Sybil & Cyril by Jenny Uglow – a printed partnership
“I had tried to paint it and I couldn’t. And then came the linocuts. Thus, the artist Sybil Andrews summarized the possibilities offered by a new method of engraving.
It was 1929 and Andrews’ subject was Queen’s Hall in London. Built in 1893, the concert hall – where she had heard Stravinsky’s music The Rite of Spring in 1923 – was a hub of contemporary culture. Thanks to his new technique, Andrews was able to reduce the auditorium to spare the curves and shadows of shark fins, a refined architecture in synergy with the avant-garde program of the room.
Andrews broke with convention in life and in art. The night she heard Stravinsky, her companion was Cyril Power. A fellow engraver, Power is said to share Andrews life for over 20 years despite being someone else’s husband and father of four.
Now, the couple’s relationship has been dissected into sparkling, sympathetic detail by Jenny Uglow in Sybille & Cyril. A seasoned biographer, Uglow delivers a captivating and mysterious love story that also sheds light on British culture in the interwar years. Usually, this era is defined by the shenanigans of the Bloomsbury Group and by exploratory adventures in abstraction and surrealism carried out by artists such as Ben Nicholson and Paul Nash. Uglow reveals, however, that those years were alive with other New Wave practices, including the fleeting Grosvenor School movement that championed the vogue for linocuts. Ultimately, this is a period overshadowed by artists like Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and the London School painters – who really found their rhythm after 1945.
Andrews and Power met in Bury St Edmunds in the early 1920s. Apparently he tried to explain the prospect to her as she drew on the street in the ancient town of Suffolk. Andrews, born 1898, was from Bury while Power, an architect and some 26 years older, was born in London, only moving to Bury after being discharged.
During the year, they shared a studio, a newspaper and common exhibitions. Often times, Uglow says, Power would return to Sybil’s digs at the end of the day rather than his wife Dolly. Yet the latter, a “calm, unfazed and affectionate” woman, kept her advice even when Power followed Andrews to London after he arrived there in 1922.
In 1925 the two had jobs – he as an architect, she as a secretary – at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art. Founded by Scottish woodcutter and painter Iain Macnab, the Pimlico institution pioneered the art of linocut with the arrival of artist Claude Flight as a teacher. Flight had been experimenting with linocut since the early 1920s. Previously, the medium was mainly the preserve of a few German expressionists.
Smooth to the touch, easy to cut, inexpensive to produce, the linocut images were built block by block as different colors were added. The result was a Spartan graphic aesthetic that lent itself to the crisp geometries and abstract patterns that Modernism – though less advanced than in Europe – injected into British art and design. Linocuts were also extremely marketable, providing an economical option for a new generation of homeowners whose “modern walls require modern imagery,” as Good Housekeeping put it in 1932.
Still struggling for money, Andrews and Power originally turned to linocuts to increase their profits. Stylistically, he was “slower, more meditative, more visionary.” Andrews was sharper, smoother, more contemporary. Still, brightly colored planks clarify why their work was at times confusing. Power’s 1930s “Merry-Go-Round”, for example, echoes the same tangy orange and swirling solids as Andrews’s “Windmill” made three years later.
Exhibitions follow one another, notably at the Redfern Gallery. Ideally suited to the Machine Age, emphasizing speed, electricity and dynamic sporting activities, their linocuts were quickly presented internationally and collected by the British Museum and the V&A.
In 1929 Andrews bought a cottage in Suffolk. As the 1930s unfolded, the couple rotated between Suffolk, London and, later, the New Forest, where Andrews – a vital and decisive figure who seems to have guided their progress – purchased another property.
Seemingly oblivious to the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War – which called for many creative souls – the apolitical couple spent those years making prints, decorating their homes, planting gardens and indulging in their passion. for early music.
The war has burst their bubble. Cyril, after working as a surveyor at the London bomb site, stayed in their New Forest cabin while Andrews worked in the Hythe shipyards. Here she fell head over heels in love with the “funny and handsome” widower and ex-soldier Walter Morgan.
With a cruelty that was the reverse of his fearless character, within months Andrews had brought Power back to London and married Morgan.
As if the past two decades hadn’t happened, Power has returned to a remarkably flawless Dolly. Power died in 1951, having avoided linocuts for oil painting. One of his grandchildren remembers him as “rather cranky but with a subversive flicker”.
Andrews immigrated to Canada with Morgan. She died in 1992 and has established herself as an important Canadian artist and teacher. In the 1980s, harassed by a renewed interest in pre-war British printmakers, she insisted that Power was just “a good friend” who “had no studio of his own. . . so worked in [mine]”.
Uglow beckons a more complicated, tender and – to power at least – tragic union. In a poem inspired by Andrews’ defection, the architect refers to a “beautiful lady without mercy”. There is more to this tangled history to be discovered. It would make a great movie.
Sybille & Cyril: Cut in time by Jenny Uglow Faber & Faber, £ 20, 416 pages
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