Sybil Andrews: A Thoroughly Modern Printmaker

Sybil Andrews: A Thoroughly Modern Printmaker

Sybil Andrews is a key figure in the history of British Modernism, most revered for her dynamic linocut prints, which helped to define the medium. Her work demonstrated many of the core principles of Modernist design. The use of simplified forms, flat colour and geometric shapes was pared with depictions of movement, often in rural or sporting scenes: Andrew’s techniques and subjects were highly fitting of the modern age. 

This exhibition and essay offers a contribution to readdressing a deficit of attention. Despite Andrews’ career spanning nearly 70 years and having exhibited widely in the UK and internationally, it was not until the 1970s and 80s that her innovative work and that of her contemporaries at Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London, gained the renewed critical interest they deserved. 

‘Mind the Gap’ presents a focussed selection of linocuts designed by Sybil Andrews and were commissioned by London Transport. These works exemplify the artists pioneering style and represent prolific periods both in Andrew’s career, as well as the commissioning of female artists by London Transport through their newly inaugurated public art programme. 

Andrew’s introduction to art came early in her life. She was born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk on 19 April 1898 and recalled the prominence of art in her early years. In ‘Something to Splash About’, a book produced to accompany the exhibition of the same title displayed at Moyse's Hall Museum in 1991. 

Like many of her contemporaries, Andrews was initially unable to attend art school after finishing secondary school due to financial constraints but found inspiration through alternative means. During the First World War she moved to Bristol where she undertook an apprenticeship in welding. The precedents of this hands-on, practical work, no doubt played out in her commitment to the linocut and the directness of its process. 

During her early career, Andrew’s produced a large collection of etching and watercolours, often studies of her home town such as well-known watercolour ‘Loomes Lane’, She continued to profile the region in her work, returning to agricultural scenes reminiscent of East Anglia, through linocuts produced between1929 to 1938.

Reflecting back on her earlier period of production, Andrews noted that her artistic endeavours were increasingly characterised by ‘the personal suppression of the non-essential’. There is little doubt that in the modest print medium of the linocut, Andrews found her distinct artistic voice and stamped her authority on Modernism. Requiring only simple tools and materials such as umbrella ribs and spoons, the linocut afforded artists such as Andrews, a new way of conveying contemporary life with an economy of means. Its ease of execution afforded by linoleum’s softness suited Andrew’s interest in shape, pattern and rhythm over detail and allowed her to forefront them in the development of her work. 

After the First World War, the context of making art shifted as Britain saw new political and social freedoms. The Universal Suffrage Act of 1918, growth of progressive art schools such as St Martin were important factors in the increased visibility of female artists.  Andrew’s formal study took place within this more open and diverse ecology, beginning at Heatherley's School of Fine Art, one of London’s oldest independent art colleges. She was taught by John Hassall, who has since been hailed as being the ‘king of poster design’. The most profound shift took place in the mid to late 1920s when she helped establish and became the first secretary of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art. A lack of entrance requirements combined with rolling basis form of entry, created new opportunities for women juggling demands of other work or children. Here she was introduced to tutor Claude Flight, which was to radically inform the work that she would produce prolifically across the 1930’s.

Flight firmly championed the linocut, believing it to have the capacities to capture the dynamism of the machine age and advocated for modern art, exposing his students to elements of Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism. Hosted by the Redfern Gallery in London, the annual ‘Exhibition of British Linocuts’ became a firm fixture for Andrews. Organised by Flight, these exhibitions toured Britain as well as United States, China, and Australia. Andrews’ contemporaries included Swiss artist Lill Tschudi as well as Australian artists Dorrit Black, Ethel Spowers and Eveline Syme who, under the guidance of Flight, formed an avant-garde group of artists who regularly exhibited.

Outside of exhibiting opportunities, new forms of commissioning were emerging, with poster design a viable avenue for artists to explore. London Transport became a significant commissioner of contemporary art under the management of Frank Pick. Influenced by William Morris and the Arts and Craft Movement, he believed ”art has to come down off its pedestal and serve its living”. His mission was to integrate art into everyday life through a programme of ‘total design’ which included artist designed products and publicity including upholstery fabric, architecture, calligraphy and posters. The capital’s primary transport system became a powerful conduit through which contemporary art could be commissioned and encountered, the DNA of found form in Art on the Underground established in 2000. 

