In his first volume of Modern Painters, in the section "Of truth of vegetation," Ruskin writes: "Break off an elm bough ... in full leaf, and lay it on the table before you, and try to draw it, leaf for leaf. It is ten to one if in the whole bough (provided you do not twist it about as you work) you find one form of a leaf exactly like another; perhaps you will not even have one complete. Every leaf will be oblique, or foreshortened, or curled, or crossed by another, or shaded by another, or have something or other the matter with it; and though the whole bough will look graceful and symmetrical, you will scarcely be able to tell how or why it does so, since there is not one line of it like another." Ruskin created for the modern artist a conscience in these things. He likened the boughs in the landscapes of an earlier period to India rubber and the branches to ornamental elephants' tusks with feathers tied to the end of them. At the time he was writing there was little painting animated with the same love of natural forms that inspired his own writing. The human grandeur of the classic landscape had given place to formal painting, which failed to suggest the haunting sense of human association in which the classical school succeeded, or that passion for Nature herself which has since supplanted this feeling.

One feels sure that the sympathetically executed sprays of Miss Airy would have fascinated the great critic. Miss Airy has told the present writer that in drawing, as she does, her sprays while they grow on the tree, the modes of ramification of the upper branches are so varied, inventive, and graceful, that the least alteration of them, even the measure of a hair's-breadth, spoils them; and though it is sometimes possible to get rid of a troublesome bough, accidentally awkward, or in some minor respects to assist the arrangement, yet so far as the real branches are copied, the hand libels their lovely curvatures even in its best attempts to follow them. There is a peculiar stiffness and spring about the curves of the wood which especially defies recollection or invention. The artist will bear us out that we have accurately reported her here, and yet from the words "the modes of ramification" to "attempts to follow them" we are quoting Ruskin without the alteration of a syllable, and in the succeeding paragraph with only the omission of one or two irrelevant words. We have then in these drawings the expression of passionate sympathy with the refinements of leaf and stem-forms. We have here the realism that alone can satisfy an eager love of Nature for herself. What is novel is the careful art, almost Japanese in spirit, with which naturalism is controlled and exploited on behalf of decoration.

In all Miss Airy's pieces the background wash is a pure convention. In only one instance do we remember an attempt on her part even to express formally the relation of detail to the accidentally provided background, in nature, which might be masses of leafage, a floor of grass, or the blue of a June sky. Personally we should like to see an attempt to preserve this relationship, though such perfection as Miss Airy's studies would then attain might invite the anger of the envious gods and draw down upon them some pitiless process of destruction. The artist herself has in any case her own views on the matter, with which many with qualifications as critics will agree. She would in every picture throw her drawing into relief against the most carefully contrasted light background, her intention being to concentrate our attention on a set of truths selected from others, and the negative background is her only means of isolating those particular truths, and the beauty that is peculiar to them.

One has to know something of the mediums this artist employs to appreciate to the full the measure of her success in a method of work that is her own. Few, indeed, are the artists, as is patent to visitors to exhibitions and students of contemporary illustration, who can employ undiluted black ink lines over colour while keeping the colour pleasantly glowing through them.

An artist has not such a conscience for truth to nature as Miss Airy's for nothing: not a line is drawn by her except in the presence of nature. The pen-work is done out of doors direct from the "model" branch as it grows on the tree, and the colouring is done in the same circumstances. A whole summer, with hours from six until sunset, has been spent in an orchard by the artist. It is very seldom that people who possess an intimate knowledge of trees, plants, and flowers, and have also a love of art, can look with pleasure upon pictures of just those features of nature with which they are best acquainted, and which they would desire to see represented before anything else. They may search far for anything resembling Miss Airy's work in its reverence for life. She brings to the subject abilities which in other branches of art have already given her name much distinction. The series of exquisite nature studies with which we are concerned in this paper formed part of an exhibition of the artist's paintings, drawings, and etchings held at the Fine Art Society's Gallery in Bond Street last month, and the powerful "associations" of field and orchard which attach to her favourite theme did not fail to sound a consolatory note in an overshadowed season.

Miss Airy was a scholarship student of the Slade School, where she distinguished herself as the holder of all the first prizes, and for three years of the coveted Melville Nettleship prize. She is a member of the Pastel Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers, Member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Oils, and of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Her etchings have been purchased in 1908 and 1914 for the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. The Royal Academy, the International Society, and the New English Art Club walls have all placed her work "on the line." This professional testimony to the brilliance of her execution in various fields gives an especial interest to the concentration of her powers on the laborious but sensitive interpretion of foliage, fruits, and blossoms of which we have written. T. W.


W.,T. “The Watercolour Drawings of Anna Airy.” International Studio. 48 (1912-1913): . Hathi Digital Library Trust internet version of a copy in the Cornell University Library. Web. 10 October 2017.

Last modified 10 October 2017