The effervescent linocuts of Sybil Andrews and Cyril Power from the interwar years transformed the Futurist fascination with speed, rendering common pleasures in a way that would not be seen again until Pop Art.
Jenny Uglow has brilliantly illuminated just this sort of Englishness in biographies of Edward Lear, Thomas Bewick, and William Hogarth—masters of the exquisite watercolor, the miniature, and things framing human folly on a small scale, in that order. Her new book,Sybil and Cyril: Cutting Through Time, moves into the twentieth century, when Picasso reigned as the master of pictorial disruption in France and Dada was sowing wild oats all over the Continent.
Sybil Andrews and Cyril Power are known (to those who know them at all) for buoyant and brisk pictures of Tube trains, sporting events, and kaleidoscopic crowds, all made using a humble medium—the linoleum cut—borrowed from children’s classrooms. Sybil and Cyril arrives subsequent to the Metropolitan Museum’s superb recent exhibition “Modern Times: British Prints, 1913–1939,” in which Andrews and Power took a star turn as part of the Grosvenor School of linocut.
Everything in these prints is in motion: carnival rides swing elliptically into the air, horses unfurl their legs like ribbons, cars swell and surge. In Power’s Lifts (1930), cherry-red elevator cars hurtle into the air, unconstrained by pulleys or pistons. In Andrews’s Speedway (1934), motorcycles bear down ferociously. In Lill Tschudi’s Tour de Suisse (1935), bicyclists bank on a careening road. The prints seem lit from within. In her catalog essay, the conservator Rachel Mustalish dismantles The Eight (1930)—Power’s picture of rowers bent in unison like parts of a pinnate leaf—to show how this effect was accomplished. Gillian Forrester and the show’s curator, Jennifer Farrell, provide background about the political and economic crises amid which the artists were working, but such troubles are all but invisible in the prints themselves. They effervesce with common pleasures in a way that would not be seen again until Pop Art.
The Eight, along with Bringing in the Boat (1933), Andrews’s image of oarsmen lifting their scull from the water, was the prompt for Uglow’s book: “I have known them all my life—in my father’s study, then my mother’s hall, blasted by sunshine, and finally on the stairs in my own home.” Her father had rowed at Oxford, and the prints were a wedding gift: “I walked past them without a thought for years, hardly even reading the signatures.” She was not alone. After a flurry of popularity in the Thirties, when linocut exhibitions crisscrossed the globe, the prints all but disappeared from public view. In the light of coming war and its aftermath, they came to seem cute but insubstantial, the kinds of things, a friend once told me, you hang in the kitchen.
How this art came to be, and how it came to be forgotten, is one part of the story Uglow tells. The other part concerns a relationship that stubbornly refuses discovery. Andrews and Power met in 1920, when she was a twenty-two-year-old schoolteacher with artistic aspirations and he was pushing fifty, a not overly successful architect who had written the three-volume History of English Medieval Architecture, illustrated with his own assiduous drawings. After working through the war at an airfield in Kent, he had rejoined his wife and four children in her hometown of Bury St. Edmunds.
Andrews had also grown up in Bury (the two families were loosely related) and had returned there from Bristol, where she had worked as a welder, building planes for the military. She was not a femme fatale (“all very plain,” a woman who knew the family described them, “and all eccentric”), but Uglow paints her as a force of nature, with “her floppy fringe and flashing blue-green eyes, her rapid walk and her fierce immersion in her art.” She and Power bonded over plein air sketching of local views. His infatuation, Uglow suggests, was “a post-war crisis as much as a mid-life crisis,” a sudden need to live life to the fullest in a precarious universe. In any case, when she moved to London to enroll in art school, he followed.
For the next twenty years Andrews and Power would spend most of their time together, though he kept separate rooms. Her family seems to have accepted the situation with no fuss, and his to endure it with almost baffling equanimity. Neither Power nor Andrews seems to have spared his wife and children much thought, and Uglow notes his cavalier willingness to move them around “like chess pieces.” For financial reasons his son Toby had had to forgo Cambridge when his father left; then, having settled into an amenable situation in a bank, he found himself suddenly transferred—“a result of a request from my father to the bank”—and told to rent a house and look after his mother, sister, and two brothers. While Toby noted his father’s “failure to be an adequate Provider, and his somewhat ‘Gauguinesque’ behaviour,” neither he nor his mother forced a permanent rupture.
Friends treated Andrews and Power as a couple, but the exact terms of that coupledom remain elusive, since their mutual correspondence has not survived. Power was a convert to Catholicism, which would have complicated any idea of divorce—but were they even that kind of couple? Andrews’s father had decamped permanently to Canada when she was a child, so perhaps Power—twenty-six years older, knowledgeable, and encouraging—filled a father-shaped void. In the absence of any intimate account of their emotional, never mind physical, interaction, it’s all guesswork. And Uglow is too principled a biographer to force an interpretation.
