Essex artist Anna Airy immortalized an oil fishing boat

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My wife must have been browsing a now defunct Maldon High Street antique store for ten to fifteen years.

Among the usual eclectic collection of furniture, porcelain and silver, she spotted an oil painting hanging on the wall.

Something caught her eye, it looked strangely familiar and so, on a whim (which is not like him at all), she decided to buy it.

She brought him home with some trepidation, hoping that I would be okay with her choice and love him as much as she did.

The moment I saw it, I loved it and, it must be said, I still love it.

It is an oil on cardboard, measures 38 square centimeters and is in a pretty thick gold frame with chamfered mount.

I can tell it was painted from a spot on the Maldon bath wall – the name of the stretch of path between the lake and the river, stretching from Cook’s Yard / the Barge Tea Rooms to above Splash Park.

The scene looks roughly north (towards the city) but is unusually off-center and misses the more familiar view of St Mary’s Church.

Instead, you can make out a blurry representation of Fullbridge and the Heybridge skyline, and there are boats in the distance at their moorings.

‘Ostrea Rose’ (MN183) at its old mooring

In the foreground (right) are three more ships, but the main subject is in the center – a traditional working craft that many would call a smack but I know it is actually (in this case) a bawley.

The reason I can be so sure is that my cousin owned it, and I spent many happy hours sailing with it. But before telling you the story of the bawley, don’t forget the artist who captured the moment.

The image is helpfully signed and dated in the lower left corner – “Anna Airy ’83”. Not only that, but on the back there is a label that gives its address like “The Old Castle, North Street, Maldon”.

Further research reveals that Anna Victoria Airy Morrow-Tait was actually born in Cambridge in 1946. In 1951, her mother, Prudence ‘Richarda’ Evelyn Morrow-Tait, remarried S / Ldr Michael Edward Townsend and Anna dropped the Morrow-Tait name from the Poll of Records in 1959.

At one point the family moved to Maldon and made their home in the old North Street pub.

Anna married in 1966, but clearly continued to have a connection to Maldon, as evidenced by this 1983 painting and her stated address.

At that time, believe it or not, its subject, the former (at least apparently) bawley, ‘Ostrea Rose’ (MN183), was less than three years old.

Built at Heybridge Basin by Arthur Holt, it had only slipped into the tideway on the August 1980 public holiday.

Certainly, its lines are similar to the original Victorian designs of a bawley Maldon, a hybrid peculiar to this region, used for oyster work, eel catching, periwinkle picking and trawling.

My cousin intended to continue in this same tradition, but in 1986 he stopped using the boat for fishing and switched to chartering.

So when Anna painted ‘Ostrea Rose’ she was still a working vessel in the age-old tradition of Maldon, moored on her bath wall and plying her trade on the estuary.

Looking back, I guess it was really the end of an era, the last stages of a fishing continuity that had existed for centuries.

You won’t see ‘Ostrea Rose’ in Maldon today – my cousin finally sold her in 1999 and the last time I heard she was in Belgium.

But not far from its old anchorage, attached to the black shed near the pier used by “Viking Saga”, you will see a notice board that tells the story of the town’s fishermen and their boats.

I don’t remember having met Anna Airy, but I certainly remember her mother, “Richarda”.

She was a truly larger-than-life character – a spirited, red-haired adventurer, who was the first woman to fly a plane around the world.

She died in 1982 – a year before Anna painted this painting.

Maldon and Burnham Standard:

Anna gave her address as ‘The Old Castle’, North Street

I also knew S / Ldr Townsend, who remarried and moved to 37 Church Street, across from my Nan’s house.

A dignified man, tall and upright, he had made a career in the RAF and later as a navigation examiner for the Civil Aviation Authority.

He was also an avid shooter, former President of the Blackwater Wildfowlers’ Association and former President of the Essex Joint Council of Wildfowling Clubs.

He passed away in 2009 and maybe that’s when the painting hit the market.

I can’t be sure, but I’m really happy that we are the gatekeepers right now.

I often wonder where Anna is today and if she remembers the time, now almost 40 years ago, when she painted my cousin’s boat?


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