Sybil Andrews and the art of linocut

January 19th, 2018

The linocut worldwide
The Tamai Foundation’s San Art project is the first serious exploration of the linocut as an art form. The project has raised new questions, such as the meaning of this art form, which first emerged around 1900 and has since spread worldwide.
Further research soon brings us to Claude Flight (1881-1955): a passionate artist, teacher and advocate of the linocut as an art form in its own right. He taught at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London, and rapidly assembled an international group of students who spent some five years specialising in the linocut technique. One of them was Sybil Andrews.

There are several reasons why it is worth looking specifically at Andrews. First, there is uncertainty about her contribution to the successful partnership with Cyril Power – together they produced splendid work and received numerous assignments. Another reason why Sybil’s life and work at Campbell River in Canada calls for more attention is that she made many more linocuts and built up a flourishing linocut workshop while she was there.

A short film on her work is followed by some introductory words on the invention of linoleum, the basic material used in linocuts. The brief biography below is the framework for Andrews’ work and study at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art and her new life in Canada after the Second World War.
The introductory film is recommended by the Sybil Andrews Heritage Society.

Linoleum: a Chiswick invention
Linoleum is generally assumed to have been invented by the British businessman Frederick Walton, who patented it in 1863. This new type of flooring was made entirely from natural products. Local historical research by Ralph Parsons (1995) indicates where it was actually invented – in Chiswick, not (as previously thought) Staines. Parsons’ research also makes clear that Watson was not an ‘isolated’ inventor, but an enterprising innovator who quickly managed to get the new product patented and was constantly attracting new partners to his international projects.

The material was manufactured industrially in large quantities, and used in many different ways. There were soon linoleum factories in the USA and continental Europe. Uses of linoleum were displayed at world fairs and in advertisements for factories and offices, home design, and even the healing powers of the material in a hospital. Artists were involved in all both designers and users – for linoleum proved a highly suitable substitute for the woodcut. The material was cheaper, and easier to work with. It rapidly conquered the world, and was broadly applied in many sectors.

Sybil’s career in brief
There are two useful sources that provide extensive details of her career. The Sybil Andrews Heritage Society in Canada, which has brought together the material in the Glenbow Museum, provides ample information, and the 2015 publication by the Osborne Samuel Gallery with an article by Dr. Hana Leaper contains well-substantiated art-historical insights. Sybil’s career is described in brief below.

She was born in the English town of Bury St Edmunds in 1898, and grew up above her grandfather’s ironmongery. She loved drawing, for which she displayed a great talent, and was eager to share this with those around her. She longed to attend art school, but unfortunately her family could not afford it, and at an early age she went to work as an aircraft welder at the Bristol Welding Company. After earning enough to pay the tuition fee, she was admitted to the Heatherley School of Fine Art.

A few years earlier she had met the architect and artist Cyril Power (1872-1951) in Bury St Edmunds. Andrews and Power inspired one another, and developed a creative bond that was to last many years. In 1922 Sybil and Cyril moved to London.

From 1925 to 1928 Sybil attended the Grosvenor School of Modern Art. She was a working student, and paid for her art studies out of her wages. As the secretary she played an important part in the management of the school.

After leaving the school around 1930, she spent almost ten years in a workshop she shared with Power. They worked together successfully, receiving numerous assignments. Their posters for the London Underground are some of the finest in the history of the British linocut.

During the Second World War she stopped making linocuts, and worked at a shipyard. There she met Walter Morgan, and they married in 1942. In 1947 the couple emigrated to Campbell River in British Columbia. They became Canadian citizens.
Sybil resumed her linocut work, and in her new homeland she built up a flourishing workshop for people who enjoyed making linocuts.

Sybil’s linocuts and the Grosvenor School of Modern Art (1925-1940)
Claude Flight was undoubtedly Andrews’ main artistic inspiration and teacher. He was one of the artists and intellectuals who, after the horrors of the First World War, formed a broad movement together with more or less radical groups who were trying to find their way in modern society, and wanted to save the world from another catastrophic war.