Central to the programme was large-scale commissioning of posters to be displayed along the train station platforms and within the carriages. During the First World War, aided by advances in colour printing, pictorial posters had become a primary marketing medium utilised by public bodies, retailers and companies including railway providers. Likewise, poster design had become a common form of contemporary artistic expression, with courses dedicated to the medium becoming more widely accessible. Artists, illustrators, painters and designers produced works for commissioners, and offered many artists, both emerging and established the opportunity for their work to take a different form. 

Pick was excited by young talent as he was about working with established artists such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland. Whilst a highly competitive process, the diversity of artists and styles commissioned meant the posters presented by London Transport offered a rare leveller for artists and audiences alike. Pick believed that variety would make them more noticeable and impactful. To this end, dozens of posters were produced a year in a wide spectrum of styles to appeal to a broad range of passengers including figurative, boldly patterned, abstract and collage designs. 

The posters commissioned by London Transport provided many people with their introduction to European Modernism and access to affordable art for their homes. The main functions of the posters in for were to encourage use of the tram, rail and bus networks, inform the public of new services and promote trips to landmarks and sporting events. 

The 1920s and 30s was a ‘Golden Era’ for female artists working with London Transport.  Disappointingly, this was not long lasting and after the Second World War, female designers had almost but disappeared. Currently, there are 85 known female artists who were commissioned under Frank Pick although it is likely that more existed but used male names. This was the case for Sybil Andrews whose posters were signed ‘Andrew Power’. This was an alias used by Andrews and her long-time collaborator Cyril Power whom she had met in Bury St Edmunds in 1921 and later shared a studio together in Hammersmith. What remains unclear is the reason for the composite name. It could be related to the higher rates of pay for male artists or simply a reference to their professional partnership.

In 1933 alone, the collaboration between Sybil Andrews and Cyril Power produced seven designs for London Transport. A recurring theme in Andrews work is sport, from horse racing and jumping, to rowing crews and speedway riders. One of the most celebrated sporting events and well-known designs by Andrew Power is ‘Epsom Summer Meeting’ which refers to the thorough-bred race. The races held at Epsom were focussed on speed due to the course fast, flat and without jumps. The thrill from speed and anticipation are deftly illustrated in the exaggerated curvature of the race-track. This work showcases ones of the most significant tropes of Andrews’ work, the use of a ‘centrifugal force-field’. Through employing this device, elements of the composition rotate around a central point in order to create the illusion of movement and is highlighted further by the aerial view of the race. 

Rows of open-topped buses are also highly visible and they provided a convenient vantage point for the crowds watching the spectacle, which continues today. The poster also served another purpose for London Transport. That year saw the formation of the London Passenger Transport Board occurred to run all bus, tram and Underground railway services in London.  This poster represented the benefits of the newly integrated system and the many exciting events and destinations that could now be promoted.

Sporting events provided the main focus of the designs by Andrew Power.‘ Wimbledon’ is one of two posters commissioned by London Transport to promote the annual tennis tournament in South-West London. The same year, a very different poster was commissioned, designed by E A Marty in a more conventional style. By issuing two posters in artistically contrasting in styles. London Transport demonstrate their understanding of working with artists in order to stay relevant and appeal to a broader range of passengers. 

In 1947, Sybil Andrews emigrated to Canada, settling on the Campbell River, British Columbia. In addition to making work she taught which she describes as growing ‘just as a plant or tree grows, leaf by leaf, branch by branch, and a tree takes a lifetime in its growing’. One of her most profound legacies of her work and life is a book titled ‘Artists Kitchen’. Part manual, part document, the book can be read as synopsis of key lessons for both art and life. 

The Sybil Andrews Estate in British Columbia has numerous testimonials of the impact of her teaching. The directness and fuss-free approach to her work seems to be mirrored in her teaching style which reiterated the importance of hard work, pursuing interests and instinct and perseverance. 

Her teaching, like her work, offer insights into a generation of female artists who sought to challenge stereotypes of gender professionally and personally.  Sybil Andrew’s influence far exceed the modesty and humility with which she lived her life. In both respects, Sybil Andrews was thoroughly modern. 

 

This text reflects the poster designs of Sybil Andrews which were on view as part of 'Mind the Gap', an exhibition curated by Smiths Row, hosted by Moyse's Hall Museum and funded through Heritage Lottery. 

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