Instead she traces the surface activity of their lives through appointment diaries and scrapbooks: there was theater (lots of Shakespeare), music, lectures, exhibitions, and a surprising amount of jam making. (“Very hot. 12 lbs Morello [sour cherries]…prints of Tennis,” reads a typical diary entry from July 1933.) Power picked up occasional architectural work and checked in on his family every couple of months. In the meantime he and Andrews drew together, painted together, “printed each other’s work, used each other’s sketchbooks.” On the beautifully designed cover of the UK edition of Sybil and Cyril, leaping horses from one of her prints meld seamlessly with an escalator from one of his.
To earn money, they began making etchings in the precise yet atmospheric manner popularized by Whistler in the 1850s and still a marketable staple of middle-class interiors in the 1920s. Traveling in Britain and sometimes abroad, they sought out ancient buildings and modern wharfs or bridges that would render rewarding plays of smudgy shadow and overexposed whites.
But their interest in art was eclectic: they admired Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Han Dynasty reliefs; they bought African fabrics and a carved door from Nigeria, and sketched “stitching techniques and patterns from Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia.” The jejune manifesto they wrote in 1924 lauds “the titanic, savage, satanic strength” of industry, but also “the Eternal Spiritual Reality behind material things that no camera can give.” While their plea for art as a spiritual and reforming force echoes Ruskin, their assertion that “the Primitive is always Modern and Eternal” was entirely of its moment.
When their friend Iain MacNab founded the Grosvenor School of Modern Art with anti-academic ideas about self-discovery and expression, Andrews came on board as school secretary and Power agreed to teach architectural history. Together they signed up for the weekly class in linoleum block printing taught by Claude Flight.
Flight was something of a legend, a former engineer and beekeeper who had turned to art and spent his summers in a cave. (“A very attractive cave apparently,” wrote the artist Dorrit Black, “but still a cave.”) He had sympathized with Futurism’s industrial vigor, though not its bellicosity. Artists should, he felt, respond to the “hustle” and “restlessness” of modern life, but he evoked these qualities in compositions that were fluid and resolved rather than jangly and anxious. The sinuous line of his double-decker buses in Speed (1922) is closer to Art Nouveau than Vorticism.
For Flight, linoleum was not just a medium but a mission. Inexpensive and industrial, it had the potential to bring artists “nearer to the spirit of their age” and to democratize the making of art. (For gouging the surface, he recommended an umbrella rib.) Producing prints that were modest in size (for the average home) and cost (for the average buyer), lino would, he believed, finally bring modern art to the masses. He was wrong about the economics—the method was too time-intensive to be both affordable for workers and remunerative for artists. He was right, however, that linoleum’s material properties could galvanize visual invention.
In the vast interior of Queen’s Hall (later destroyed in the Blitz) Andrews recalled “the whole place crammed with people—tremendous swirling patterns, with rows of lights, a huge storey swirling up to the next.” It was an inspiration and also a frustration: “I’d been trying to get it in paint and couldn’t. And then along came linocuts.” The process had no room for incidental particularity, so she stripped the building of its painted cherubs, gilt ornament, and fountain of goldfish. InConcert Hall (1929), the big balconies turn like cogs looming over an orderly swarm of silhouetted heads—the thrill of the crowd and the hush of anticipation hang suspended in blue shadow and yellow light.
For Power also, Uglow writes, Flight’s teaching brought out “technical daring that one would never have expected from his watercolours a few years before.” Nor indeed from either artist’s work in other media, earlier or later: their drypoints continued to recall the nineteenth century; the oil paintings and monotypes reproduced in Uglow’s book are competent but unremarkable.
Shown in the “First Exhibition of British Lino-cuts” at the Redfern Gallery in London, Straphangers (1929), Andrews’s rondel of geometric heads and hats, was hailed as “the very soul of modern London.” Of Power’s Tube Staircase (1929), in which the daunting spiral at the Russell Square station curls in on itself like a living thing, the Sunday Times wrote, “It is extremely decorative, and at the same time an illuminating and intimate study of the beauty to be found in an aspect of hyper-modernity.”
“Decorative” was not yet a term of condescension, not yet the foil of highbrow modernism. In Britain, William Morris’s ideal of integrating art and everyday life still held sway: Bloomsbury artists had made lyrical, painterly housewares at the Omega Workshops, while Vorticists at the Rebel Art Centre did so in an edgier, more aggressive mode. Flight and Edith Lawrence ran a design business that applied their art to “everything from murals to pyjamas,” Uglow notes. The first gallery to show Picasso and Matisse in London was located in Heal’s furniture store. Uglow cites a 1926 article in Colour magazine casting the distinction between fine and applied art as mollycoddling: “This metaphysical business can be overdone. Art is made of sterner stuff, of more substantial matter. It can and does exist in lower regions, where common mortals dwell and earn their living.”
