Thursday, 10 February 2011

Sybil Andrews: the rural year

Sybil Andrews (1898 - 1992) was a prolific printmaker. She made 76 colour linocuts in all, more than half of them between 1929 and 1939. Almost all are exemplary. Many of them are of rural subjects but she was brought up in the town of Bury St Edmunds in the east of England. It has been said that alot of her work drew on her memories of the Suffolk countryside nevertheless (and she may well have said this herself) and what I decided to do was try and put some of the prints of the countryside into a sequence, with each activity following on from the other. Of course, one or two are landscapes. Nor was the choice I had to make always an obvious one. But then I think that in itself says something of the kind of woman Andrews was and suggests what she was trying to do.

So, for instance, the print above is called 'Michaelmas' which is straightforward because it falls on 29th September. What people are doing is sometimes less easy to follow. These men appear to be forking manure onto a cart, something clearly Andrews associated with that time of year. The haycut ('Mowers') was also easy. That was June. But there are two images of ploughing - one on arable, the other on grass. The second one presumably describes the ploughing of pasture in the spring in readiness for re-sowing. Below all the patterning, she was interested in particular things - and a way of life that many of us will barely recognise. This may help to explain why it is that dealers and collectors have placed so much emphasis on her style to the detriment of her subject.

'Storm' here is obviously autumn because the tree is still green. 'Otter hunt' was less easy to pin down but I placed it in the summer because one of the Lakeland hunts took their hounds out in May (once the martens and polecats had been dealt with). What the gipsies are doing in their print (the final one) may not be perfectly clear but two of them are wearing rubber boots because they've been collecting reeds and, of all the prints, that one is the most pertinent in a way because, instead of showing the Romanies as caricatures, round their campfire, for instance, or going down the lane in a horse-drawn van, as both John Hall Thorpe and Hesketh Hubbard did, she shows them at work, playing their useful role as seasonal labourers.

Colour, of course, plays a crucial role in suggesting the time of year - and occasioanlly time of day. Most of the autumn and winter prints are dominated by reddish brown; the spring and early summer prints rely on green while high summer is blue or bluish-green. I put 'Trackway' here because I assume we are looking down through bare trees. The trees in 'Tumulus' below are pines on a burial mound, a fairly common feature of the English countryside. (These two prints in themsleves tie her very much into the recording of everyday life and the cultural aspects of town and countryside that was such a key feature of the 1930s.)

She once said of her upbringing that she had 'a paintbox from the cradle' not so much to encourage her as to keep her occupied. This is very telling. She must have been an active child and this shows in both her way of life and the subjects she chose. The term 'Futurism' and 'Vorticism' are sometimes used in connection with her prints but I am skeptical about their relevance. By the time she was making these linocuts those first exhibitions by the futurists were long gone and British Vorticism barely survied the first war. But it was only Claude Flight example as a modernist and teacher that gave her what she needed: a dynamic style that drew of early modernism and was in keeping with what she most wanted to do.

She first studied at art school locally then moved on to Chelsea in London, where she attended Heatherley's art school herself. The end of the first war saw her working as a welder in a Bristol factory, a strong indication of her practicality and unwillingness to conform to the accepted women's role. (During the second war she worked as a boatbuilder at Southampton). She also strikes me as someone who took the opportunities life offered her and when she met Cyril Power after the war they formed a working partnership that was to last for 20 years. Power went on to found the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in Pimlico with Claude Flight and IainMacNab. MacNab, who was a wood-engraver, acted as principal; Flight lectured on linocut - lectures that Andrews attended when she wasn't occupied with her job of school secretary.

I think it was that kind of interaction that stimulated her and this is also why I cast doubt on the associations that are made with modernist movements like cubism and futurism. It was a style she was able to adopt to suit her own need - even if at first glance many of the artists associated with the Grosvenor School seem quite similar. Bold lines and dynamic patterns are what we look for in linocuts but if we compare her with her contemporary Norbertine Bresslern Roth, the rhythmic grouping of animals and people is about all they have in common. And although both artists have significant limitations in that all their works tend to appear similar, I think Andrews is the more vital and a far more dynamic colourist.

She also used considerable licence. I can't imagine that haymakers got together in a huddle with their whetstones unless, of course, that was how they began their working day. But it wasn't so much the hay, or the weather, or even the human figure that interested her so much as what they were doing. And this brings me to the curious thing about her. She does associate these activities with men. She is quite different from other women printmakers I've looked at. Emma Schlangenhausen had her female haymakers in the foreground; Mary Fairclough also gave women key roles in her work - her gipsy is a woman smoking a pipe. Women don't feature in her work much at all.

Not all her prints are concerned with light as this one of mowers is - and it isn't always something we look for in linocuts. But it is interesting that when she moves into the field of more conventional landscape, there is a noticeable shift. In some of these prints, especially in the one after the windmill, of a man collecting mangolds and the first print of ploughing, we can see what she has in common with the colour printers that come after her - Edward Bawden (1903 - 1983), for instance, and some of his (and her) contemporary followers like Mark Hearld (British, b 1974). The particularity becomes too intense, the simplification too childlike. It's only a slant in her but an irritation in them. (I like Hearld, Bawden less so). I think we need to be grateful that the Grosvenor School must have discouraged their students from taking the academic/medieval path as Eric Gill did before them and Bawden adopted afterwards.

This series, if that is what it is, effectively came to an end in 1939 with the outbreak of war. She had had a good run as a printmaker. Most of her British contemporaries had given up colour prints before 1930. She then turned boatbuilder and met Walter Morgan in the shipyard. They were married in 1947 and soon after that the couple emigrated to the backwoods of Canada. She was almost fifty. A second life had begun.


  1. Great post... Grosvenor school stuff is brilliant. Harvesting the sugar beet certainly makes me think of East Anglia. There was also two Australians... one called Dorrit Black and Ethel Spowers whose work i have hankered after for years.... far too expensive now! They had such good names.. Sybil, Dorrit, Ethel, Cyril... Seeing these images has brightened my day.. thanks David

  2. Again Charles, your posting getting better and better. I think you surpassed yourself in this one. Nice extra and background information most of which I had no of notion before. It's great to look at her prints again within this "new" insight and context. You should write a book on (English) printmakers.

  3. I don't think that before your post I had connected Sybil Andrews with Clare Leighton - but now I see a huge connection, just that one worked in colour linocuts, the other in b/w wood engravings.

  4. Interesting, Neil. I used Michael Morpurgo's 'All around the year' as a model for the post but Leighton's 'The farmer's year' must come in there as well.

  5. All Around the Year is a very important book for me - Morpurgo's text, James Ravilious's photographs, and especially Ted Hughes's poems. So I'm delighted to have made another connection, with Andrews and Leighton and Gill.