Ethel Spowers and Eveline Syme recall art exhibition at Geelong Gallery
They were unlikely childhood friends, the daughters of rival newspaper magnates, born into Melbourne’s high society in the late 1800s, but determined to chart their own creative course. Ethel Spowers and Eveline Syme were at the forefront of a modernist revolution in art, but like so many other marginalized female artists, their work has long been forgotten. Only now do we learn the truth about their meaning, their friendship and their art, thanks to an exhibition at the Geelong Gallery.
Spowers and Syme lived in Melbourne but studied together abroad at a time when new freedoms for women were opening doors in ways that had previously been out of reach. Spowers was born in 1890, Syme in 1888, and although the exact time of their meeting is not known, they attended the same prestigious school in South Yarra.
Both came from families with six children. Spowers’ father, William, owned TheArgus and The Australasianwhile Syme’s father, Joseph, was part-owned age. Fortunately, this media rivalry does not translate into social competition: the families evolve in the same social circles and are also philanthropists, their mothers attentive to charity and social spirit – a generosity that their daughters will inherit.
But as Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax, curator of Spowers & Syme, explains, they had something that their mothers refused. “Above all, they were the first generation of Australian women capable of having a professional career,” she says. “They were supported and allowed to study.”
In post-war Australia, the hard-won gains in women’s suffrage were beginning to materialize and the pressure on women to marry and have children had eased. Spowers and Syme dedicated their lives to creativity – and engraving captivated them. “The way Spowers and Syme initially learned about printmaking was not from art school because it wasn’t taught there,” says Noordhuis-Fairfax, noting a conservative focus on formal drawing and painting techniques. .
Interested in the Japanese method of woodcutting, the two men were also inspired by avant-garde engraver Claude Flight’s innovative approach to color linocuts. In early 1929 they studied with Flight at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London. Along with learning formal techniques and the multi-layered linocut process, Spowers and Syme were drawn to Flight’s belief that art should reflect life.
Flight was driven by a desire to represent modernity and relentless acceleration. “It was about capturing the energy and vitality of the times you live in,” says Noordhuis-Fairfax, “and all these formal ideas of how you do that; how you simplify shapes, use pattern and repetition to get that strong sense of rhythm and energy.