“I’d been trying to get it in paint and couldn’t. And then along came linocuts.” Thus artist Sybil Andrews summed up the possibilities offered by a novel method of printmaking.
It was 1929 and Andrews’ subject was London’s Queen’s Hall. Built in 1893, the concert venue — where she had heard Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1923 — was a hub for contemporary culture. Thanks to her new technique, Andrews was able to boil down the auditorium to spare curves and sharks-fin shadows, a streamlined architecture in synergy with the hall’s avant-garde programme.
Andrews broke with convention in life as well as art. The night she heard Stravinsky, her companion was Cyril Power. A fellow printmaker, Power would share Andrews’ life for more than 20 years despite being someone else’s husband and a father of four.
Now the pair’s relationship has been dissected in scintillating, sympathetic detail by Jenny Uglow in Sybil & Cyril. An experienced biographer, Uglow delivers a gripping, mysterious love story which also sheds light on British culture between the wars. Usually this era is defined by Bloomsbury Group shenanigans and by exploratory ventures into abstraction and surrealism made by artists such as Ben Nicholson and Paul Nash. Uglow however reveals that these years were alive with other new-wave practices including the shortlived Grosvenor School movement which championed the vogue for linocuts. Ultimately, it’s a period eclipsed by the likes of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and the London School painters — who really found their stride after 1945.
Andrews and Power met in Bury St Edmunds in the early 1920s. Allegedly, he tried to explain perspective to her as she sketched in the street in the ancient Suffolk town. Andrews, born in 1898, was a Bury native while Power, an architect and some 26 years older, was London-born, only moving to Bury after he was demobbed.
Within the year they were sharing a studio, a diary and joint exhibitions. Often, says Uglow, Power returned to Sybil’s digs at the end of the day rather than his wife Dolly. Yet the latter, a “quiet, unflappable, affectionate” woman, kept her counsel even when Power followed Andrews to London after she moved there in 1922.
In 1925, both took jobs — he as an architect, she as secretary — at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art. Started by Scottish wood-engraver and painter Iain Macnab, the Pimlico institution pioneered the art of the linocut thanks to the arrival of artist Claude Flight as professor. Flight had experimented with linocut since the early 1920s. Beforehand, the medium had been chiefly the province of a few German Expressionists.
Smooth to touch, easy to cut, cheap to produce, linocut images were built block by block as different colours were added. The result was a spartan, graphic aesthetic that lent itself to the crisp geometries and abstract patterns that Modernism — though less advanced than in Europe — was injecting into British art and design. Linocuts were also extremely marketable, offering a budget option to a new generation of homeowners whose “modern walls require modern pictures” as Good Housekeeping put it in 1932.
Always struggling for money, Andrews and Power originally turned to linocuts to boost profits. Stylistically, he was “slower, more meditative, more visionary”. Andrews was sharper, slicker, more contemporary. Yet vibrant colour plates clarify why their work was sometimes confused. Power’s circa 1930 “Merry-Go-Round”, for example, echoes the same tangy orange and swirling solids as Andrews’ “Windmill” made three years later.
Exhibitions followed, at the Redfern Gallery in particular. Ideally suited to the machine age, with its emphasis on speed, electricity and dynamic sporting activities, their linocuts were soon being shown internationally and collected by the British Museum and the V&A.
In 1929, Andrews acquired a Suffolk cottage. As the 1930s unfolded, the pair rotated between Suffolk, London and, later, the New Forest, where Andrews — a vital, decisive personality who seems to have steered their progress — bought another property.
Apparently oblivious to the Great Depression and the Spanish civil war — which called to many creative souls — the apolitical pair spent these years making prints, decorating their homes, planting gardens and indulging their passion for early music.
War burst their bubble. Cyril, after working as a London bomb-site surveyor, stayed at their New Forest cottage while Andrews took a job in Hythe shipyards. Here she fell hopelessly in love with the “funny, craggily handsome” widower and ex-soldier Walter Morgan.
With a ruthlessness that was the flipside of her get-up-and-go character, within months Andrews had packed Power back to London and married Morgan.
As if the last two decades had not occurred, Power returned to a remarkably unreproachful Dolly. Power died in 1951, having eschewed linocuts for oil painting. He is remembered by one grandchild as “rather grumpy but with a subversive twinkle”.
Andrews emigrated to Canada with Morgan. Dying in 1992, she established herself as a significant Canadian artist and teacher. In the 1980s, harassed by renewed interest in prewar British printmakers, she insisted that Power was just “a good friend” who “had no studio of his own . . . so worked in [mine]”.
Uglow gestures at a more complicated, tender and — for Power at least — tragic union. In a poem inspired by Andrews’ defection, the architect refers to a “belle dame sans merci”. There’s more to discover about this tangled tale. It would make a terrific movie.
Sybil & Cyril: Cutting Through Time by Jenny Uglow Faber & Faber, £20, 416 pages
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