Airy, Anna (1882–1964)

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Airy, Anna (1882–1964)

British painter and etcher, known for her artistic versatility, including depictions of industrial scenes noted for their unexpected power. Born in London in June 1882; died in Playford, England, on October 23, 1964; daughter of Wilfrid Airy; studied at the Slade School; exhibited as a young artist at the Royal Academy (1905); married Geoffrey Buckingham Pocock (a painter and etcher).

Anna Airy was born in London in June 1882, the only daughter of Wilfrid Airy, M.I.C.E. Her distinguished family lineage included her grandfather Sir George Biddell Airy (1801–1892), Astronomer Royal of Great Britain, who determined the earth's mean density. Anna's artistic talents were revealed early in life, and she studied at the Slade School, where she was regarded as a brilliant student, winning a scholarship and a number of prizes. The precocious young artist began to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1905. Over the years, she became proficient in figure subjects, portraits and flowers in oils, watercolors and pastels, and etchings. Married to the painter and etcher Geoffrey Buckingham Pocock, Airy exhibited not only in the British Isles but on the Continent of Europe as well. She participated in international exhibitions in Rome and elsewhere. Her works were often seen at exhibitions sponsored by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, as well as the Pastel Society.

Airy probably inherited an interest in technology from her chemist father. This interest is demonstrated in an impressive series of five paintings she produced in 1918, on commission from the British Ministry of Munitions, which were placed in the Imperial War Museum. One of these oils, titled Women Working in a Gas Retort House, depicts a work scene at the South Metropolitan Gas Company of London and demonstrates the significant role women's labor played in the national war effort. Three of these commissioned works made such a strong impression at the time that they were shown at the Royal Academy in 1919, receiving positive critical comments. One of these, entitled A Shell Forge, depicts work at the National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London. The other canvas, The "L" Press, presented on a heroic scale of 72' × 84', depicts the forging of the jacket of an 18-inch gun with a hydraulic press at the Armstrong-Whitworth Works at Openshaw. While part of the unfinished gun remains in the furnace, Airy shows the moment when the great crane suspended from overhead beams gently withdraws the whole mass of metal. Many were surprised that these powerful and impressive works were produced by a woman known for painting flowers.

During and immediately after World War I, Airy also received commissions from the Canadian War Memorials Fund. Her work was represented in a number of important exhibitions in Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. In the 1920s, she returned to more peaceful scenes.

Airy was never enticed by abstractionism or other Modernist trends. To the end of her long and productive life, she continued her realistic painting. Anna Airy died at her home in Playford, England, on October 23, 1964. In the 1990s, her works reappeared in gallery sales and auction catalogues as a positive reappraisal of her oeuvre began to take place.


"Miss Anna Airy," in The Times [London]. October 24, 1964, p. 10.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia