also became President of the Ipswich Art Club. In the artistic sense she was admired for her draughts(wo)manship – and we are pointed to her exquisite botanical studies as proof of her capabilities in this aspect. She was also a more than competent portraitist with, as well, painting many a bucolic country scene in contrast to her war work in the harsh industrial landscape. ‘The Blackberry Harvest’ is an attractive example. Later in her career she settled down to become a contributor to Ipswichian life using her talents in art and pedagogy. An off-shoot of this was the publication of two books on her practices, ‘The Art of the Pastel’ and ‘Making a Start in Art’. She exhibited overseas and a jubilee exhibition of her oeuvre was held in 1952 by the Royal Society of British Artists.
One of her works that intrigues is the fetching ‘The Little Mirror’. Garlanded by blooms, if one looks closely into the looking glass a figure may be discerned. Is it of the artist herself? Do the masses of flowers symbolise the marking of an important life milestone? Of course, Airy is not well known enough to have each of her works examined in digital-print detail but, even so, this particular work, for me, is a thing of beauty worth closer investigation.
I suppose, in the end, these words have been as much about why not Laura as they have why Anna. In any case they were both pioneers in their field, even if what they produced had to reflect an establishment and decidedly not a woman’s point of view about what was going on in a time of war. But they did pave the way for those who followed and who did have the freedom to present a feminine, even a feminist, perspective. Now photo-journalism has largely made the notion of war artists somewhat redundant, but it has also freed up practitioners, now awarded the right to visit war zones, to interpret as much as to relate. In her article ‘Women at War: The Female British Artists who were Written out of History’, Akbar mentions several who followed on in Knight and Airy’s wake. Examples cited were Mona Hatoum, Rita Duffy and the German Frauke Eigen. Hopefully the current Imperial War Museum’s exhibition, ‘Women War Artists’, will bring Anna and her lesser known colleagues in from those shadows of history.