Friday 11 October 2013

Picture post 21 - Ethel Spowers, Australian modernist 1890 - 1947

Wet afternoon, linocut, 1929

The current Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy includes a number of works by women artists active from the 1920's to the 1950's including Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith. Together with Thea Proctor, these are probably the best known Australian women artists from this period. I like the work of all three but am especially fond of the art of another, less well known contemporary of their's - Ethel Spowers. I discovered her on my first visit to Australia in 2009 when I saw some of her work in mueums in Melbourne and Sydney.

I was drawn to the movement in her work, the lines and patterns created by groups of people participating in every day activities - putting up umbrellas in the rain or opening newspapers to read the headlines. Her works also have a certain innocence, often featuring children and illustrating a different and possibly kinder, time and place.

Ethel was born in South Yarra, Mebourne in 1890 to her newspaper proprietor father who came from New Zealand and her British born mother. Wealthy and cultured, the Spowers family maintained a mansion in Toorak. Ethel lived there an adult, maintaining a studio there too.

Special Edition, linocut, 1936

She was able to study art briefly in Paris before taking a full course in drawing and painting in Melbourne from 1911-17 at the National Gallery schools. This was followed by a first solo exhibition at the city's Decoration Galleries in 1920, which focussed on her fairy tale drawings. A further period of study followed between 1921 and 1924, this time at London's Regent Street Polytechnic and the Academie Ranson in Paris, whilst two more solo shows in Melbourne in 1925 and 1927 heightened her reputation as an illustrator, although by this time she had diversified into producing woodcuts and linocuts - like many artists of the time, influenced by Japanese art.

In 1929 she studied with Claude Flight, the leading exponent of the modernist linocut at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London, together with her friend Eveline Syme. Throughout the 1930's her linocuts attracted attention for the bold, simplified lines and rhythms and distinctive use of colour that continue to delight today. Ethel's work was considered sufficiently important for the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum to purchase several of her linocuts. As with many new movements, the modernist movement had its critics and detractors. She responded to them in an article in the Australasian in April 1930 where she asked "all lovers of art to be tolerant to new ideas and not to condemn without understanding".

In the late 1930's Ethel stopped working as an artists due to ill health but continued doing voluntary work at a children's hospital. She died of cancer in East Melbourne in 1947 and is buried in the Fawkner cemetery. Despite having destroyed many of her works in a bonfire, a memorial exhibition of her work was held at George's Gallery in Melbourne in 1948 whilst her prints can be viewed at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, State galleries in Melbourne and Sydney and also at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery in Victoria.
Swings, linocut, 1932

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