Under the visionary direction of Frank Pick, the Tube had become the nation’s most accessible venue for new art: Edward McKnight Kauffer produced posters of such remarkable typographic and pictorial invention as to beggar the distinction between “art” and “design.” Pick commissioned Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy, as well as the composite persona of “Andrew Power” (though Andrews claimed that Power’s contribution was limited to securing the commissions).
Between-the-wars has become a popular trope of film and television—cloche hats and people huddled before enormous radios—but Uglow gives us something else: thinking people navigating a world that was not just different from our own but also different from the one that nostalgia had imposed on them. Sybil and Cyril may have been adventurous and “modern,” but they spent as much time looking backward as looking forward.
The same year their pictures were hailed as “the very soul of modern London,” Andrews acquired her mother’s fifteenth-century cottage in the medieval village of Woolpit, near Bury. With her brother, a free spirit who spent much of his time living in a caravan, they dug into local legends and painted pseudo-medieval murals on the walls. She turned to rural subjects for her linocuts, but if the people still look like they were constructed from tangrams, all hard edges and sharp angles, they are busy with tasks that can be seen in Brueghel—plowing with horses, carrying baskets to market. With its broken color softening the furrowed earth and feathery trees, Fall of the Leaf (1934) suggests a mash-up of the Romantic visionary Samuel Palmer and the Futurist Giacomo Balla.
Uglow devotes a chapter to Andrews and Power’s engagement with early music. They purchased recorders and a viola da gamba; their friends brought lutes and they played together at parties. Early music could be seen as an extension of modernist impulses—the bombast of full orchestras suddenly feeling like the bombazine of Victorian clothing, insufferable in its weight. The clarity of parts and instruments seemed, paradoxically, “the sound of their own age,” Uglow writes, and “the paring down and preoccupation with pattern seemed akin to their own craft.” But early music also served atavistic and nativist impulses, and “gained a nostalgic nationalist tone, a distinct form of ‘Englishness.’”
Power sought out ancient spiritual wisdom, copying “Hindu designs of Shiva, ideographs of Peruvian symbolism, the stepped, zig-zag symbol of fecundity from Central Asia and figures from Jain rock statues.” His Matriarchy (1931) is an Escher-like tessellation of interlocking female figures borrowed from any number of cultures. And then there was Christianity. Andrews was drawn to Christian Science and its belief in the material world as an illusion overlaying spiritual reality; Power continued to find meaning and purpose in Catholicism. In their exhibitions, “a print of the Crucifixion might appear next to one of show-jumping or a Tube station or umbrellas in a gale.”
In 1937 Andrews sold her cottage in Woolpit and bought one in the New Forest, near Southampton, where there was room to expand. (Claimed as a royal hunting ground by William the Conqueror, the New Forest included villages and pasture as well as woodland.) The popularity of linocuts was fading as a new war loomed. Power had taken a full-time architectural job with the London County Council but came to the cottage on weekends, building an extension to the house and tending the garden. When the war started in earnest, Andrews again chose to do her part, training as a boat builder and going to work making torpedo boats. Uglow tells us that the name of Walter Morgan, a widowed carpenter four years her senior, first appears in her diary in August 1943. By November they were married: “In the week after her wedding she took two days off, sorting out all Power’s things. Then she sent them off, as fast as she could.”
Perhaps she was fed up. In the end, Power comes across as a rather hapless figure, in thrall to his Mr. Toad–like enthusiasms but deficient in mettle. In her old age and perhaps in an ungenerous mood, Andrews wrote, “In some way I gave him a sense of purpose & security which he lacked,” adding, “He followed me, not vice versa.”
Now seventy, he returned to his wife, who apparently took him back “without a murmur.” He painted flowers, restored churches damaged in the war, and settled into grandparenthood, but made no more prints. He and Andrews stayed in touch, and she continued contact with his children and grandchildren after his death in 1951. By that time she and her husband had immigrated to Canada and were living in a small town on Vancouver Island, where she gave art classes in her studio and continued to make linocuts. Her style did not change much but she added new subjects—forests, First Nations dancers, the loggers in her local café, “so beautifully Canada,” she wrote, “in all those plaid shirts.” She had brought her old linoleum blocks from England. (The editions were usually limited to fifty or sixty impressions each, but the impressions were often only printed as need arose—a sale or an exhibition.) She was able to print more, but no one showed much interest.
