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Annie French’s Floral Visions

In relation to our Spring theme, Emma discusses illustrations by Scottish artist and designer Annie French.

Annie French (1872-1965), was a Scottish artist and designer, and one of the many women contributing to the Glasgow School at the end of the nineteenth century. Some of the better known members of this group, such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh, are widely recognised as major contributors to the wider Art Nouveau movement at the turn of the century. The Glasgow School made a unique contribution to the history of art, combining many of the decorative elements of the Arts and Crafts Movement and Symbolism with a resurgence in Scottish culture in the Celtic Revival. Annie French is one of the so-called ‘Glasgow Girls’, which was not an official group, but coined as a counterpart to the Glasgow Boys, working during the 1880s and 1890s, and who studied at the Glasgow School of Art during this period. 

French was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites in her representation of figures who, often in side-profile, display their long necks and full lips. There is little individuality in French’s women, and a sense that her figures are not specific, but rather just beautiful types. Comparisons have also been drawn between her work at that of Aubrey Beardsley, but Beardsley’s illustrations, often undercut with a sense of the macabre and the unnerving, are very different from French’s delicate visions.

French’s illustrations, many of which were published in The Studio magazine to showcase ‘New Art’, are overflowing with spring-like abundance. Many of her women sit amongst sprawling clouds of floral growth, hands holding lush bouquets, so much so that you are unclear what is woman, and what is nature. Their dresses and backgrounds are a matrix of elaborate patterns of flowers and vegetation. 

In Return from a Rose Garden the floral decoration on the women’s dresses seem to echo the roses they carry, with each woman emerging as a flower herself, their bouffant skirts bulging as if about to bloom.

 Annie French, Return from a Rose Garden, 1895, watercolour on paper, 23.4 x 47.5cm. Image courtesy of Art UK, Gallery Oldham.

Although best known for her black and white line illustrations, French’s delicate use of colour in her watercolours creates soft, pastel visions; where dress, nature and flesh blur into one, such as in the translucent purples of The Lilac Veil. 

Annie French, The Lilac Veil, date unknown, size unknown. Image courtesy of Flickr.

In Friendship Blossoms Best Beside the Wishing Well, the beige undertones that are distinctive of much of French’s work are disrupted by brilliant bursts of red, blue and green, as if the flowers are literally blossoming out of the surface of the work. 

Annie French, Friendship Blossoms Best Beside the Wishing Well, ink and watercolour, 28.5 x 30 cm. Image courtesy of Bonhams. 

French created a set of illustrations for each of the seasons, all depicting a woman in a central vignette, surrounded by seasonal growth. Her composition for Spring emphasises the senses, as the freshness of the white, green and blue colours in the central illustration are evoked by the woman deeply inhaling the scents of a spring flower. 

Annie French, Spring, date unknown, watercolour, pen and ink, 18.5 x 18.5 cm. Image courtesy of Artnet. 

French’s work has rather condescendingly been called ‘sentimental’ and ‘quaint’, and is perhaps not taken as seriously as some of her Glasgow Style contemporaries, possibly for it’s more decorative, quality and female subject matter. For me, however, French’s illustrations, with their over-spillings of floral growth, and exquisite use of colour, epitomise the beauty and renewal of Spring. 

For further reading on Annie French and the female members of the Glasgow School see: Jude Burkhauser (ed), ‘Glasgow Girls’: Women in Art and Design 1880-1920.

Emma is an MA student studying History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and a recent graduate of the University of York. She is interested mainly in eighteenth and nineteenth century art and the construction of culture and identity. She also loves curating, and when she is not writing essays you can usually find her in a gallery!

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