"Time seems to pass so quickly nowadays. Everybody is in a hurry... this speeding up of life in general is one of the psychologically important features of today. Traffic problems, transport problems, everybody is on the rush either for work or pleasure: business is hustle, the Cinema all movement." This, amazing to relate, is not a lament from last week's Daily Mail, but a description of life in 1925. It was made by the artist Claude Flight – and not as a lament either, but as a call to action.
Flight considered that a true artist of the age "cannot but be influenced by his surroundings". As a result, he envisaged a new art that celebrated the speed, movement and hustle of the modern world. And he was convinced that the medium for this artistic revolution should be the humble linocut. A group of fellow artists responded eagerly to his vision.
Flight (1881-1955) was an inspirational figure, who only became an artist in his early thirties, after stints as an engineer, librarian, farmer and beekeeper. From 1926 he taught printing – or, more specifically, linocutting – at the progressive Grosvenor School of Modern Art in Warwick Square, Pimlico. It was there that he gathered a select band of disciples, enthusing them both with his modernist vision and with the technical possibilities of linoleum. The group consisted Cyril Power and Sybil Andrews, together with a trio of Australian students – Ethel Spowers, Dorrit Black and Eveline Syme – and the young Swiss artist Lill Tschudi.
Together, as their art developed, they became a recognised force in the interwar art world: The Grosvenor School of Modern Art. They held regular exhibitions of their linocuts at the Redfern Gallery in London's West End. All their work shared a common engagement with the dynamism of modern life – whether metropolitan, sporting or rural – and a shared desire to convey that energy through a stylised exaggeration of line and form.
Although they were delighted to view themselves as pioneers, they worked, of course, within an emerging modernist tradition. Flight had met the Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti on his visit to London in 1912. (Marinetti had praised the London underground system for its speed, while lamenting the failure of British artists to celebrate it.) And a strong flavour of Marinetti's machine-age aesthetic lay behind the work of the Grosvenor School, coupled with a dash of English pre-war Vorticism. But Flight and the others brought something new to the mix: the first hints of the Art Deco spirit, as well as their own distinctive common outlook.
Linocuts, since their invention in the 1850s, had been regarded as a rather juvenile form of printmaking, even now still associated with primary school art classes. Flight, however, recognised that the medium offered huge opportunities to the imaginative artist. Lino was easy to work, and what it failed to offer in precision, it made up for in fluidity.
He revolutionised the technical approach, building up his images using three or four different blocks, each cut for a single colour. Intermediary shades were created by over printing. And he abandoned the traditional procedure of overprinting the outline of the design from a single 'key block'. As a result, Flight's images, and those of his disciples,
offered a novel freshness, brightness and freedom.
There was also a social aspect to their work. The artists of the Grosvenor School believed that their artwork should be available to ordinary people. At a time when a watercolour by a young artist might fetch anything between £5 and £20, a Grosvenor School linocut, in an edition of 50, sold for two or three guineas. As Flight enthused, this was not far off the price "paid by the average man for his daily beer or his cinema ticket". The cheapness of the print was ensured by the fact that the artists used household linoleum for their blocks, and fashioned their gouging tools from the struts of old umbrellas.
Flight estimated there would be a ready demand for such modest works: "People live in smaller rooms, and the pictures they buy must necessarily be smaller... Colour prints being necessarily small, look better in smaller rooms, and the colour print being a simple colour scheme can be chosen to suit the colour scheme of the particular room to be decorated."
His notion proved correct. The first group exhibition at the Redfern Gallery, in 1929, was a commercial and critical success. And the success was replicated, not just in subsequent London exhibitions, but also around the world with group shows in the United States, China, Australia, and Canada.
The momentum, however, did not last. Even before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, interest had begun to wane. The group had ceased to exhibit together and gone their separate ways. When Flight died, in 1955 in Wiltshire, after spending the last decade of his life as an invalid, he was a forgotten figure. The period of eclipse lasted until the 1980s. Since then, however, the extraordinary vitality and originality of the work has begun to be recognised and appreciated anew.The linocuts of the Grosvenor School offer a nostalgic but compelling vision of modernity. They still carry a sense of the excitement of movement in life. In the intervening decades, of course, our rooms have, for the most part, grown even smaller, and better suited to small colour prints. Such, however, is the renewed interest in the works of the Grosvenor artists that each linocut now costs very much more than what the "average man" spends on his "daily beer or his cinema ticket".
Matthew Sturgis's most recent book is When in Rome: 2,000 Years of Roman Sightseeing, (Frances Lincoln, 2011).
Sale: Grosvenor School Prints
New Bond Street
Tuesday 17 April at 2pm
Enquiries: Robert Kennan +44 (0) 20 7468 8212