Why were these works so ignored? Jennifer Farrell mentions the medium’s links to craft and decoration and its association with children’s art, and the fact that so many of the artists were women certainly did not help. Additionally, small works on paper are easy to overlook, sleeping unseen in drawers and boxes. But it is also true that Grosvenor School prints were a mismatch with the direction art took, whether the freighted emotion and ambition of Abstract Expressionism or the quieter desperation of postwar British art (a time, as the artist Joe Tilson put it, of “tiny, brown, sad paintings”). Andrews and Power had no language to approach the Holocaust or the prospect of nuclear Armageddon.
Though not everything in their work is cheery, their pictures never reach into real darkness. Power’s Escalator (1929), with its lone traveler facing off against an esophageal ascending stair, pulses with film-noir foreboding, but it is a curiously bright and colorful noir. And while the biplanes in Nevinson’s desolate 1918 etching That Cursèd Wood hover like pestilential flies above dead trees and cratered earth, those in Power’s Air Raid (1935) swoop and roll. They may be falling to their demise, but the arabesque of curved wings and smoke trails would not be out of place on a children’s duvet cover. Weirdest of all are the religious prints—in Andrews’s Golgotha (1931) the crosses erupt like fireworks. Power’s 1931 depiction of the murder of Thomas à Becket is a jewellike pleasure to behold, a romp with swinging swords and a gleaming tonsure that holds the center.
The very things that make their linocuts so captivating—the transformation of specificity to pattern, the brilliant color, the elliptical motion splayed across the flat surface—also limited their range. They could do wonders with people in the aggregate, the coordinated movements of teams and crowds, but intimacy escaped them. “The greater the abstract convention the greater is the artistic creation!” they pronounced in their 1924 manifesto, but to feel the pain of martyrdom one needs to perceive a real, not abstracted, body.
Then, in the Seventies, eyes began to change. Pop Art had made bright color and hard edges acceptable once again, the feminist critique had chipped away at the prejudice against pattern (and women themselves), and the “print renaissance” made works on paper exciting. In London, the gallerist Michael Parkin took an interest in the Grosvenor School, and he sought out Andrews in Canada. A few years later, Gordon Samuel found prints by Power and Flight in storage drawers at the Redfern Gallery and began organizing exhibitions. In New York, Mary Ryan showed Andrews and Lill Tschudi in her new gallery. The British Museum’s 1990 exhibition “Avant-Garde British Printmaking, 1914–1960” established the Grosvenor School as a distinct group, and Stephen Coppel’s book Linocuts of the Machine Age: Claude Flight and the Grosvenor School (1995) gave readers a definitive reference.
Andrews, who died in 1992, lived long enough to enjoy this rediscovery, though not all the attention was welcome. In 1986 she wrote Parkin, “It has come to my knowledge that there is a suggestion going round that Power and I were lovers. Would you please deny that absolutely and utterly.” To Samuel she insisted, “Power was a good friend but he had no studio of his own & never could afford one so he worked in my studio. The Truth is as simple as that.”
Truth, Uglow points out, “is rarely so simple,” but she does not argue the point. “Who can deny her the right to possess the facts of her own life? There are many kinds of couples. If this story is, in the end, a love story, it may not be the kind we expect.”
In his lectures on “the Englishness of English art,” Pevsner considered creations ranging from Celtic metalwork to Salisbury Cathedral and William Blake, and concluded that “the most significant single formal quality in English art” was its lack of interest in the human body. The genius of English gothic lay in its flat, “unfleshly” repetition, in contrast to the “swelling rotundity” of the French. And his description of English medieval painting might have been written about Power’s and Andrews’s linocuts: “a watchful interest in the life of line…—zigzag at first, undulating later; violent at first, tender later—but always line, not body.”
Uglow’s book follows suit: she gives us the patterns of daily life, intricate and unexpected, along with occasional forceful ruptures, but without the “swelling rotundity” of corporeal existence. If it is a romance, it is a romance without bodies—neither the sweaty mess of bodies in contact nor the yearning of bodies kept apart. In her introduction Uglow explains:
All the letters that they wrote to each other over the years have disappeared, burnt, destroyed, lost. I have a vision of smoke rising from braziers in back gardens, scorched pages fluttering and curling, handwriting vanishing into air.
It is a very Sybil-and-Cyril image—the energy, the curvature, the élan—but with a critical addition: loss.
Andrews and Power were, in Pevsner’s terms, perfectly English. They were not Michelangelo or Titian. The framework of their art could not stretch to encompass the full breadth of human experience. But step for a moment into Andrews’s magical Hyde Park (1931), where fractals of people and clothing and greenery are suspended in sunshine; or hang above Power’s boat, the oars in perfect synchronicity, even without a coxswain (whose presence would have spoiled the symmetry).
It is enough.