Three Australian artists discovered a book about linocuts which changed their lives. They took off for England in search of the author. Matthew Sturgis tells their story
Australia, during the early decades of the 20th century, could feel a long way away. A long way away, that is, from the cultural centres of Britain and Continental Europe. As one English artist commiserated to a Sydney-based confrère, "I know how difficult it must be for you... out of touch with everything in the art line and without sympathetic surroundings and in a country that does not help towards making pictures."
While this lament rather ignores the manifold splendours – and artistic possibilities – of the Australian landscape (as revealed recently at the Royal Academy's Australia show) – it does contain a strand of truth. Certainly, even in the largest cities, Australian artistic life during the 1920s could sometimes seem parochial, cut off from the mainstream of experiment occurring on the other side of the world. In Melbourne, one oasis of cosmopolitan culture was provided by the Depot Bookshop run by the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria. And it was there, amid the imported publications and periodicals, that a 29-year-old Australian painter called Eveline Syme made an interesting discovery.
Syme was the daughter of a wealthy Melbourne newspaper proprietor. Tall, elegant but reserved, she had attended university in England, reading classics at Newnham College, Cambridge; but it was painting – and printmaking – that increasingly came to command her attention. She spent time at several Parisian ateliers during visits to Europe in the early 20s, and had begun to exhibit watercolours and woodcuts at various Melbourne galleries.
At the Depot Bookshop in 1928 she picked up a small booklet called Lino-Cuts, published in England by the Bodley Head, and written by Claude Flight. She was entranced by the illustrations (created by the author) – boldly coloured, radically stylised geometric images of contemporary metropolitan life: double-decker buses speeding down a city street, a traffic policeman reduced to a few lines amid a forest of squares and angles, a fairground swing-boat rendered as a vortex of broad stripes.
"Here," Syme later recalled, "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."
The images exhibited an unabashed delight in the pace and dynamism of modern life that owed something to the experiments of Marinetti and the Italian Futurists. And they also showed a commanding sense of the rich potential of linoleum as a medium. Much easier to work than wood, it offered far greater fluency of expression.
Eager to communicate her discovery, Syme showed the book to her friend, fellow artist (and another daughter of a Melbourne newspaper-publishing dynasty), Ethel Spowers. Spowers had trained at the National Gallery Art School in Melbourne, and had achieved an early reputation for her charming children's book illustrations. From the mid-1920s she had also begun to experiment with printmaking, working both with woodblocks and lino. She, too, was thrilled by the modernistic images in Flight's book.
Claude Flight, they learnt, taught at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London. The school was not completely unknown to them: they had seen its courses advertised in The Studio, the leading British art-periodical (also available at the Depot Bookshop). Together they resolved to travel to England and enrol. Spowers arrived in late 1928, Syme a few months later, in 1929.
They were intrigued to learn that they had been preceded at the school by another Australian artist – Dorrit Black. She had studied there during 1927 before going on to Paris to reinforce her understanding of the modern movement by working at the Cubist-influenced ateliers of André Lhote and Albert Gleizes.
The Grosvenor School, in Warwick Square, had a growing reputation. Flight was a charismatic teacher: lucid, practical and idealistic. And each of his three Australian pupils became, in her particular way, inspired by his vision.
Syme gave a vivid account of Flight's distinctive approach. "[He] possesses that readiness to enter into the student's point of view and help him develop his own individual line which is the mark of all good teachers. Sometimes in his classes it is hard to remember that he is teaching, so complete is the camaraderie between him and his students. He treats them as fellow-artists rather than pupils, discusses with them and suggests to them, never dictates or enforces. At the same time he is so full of enthusiasm for his subject, and his ideas are so clear and reasoned that it is impossible for his students not to be influenced by them."
They mastered the technique of making coloured linocuts from separate 'blocks' – one for each colour used – and adopted his ideas for using both printing ink and oil paint to achieve their colour effects. They took on board his enthusiasm for the 'democratic' virtue of linocuts as a cheap commodity in an overpriced art market.
But perhaps what appealed most to all three Australian artists was Flight's ability to transform an everyday subject into a dynamic and distinctly modern motif. Syme defined 'the cardinal article' of his artistic creed as 'Abstract Pattern based on Form.' She explained, "Whatever subject he chooses – a couple of London buses, or a policeman holding up the traffic – he builds into a geometrical pattern of opposing rhythms, all the main lines following the lines of the circles and triangles which are, as it were, the anatomy of the rectangle which he is filling. The original subject is not always immediately recognisable when finished, but always it makes a delightfully balanced and agreeable pattern, a harmonious colour scheme, and a charming piece of decoration."
It was this sense of the underlying dynamic geometry of the visual world that they took with them when they returned to Australia, and evolved in their different ways. Black imbued her work with an arresting Art Deco angularity. Spowers introduced a playful formalism and vitality into her images of childhood. Syme added a new sense of rigorous construction to her local landscapes and townscapes.
Their shared experiences at Warwick Square gave them a common sense of purpose. Flight effected an introduction between Black and the two Melbourne artists. All three of them were well represented in the Exhibition of Linocuts that Spowers put on at the Everyman Lending Library in Melbourne in 1930. They all found an outlet at the Modern Art Centre established in Sydney by Black in 1931. And they were all promoted in the pages of the avant-garde periodical, Manuscripts.
They reinforced their position by introducing the Australian audience to the work of Flight and his other pupils. Throughout the Thirties influential touring exhibitions, arranged in conjunction with the Redfern Gallery, came out from England to promote the linocuts of the Grosvenor School.
Spowers also used her influence to make sure that Flight's linocuts were regularly hung in the annual exhibitions of the Arts and Craft Society, and acted as his unofficial Australian agent. (By the same token Flight regularly included the work of his Australian protégés in the mixed shows that he put together for museums and galleries across Britain and beyond.)
The initial reception given to these Grosvenor School linocuts in conservative Australia was slightly wary. But this very soon gave way to real appreciation, with critics responding to the works' "vitality and creative force", and praising the "charmingly cool harmony of colour" that could be achieved. As in Britain, the public eagerly bought the modestly priced prints, and so – in time – did the public galleries.
This period of popularity, however, did not outlast the decade. By the end of the Thirties, with war looming, the bright, dynamic Deco-tinged optimism shown in most of the Grosvenor School prints seemed out of place. Many of the artists moved on to different modes of expression; Spowers, diagnosed with cancer, stopped working altogether.
The distinctive artistic vision of Claude Flight and his Grosvenor School pupils passed into a long eclipse. Its triumphant rediscovery has been one of the remarkable facts of recent years. The work's brightness, its dynamism – even its 'Deco-tinged optimism' – now has a compelling allure. It reminds us, perhaps, of a time when the future was bright, and even dares us to believe that it still could be.
The awardwinning biographer Matthew Sturgis is currently writing a life of Oscar Wilde.