This was a worldwide movement of artists and intellectuals, some of whom pursued and advocated democratisation and emancipation of the common people. During this period, study came to be seen as a communal activity that contributed to their resilience and emancipation.

The linocut therefore came as a revelation to Flight when the celebrated Viennese art teacher Professor Franz Čižek was in London and showed him the full potential of the technique – a medium for the common people that could be used for many artistic purposes, and in Flight’s view an art form in its own right, and a good substitute for the woodcut, which was much harder to process and print.
During this period Sybil learned the art of the linocut from Flight. With Cyril Power and others she formed an influential group in the modern art world. The exhibition at the Redfern Gallery in 1929 marked the end of the group at the Grosvenor school, and the emergence of the linocut as a separate art form, with its own market, in modern society.

Andrews-Power: a creative duo
In early 1930 Sybil and Cyril moved into their shared workshop at 2 Brook Green, in Hammersmith in west London. They worked together under the name ‘Andrews-Power’, and received a major assignment: a series of posters for the London Underground. The result is generally considered magnificent, and I would be the first to agree. Because Andrews and Power worked under a single name, there is much controversy about whose contribution was greatest. To me this only matters because it can provide a clearer picture of Andrews’ overall work – the main question being the relationship between her craft and her creativity.

Dr. Hana Leaper provided more clarity when, on the basis of thorough research, she concluded that it was Power that had landed the assignments, but that Andrews, with her craft and technical skills, was soon the one that produced the linocuts. I tend to agree with Leaper; but the jury is still out on this.

The 1924 Andrews-Power manifesto
By chance I came across an old note on a 1924 manifesto by Andrews and Power. I know the manifesto exists, but I can’t find it. It isn’t listed among the manifestos from this period, and its status is given as unpublished. Manifestos from this period usually presented a particular view of art, artists and their role in society, and this particularly fascinates me.
My housemate helped me out when he found the text in an edition of the Daily Echo from 2014. Much to my amazement I read:

‘Around 1924 – perhaps encouraged by the Vorticist movement’s earlier Blast! Declaration –Andrews and Power produced a manifesto which rejected Victorian painting and the Impressionists in favour of a radical modern style which reflected the contemporary world.’ (fragment)

This says something about how modern artists pursued their social struggle in their art.

Campbell River
In 1947 Sybil and Walter arrived in Canada. They had emigrated because Sybil felt that the rigid class system in impoverished postwar Britain provided few openings. A cottage on the ocean at Campbell River on Vancouver Island gave them the beauty, scenery, and peace and quiet they were looking for.

The cottage was renovated, with a workshop for Sybil and a room for meetings and art lessons. Walter started building boats and making wood carvings. The two were happy there for the rest of their long lives. Sybil had taken unfinished prints with her to Canada, and made new ones – from 1960 onwards in her own workshop, where she taught in the afternoons and evenings. In 1985 her Artist’s Kitchen was published in London by R. K. Hudson. The book, which described Sybil’s approach and ideas about art and her lessons, is popular with connoisseurs and aficionados.

In the video Sybil Andrews: the art of linocut Sybil looked back at her life and work, and spoke of the value of looking at and drawing things, her life in Britain, her teacher Claude Flight, and her eye for nature and working people. She made this visible in her linocuts, and perceptible in an occasional poem such as Black rain.

Black rain
This wilderness
Of black green trees
Turbulent tides
Rotting timber
Scrub and uncouth men
Toil and rain

Black grey rock where the eagle watches
Octopus haunted
Black carrion birds on the black grey shore
Long ropes of olive, black kelp

And the stench of tide-piled rotting weed
And the sick wet smell of water and wet things
And rain
Helpless, relentless rain
The ravens croak and the sea mew calling

Links for reading and to enjoy art

Translation Kevin Cook