This picture that hangs as part of the permanent collection of Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, is one of my favourite oil paintings. It is called ‘Interior with Mrs Charles Burnand’ and was painted by Anna Airy (1882-1964) in 1919. The photograph was taken with my phone and I think something of the soft and welcoming warmth that is so enchanting in the real-life painting is lost with the sharp automatic focussing and exposure of the phone camera.
Fortunately, I had my DSLR camera in my rucksack, but, not so fortunately, I had the single focus lens attached, the one I normally use for scarf portraits. All wasn’t lost as, although I couldn’t physically get far enough away to capture the whole painting in one shot (it’s situated in a narrowing part of the room just before a doorway), the lens easily coped with the gallery low lighting.
And, the resultant photographs are interesting as the daubs and brushwork are clearer and the mellowness of the painting is more noticeable.
Paintings of interiors, and particularly domestic interiors, are less common than views of landscapes and portraits of people. Could it be that the themes and subjects of Art when commissioned for the private and not public sphere are often as much to do with fashion and status as with any other aspects of human societies? Landscapes of my estate/lands/view yes, portraits of me/my family/my connections yes, but interiors of my personal private space not so much. Or, could it be simply pragmatic as before the arrival of gas and then electric lighting it was difficult to paint interiors from life? Or, could it even be that the subject matter was too domestic for many male artists? This painting is an example of a woman’s visual creativity. It is interesting to consider that aside from the 18th-century Conversation pieces it isn’t until the Victorian era that painting of interiors become more popular as subject matter.
If you haven’t come across Anna Airy before here is the biographical detail provided by the curators at the gallery.
Airy was born in London in 1882. In 1899 she entered the Slade School of Art. She had a great artistic talent. During her five years at the Slade she won all the first prizes awarded, including the Slade Scholarship and the Melville Nettleship prize for three consecutive years. From 1905 she regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy. In the following years, she became a member of many important artistic groups and societies.
During the First World War she was employed as a war artist, producing some of her most outstanding work of munitions factories and women working in a gas retort house. After the war she concentrated on figure painting, landscapes, flower compositions and still life. She was a highly skilled and gifted artist who was able to work well in all mediums, including oils, watercolours, pastels, etching and crayon. Airy and her husband moved to Playford, a village five miles from Ipswich in 1933. In 1945 she was elected the President of the Ipswich Art Club, a position which she held until her death in 1964.
Early this year in August, Alison Thomas posted on ArtUK, ‘Anna Airy: a remarkable forgotten artist’, a piece which includes further details of her life and a selection of images of Airy’s wide-ranging work.