Sybil Andrews

Sybil Andrews’s [1898-1992] interest in art began whilst working as an oxyacetylene airline welder in the First World War. During this time she took John Hassall’s* art correspondent course which introduced her to a number of different artistic media, and set her on the path towards a career as an artist. After the War she returned to her birthplace, Bury St. Edmunds, in Suffolk. Here she met Cyril Power who would influence her work, and with whom she would share a workshop for much of her early working life. Power and Andrews were colleagues who would later collaborate on commissions from The London Passenger Transport Board, and they would jointly sign their work with the pseudonym ‘Andrew Power’.

Wishing to pursue her interests in art Andrews enrolled at Heatherley’s School of Fine Art, London. Here she explored relief printing, particularly woodcut printing, under the tutelage of William Kermode. But it was not until she became school secretary and attended Claude Flight’s linocut classes at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art that Andrews really found her métier, and she quickly became another acolyte (see Artists Lill Tschudi / Cyril Power) of Flight’s enthusiasm for the colour linocut.

In approach, Andrews’ linocuts evidence an assimilation of the formal language as taught by Flight. Linocuts are produced by a successive pressing of separately carved linoleum blocks, each differentially coloured, onto paper; and as such they are not that different to wood or metal blocks pressed onto paper. But, whereas up until that point printmakers had often used many blocks and sought to create an effect which mimicked works in watercolour and oil painting, Flight taught that it was better to use fewer blocks (typically only three or four). He argued that in so doing, the process of creation could itself became evident, and that this transparency was important. Another innovation of Flight’s – and one which is now recognised as characteristic of the Grosvenor School prints as a whole – was the abandonment of a key block. Before Flight (and for all Japanese woodblock prints, and indeed for most European woodcut prints) a key block was almost always used. This block provided structure and a black outline for the main shapes in the print. But Flight soon found this unnecessary and obtrusive, and argued that the key block served only to interrupt and divide the colours in such a way as to detract from the overall harmoniousness of the print.

Whilst Andrews’ works evidence this assimilation of Flight’s formal language, they often depart from a depiction of the kinds of subjects – the dynamism of the modern world, its concern with speed and with technological advances – that Flight encouraged. Instead, Andrews more often sought to capture the rhythms and living movements of the human figure.

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She explored various sporting activities to this end, including football, horseback riding and motorcycle racing, as also activities associated with men’s physical work (see Football 1937; Racing 1934, and Speedway 1934 and The Winch 1930).

During the Second World War Andrews worked in a shipyard where she met her husband, and soon after (1947) the couple emigrated to the remote logging town of Campbell River on Vancouver Island, Canada. En route to her new home blocks for several of her prints partially melted in the over-hot hold of the ship. But she experienced no such misfortune to her artistic career when she arrived in Canada: there she achieved, at least at first, a large following which lasted well into the 1950’s. In the ‘60’s she fell into obscurity, but was rediscovered in the 1970’s. She died in 1992 leaving a body of work totalling almost 80 linocuts. Since then Sybil Andrews’ work has met with wide critical acclaim and ever increasing popularity. Her colour linocuts were featured extensively in the recent (2008) Fine Arts, Boston/ Metropolitan, New York British Prints From the Machine Age – Rhythms of Modern Life 1914–1939 exhibition, and her work is held in major collections around the world.

*father of Joan Hassall, the renowned printmaker.

Public Collections holding work by Sybil Andrews include:

Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; British Museum, London.

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