Claude Flight, the central exponent of the modern linocut and teacher from 1926 to 1930 at the Grosvenor School of Art, London (see Artists) published a book, Lino-Cuts (1927) which was sold in London, but also at The Depot Bookshop in Melbourne, Australia (the bookshop of the Arts and Crafts Society). Eveline Syme, daughter of a wealthy Australian newspaper magnate, found a copy in the shop, and delighted in the reproductions therein:
‘Here was something new and different, lino-cut no longer regarded as a base form of woodcut, but evolved into a distinct branch of Twentieth Century Art. I had seen nothing more vital and essentially ‘modern’ in the best sense of the word than the reproductions in this book…(1).
Syme showed the book to her friend Ethel Spowers who was equally enthralled. Spowers came from a similarly privileged background. Born in 1890, her family also had business interests in newspaper publishing, and she grew up in the family mansion Toorak House where, subsequent to her training in art, she would set up her studio.
Spowers trained at the Melbourne National Gallery Art School (1911-17) and gained a reputation for black and white children’s story illustrations. She held her first solo exhibition at the Decoration Galleries in Melbourne (1920), and one year later, after travels to Paris, she held a joint exhibition with fellow Australian artist Mary Reynolds at the Macrae Gallery, London, where she was visiting.
In the mid 1920’s Spowers continued with her illustrations for children’s fairy-tales, but also, largely influenced by Japanese woodcut art, she began to explore the art of the linocut. So when in 1928 Eveline Syme showed Spowers Claude Flight’s Lino-cut book she was to some degree already conversant with the methods. But she wanted to learn more, and within a few months she had enrolled under Flight at the Grosvenor School of Art, London.
Both friends, Eveline Syme and Ethel Spowers would depart from Australia for London and the Grosvenor School: Syme in 1929, but Spowers attended classes from 1928-1929, and then, on a return visit to the School in 1931, she briefly studied under Iain MacNab. The Grosvenor School, particularly under Flight’s tuition, was hugely influential for Spowers. Her art work, echoing the tales she illustrated, had always had a clear narrative to tell but now she incorporated the rhythmical expression and colour harmonies which Flight taught his students. In content she stayed true to her cherished interests – most often the depiction of children and their activities; but now the children are depicted in rich colours (Swings 1932) and she uses bold rhythmical shapes which give her best work structure as well as strong narrative content (Wet Afternoon 1929-30).
On her return to Australia – along with Syme who had also returned – Spowers helped set up the Contemporary Art Group (1932). The Group, with Spowers very much at the forefront, defended the modernist movement against its more conservative detractors. In the Australasian (26 April, 1930) she called on ‘all lovers of art to be tolerant to new ideas, and not to condemn without understanding’ (2). She also championed the work of Flight, both through the dissemination of his ideas, but also by acting as his agent and taking orders for buyers interested in purchasing his, or his London-based students’, linocuts.
Ethel Spowers stopped practicing art in the late 1930’s after falling ill with cancer. She died on 5th May 1947. A memorial exhibition of her work was held at George’s Gallery, Melbourne, one year after her death.
1) E. W. Syme, ‘Claude Flight and His Teaching’, The Recorder, No. 3 (September 1929). Also quoted in Stephen Coppel: Linocuts of theMachine Age (Scholar 1995) p. 65
2) Also quoted in Stephen Coppel’s entry: Australian National Dictionary of Biography. Public collections holding works by Leon Underwood include: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; British Museum, London; V & A, London.
Public Collections holding work by Ethel Spowers include:
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; British Museum, London; V & A, London.