Illustration: Annie French. 'Open the Forest's Gates', 1908.
The illustrative work of the Scottish artist Annie French has to be some of the most atmospherically charged work from the Edwardian period. French had been a student at the Glasgow School of Art under Francis Newbery. More importantly perhaps, whilst there she had also studied under the Belgian symbolist artist Jean Delville, and although her work is not as strident and particular as Deville's, it does hint at the style that characterised the symbolist school.
I have chosen five examples of French's work to illustrate this article, all produced around 1908. The five are not particularly unique as many of the artist's pieces show this same level of detail and similar narratives. What is unique about the work of French is the level of integration of the figures with the natural world. I have subtitled this article with the phrase 'Enmeshed in Nature' and that is the first thing that comes to mind when seeing the five pieces of work.
Illustration: Annie French. 'The Bride's Maid's Posies', 1908.
All the figures shown not only commune with nature they seem interchangeable with their surroundings. Blossoms are abundant; they surround the solitary figure, but also seem to be physically drawn towards them. Some examples make it unclear whether the costume of the woman is artificial, or perhaps part of the natural surrounding environment, a living dress, or cloak.
What is interesting about these pieces of work by French is the fact that there is no visible hostility with nature, no thorny and snarled bushes stretching out to ensnare the character, no hunched birds portraying future tragedy, no panic-stricken faces. These are women who are happy, content and above all confident in the midst of thick, almost impenetrable woods, not something that was often portrayed within this time period, despite the many changes in the position of women. Lone women still tended to be portrayed as being in need of rescue by an armed man on horseback, needless to say the woman would not be on horseback, not be armed and very often scantily clad.
Illustration: Annie French. 'The Butterfly', 1908.
Although the scenes seem at first to be dreamily idyllic, and to be fair that is a factor in their appeal, it would be missing the point in merely describing these illustrations as nothing more than romantic frippery. The real attraction these images have is that of their role as communal narratives. These are portrayals of human and nature in symbiosis. There is little obvious differentiation between the two worlds of human and nature, nor should there be as the human species is part of the complex world of nature, not, as many see it today, a decidedly separate event.
This is a powerful message, and a timeless one. The complex relationship that humans have with the natural environment is a twisted and often depressing one, but it is also one that lies deep within us, whether we recognise it immediately or not, it is still there. Walking through heavy woods should not be a scary prospect; it should also not be a divorced one, one where we fail to connect with our surroundings because of our seemingly real connection with the outside world. An obvious example would be walking amongst trees while staring at the screen of your phone, experiencing the natural world as a periphery not as a main event.
Illustration: Annie French. 'The Frog Prince', 1908.
Connectivity with anything but the urban environment is particularly hard in our contemporary world. We are encouraged to remain focused on the artificial, particularly if we have money to spend, after all the natural world has no retail outlets to speak of. We are tied into an artificial machine that has no real purpose except to relieve you of your hard-earned money. We are encouraged to feel permanently dissatisfied, to constantly crave more of what we don't really need. To be satisfied, to be content, to be happy even, are states well outside the realms of the brutally commercial world in which we live.
To be able to understand our connectivity with the real rather than the artificial world, to focus on our deep and constant relationship as a species with the rest of nature, these are the first steps in which we can begin to place ourselves outside of the draining and manipulated world of dissatisfaction and need, a cycle that never ends because it is never meant to.
Illustration: Annie French. 'The Wilderness', 1908.
The creative world has so much to teach our species as a whole. Whether it is through the work of Annie French and her complex scenes of the enmeshment of human and nature, or a myriad other approaches to the relationship between ourselves and our environment, produced both on a professional and amateur level, all are valid and all are making an important point. The constant message of interaction, interdependence, and symbiosis with the natural world should be the most important and prominent of messages that the creative world can give out to the rest of humanity.
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