Spotlight on Celebrated Artist with Serious Ipswich Connections

Spotlight on Celebrated Artist with Serious Ipswich Connections
By Elizabeth Talbot
Some weeks before lockdown a painting was consigned for auction in our next Gallery Sale. It was a most distinctive picture, both captivating and calming and a favourite of the many cat-lovers at TW Gaze. When we all had to abandon the premises in haste in March and after all the doors had been secured, the painting remained hanging on the wall, a symbol of peaceful patience; and there it remained ready to greet those of us who returned in May to re-engage with auctions again.
Entitled “Back Shop Cat”, the image is of a black cat seated on a ledge, looking out of a stone-edged window, bathed in prominent rays of sunlight streaming into the room and framed by hollyhocks in full bloom. It is painted in oils on canvas by Anna Airy towards the end of her long, prolific and distinguished life and will now be sold on 9 September. That it is the work of a talented hand is plain to see, but the story behind the illustrious artist is fascinating.
Anna Airy was born in Greenwich, London, on June 6, 1882. She was the only daughter of Wilfred Airy (1836 – 1925), a civil engineer and granddaughter of Sir George Biddell Airy (1801 – 1892), K.C.B., Astronomer Royal. His wife, also called Anna, died two weeks after giving birth to Anna and so she was raised by two maiden aunts, Annot and Christabel Airy who were both artists. Anna began her studies at the Slade School, where she trained from 1899 – 1903. She achieved a Slade scholarship, won the Melville Nettleship Prize in 1900, 1901 and 1902, and won all the prizes at the Slade School, whilst studying alongside student-artists William Orpen and Augustus John, under such notable figures as Frederick Brown, Frederick Wilson Steer and Henry Tonks. In 1906, Anna was elected a member of the Pastel Society, in 1908 an associate member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers, in 1909 a member of the Royal Institute of Painters, in 1913 a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and in 1918 a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours.
She was one of the first women officially commissioned as a war artist by the government, to paint the war effort at home. She visited industrial towns to record the grimy dangerous work often undertaken by follow women due to the shortage of manpower. Paintings of factories, foundries and workshops showing the manufacture of weapons, munitions and aircraft display Anna’s eye for capturing technical detail and documenting the reality of that time. During World War I Airy painted her canvases on site in often difficult and, sometimes, dangerous conditions; the famous example being working at great speed to paint “A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London” in an extremely hot environment. Anna reported the ground became so hot that her shoes were burnt off her feet. 
However, many of her pretty, delicate genres – such as the pensive black cat – are a total contrast to her war-work. Many who knew her considered Anna Airy one of the most gifted English women artists. and she was generally recognised, even during her lifetime, as one of the leading women artists of her generation. She was a prolific painter and, unusually, mastered a variety of mediums including oil, watercolour and etching. Her choice of subject matter was as diverse as her mediums, and she was held in high regard for this eclecticism. She was also the author of three books: “The Art of Pastel” (1930), and “Making a Start in Art” (1951) and “London Lyrics and Country Pieces” which was published in 1965, after her death.  
She married Geoffrey Buckingham Pocock on 18 February 1916; he was an artist who had taught at the Slade. Anna retained her maiden name. In 1923, her address was 5 Parkhill Road Studios, London, but in 1933 Anna and her husband moved to 'The Cottage', Playford, near Ipswich, a property she’d inherited from her grandfather.
She was a member of the Ipswich Art Club from 1903-1964 and exhibited her works there regularly. She exhibited at Ipswich from 5 Parkhill Road Studios, London and from Ipswich. She became their first woman president in 1945 and was also chairman of Ipswich Museum’s committee. She remained in Playford for the rest of her life and died there on 23 October 1964.
Within the United Kingdom, Anna Airy exhibited at many of the most prestigious galleries including the Baillie Gallery; Fine Art Society; International Society; Walker Art Gallery; London Salon; Manchester City Art Gallery; New English Art Club; Royal Academy; Royal Society of Portrait Painters; Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours; and the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and Glasgow Institute. Interestingly, the painting for sale in Diss bears a Glasgow Institute label dated 1963. Internationally she exhibited her works in Canada, France, Italy, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States.
Works by Airy are in the collections of H.M. the Queen; British Museum; Victoria and Albert Museum; Imperial War Museum; National Gallery of New South Wales; Leeds City Art Gallery; Huddersfield Art Gallery and Doncaster Corp. Art Gallery.
Her legacy also includes The Anna Airy Award Fund, which was set up in 1965 by the Ipswich Art Club to honour the contribution of one of the most distinguished painters of her generation, and to encourage young artists to exhibit by arranging independent exhibitions of students’ works.  
“Back Shop Cat” carries an estimate of £4,000 – 6,000 and The Gallery Sale catalogue for 9 September can be found at, along with a calendar of forthcoming auctions.