By Eilidh Young
As part of my postgraduate MLitt in Dress and Textile Histories I undertook a placement within Special Collections with the remit of investigating the papers of Una Rota and appraising their significance. Since its accession into Special Collections this material, as far as anyone knew, had never been touched making the project a real voyage of discovery. While these papers did not turn out to be buried treasure they do contain significant information about the ‘Glasgow Girl’, Annie French.
Annie French (1872-1965) was one of a group of female artists who attended the Glasgow School of Art and have since become known as the ‘Glasgow Girls’. She developed a very individual style that she stuck to throughout her career, producing both black and white and watercolour designs that were often highlighted with touches of gold; as can be seen in ‘Cinderella and the Ugly Sisters’. She created intricate pictures using delicate black lines that depicted young women wearing fanciful gowns, surrounded by flowers. Annie’s illustrations are often accompanied by a phrase from literature or a fairy tale reference written in her distinctive handwriting but despite this love of storytelling she is only known to have illustrated a couple of books. One of Rota’s correspondents described Annie as being “like thistle down, she was small, dainty and merry”(1); making it hard not to imagine her resembling one of the maidens in her art.
Una Rota embarked on her research of Annie French in 1968 having admired, and owned, examples of her work for years. She intended to produce a biography in order to raise awareness of this often-overlooked Glasgow Girl but struggled to combine the necessary research with her work as an art dealer, though things did improve once she moved to Edinburgh. For many years Una was the acknowledged authority on Annie French and is the source of much of the information published about her. Ill health prevented her using her retirement to complete her research and her carefully catalogued correspondence, notes and research materials are now held by Special Collections (2).
One of Una’s research achievements was painstakingly tracking down French’s surviving family members. This correspondence gives vital context to the bare facts established elsewhere and provides an insight into Annie’s elusive character. By far the most entertaining correspondent is Eric French, the artist’s nephew, who sent Una the ‘Dear Cinderella’ letters. Annie moved to Jersey to be close to Eric and his mother, Lady Jasmine, towards the end of her life. She developed a close bond with her nephew and encouraged his creativity; in his letters he fondly remembers painting alongside her, and later in life he became the custodian of her sketchbooks.
The ‘Dear Cinderella’ letters (it can safely be assumed) are addressed to the Cinderella in ‘Cinderella and the Ugly Sisters’, which was donated to the National Galleries of Scotland in 1943 by Annie French herself. They refer to Una Rota as “your Great Aunt” and Eric as “Uncle Pepe” and generally enclose a little brown envelope that would have contained a painted pebble, which were not accessioned with the papers. Eric inherited Annie’s love of painting pebbles, which she collected from the beach on Arran where she holidayed. She had been asked to supply these pebbles, painted with her delicate designs, to Liberty of London but chose not to as it would mean that they were no longer special. Eric’s playfulness and treatment of fairy tale characters as real people is something that he absorbed from his Aunt and while the ‘Dear Cinderella’ letters tell us very little directly about Annie, an impression of her personality is transmitted in these light-hearted missives.
Una herself recognised that her research was incomplete and her frustration at trying to pin down this fey artist is tangible. During her researches she was not able to uncover enough information to write the comprehensive biography that she intended because it was difficult to establish concrete facts about so much of Annie’s life. However, what Una did manage to build up was a picture of her personality, supported by facts where possible, founded on an appreciation of Annie’s art. The papers she left are full of incidental details that contribute to the greater picture of Annie French and by extension many of those involved with the Glasgow Girls.
(1) Copy of a letter from Daisy McG. Anderson 12/11/1969: MS Gen 1771/A (File 2)
(2) I could find no photographs of Una Rota so have been unable to put a face to the voice I have come to know so well.
Burkhauser, Jude. Glasgow Girls: Women in Art and Design 1880-1920. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1990.
Vandervoort, Julie. Tell the Driver: A Biography of Elinor F.E. Black, M.D. Univesity of Manitoba Press, 1992.
The Mitchell Library, Glasgow, holds Annie French’s business records. Reference: ML 898048
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The National Galleries of Scotland
Categories: Special Collections