Spowers & Syme may sound like a firm of accountants, but we’re dealing with an entirely different order of creativity. Ethel Spowers (1890-1947), and Eveline Syme (1888-1961), were groundbreaking Australian artists at a time when women found it difficult to make any impression on an art scene dominated by self-confident and self-serving males.
A touring exhibition put together by the National Gallery of Australia, Spowers & Syme is showing at the S.H. Ervin Gallery on the fourth stage of a lengthy journey, before winding up in Brisbane later this year. As the display is mostly works on paper, the exhibited items will go into extended storage when the tour concludes, so it’s worth catching the show while you can.
When a survey from late 2019 revealed that women were now ahead of men in most categories of artistic representation in Australia, the one blemish was in the number of works exhibited in public collections, which is a function of history, not institutional will.
It’s a useful exercise to seek out works by neglected female artists but museums need to judge dispassionately in terms of what they collect and exhibit. When a gallery commits to a 50-50 representation, as both the NGA and the Art Gallery of NSW have done, this is a simple matter in the contemporary field (where women are in the ascendency) but becomes progressively more difficult as we move back in time as there aren’t enough female artists to fill the quotas. It’s not a function of present-day chauvinism, but of past chauvinism which we are powerless to change.
This provides an extra incentive to dilute the historical display with all sorts of contemporary items, in the name of gender balance or righting the wrongs of colonialism. Such hangs may be fun for a while, but they eventually become tedious and confusing. Overall, a survey of two significant female artists, such as Spowers and Syme, or a retrospective of Cressida Campbell, are much better ways of demonstrating commitment to women artists – if that’s a priority. They also meet the more important criteria of being shows of historical interest and quality.
In the catalogue for Spowers & Syme, curator, Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax discusses the context in which the artists worked, and the special circumstances that enabled them to pursue their vocations. The two friends came from wealthy newspaper families. Ethel’s father, William Spowers, was the owner of the Argusand the Australasian; Eveline’s father, Joseph Syme, was a partner in rival daily, The Age. Both women lived in mansions, Ethel in Toorak, Eveline in St. Kilda. They had the economic support of their families and were given excellent educations – Eveline excelling in Classics at Cambridge.
Few women enjoyed the advantages of Spowers and Syme. In an era when most women settled for being housewives and mothers, they were able to travel and study in Paris and London, pursuing careers as artists. Neither woman ever married, which need not be taken as a statement of sexual preferences, but rather as a determination to retain their freedom.
They were involved with many like-minded peers in a range of clubs and societies which demanded equal opportunities for women and discussed intellectual, political and artistic topics. The chief difficulty was that they were working in an artistic milieu controlled by patricians such as J.S. MacDonald and Lionel Lindsay. For these gentlemen the standard of excellence came from artists such as Arthur Streeton and Hans Heysen (both of whom would be knighted).
Women artists were often dismissed as hobbyists, while all forms of modernism were rejected in favour a pastoral dream of the Bush and a tradition of figure painting that had barely evolved since Rembrandt’s day. The arrogance and insularity of the self-appointed guardians of national culture seems inconceivable today, but at the time there were relatively few people in Australia who had any knowledge of modern art.
It was logical that bright, independent women such as Spowers and Syme would gravitate to the modernist camp. Not only was the alternative stuffy and unattractive, there was a genuine excitement about the new work emerging from Paris and London. Allowing for a few smaller travelling exhibitions, it would take until 1939, when Keith Murdoch sponsored a landmark show of British and French art, for the public to show interest in modernist innovation.
Spowers and Syme would study with the celebrated printmaker, Claude Flight, at the Grosvenor School in London, learning the techniques of coloured linocutting, with which they would produce their most memorable works. They also imbibed the modernist gospel, which looked to the mechanical age for inspiration, with compositions characterised by dynamic, geometric forms.
For Spowers, works such as The Plough (1928), with its complex pattern of birds in flight, and Wet afternoon (1930), all massed umbrellas and driving rain, are masterpieces of an underrated genre. Her print of a coal mine, The works, Yallourn (1933) is one of the great images of industry in Australian art. She makes the mine look as dynamic as a velodrome.
Syme took the same ruthlessly geometric approach in her print, Skating (1929) but would fall back on more conventional landscape motifs in later works, such as Sydney tram line (1936).
One major difference is that Syme had gone on to study with André Lhote in Paris, at a time when Cubism had become submerged in the ‘return to order’ that swept through French art in the years between the wars. Lhote, a leading “salon cubist”, was one of the most influential teachers in Paris, whose ideas would make their way to Australia via students such as Syme, Dorrit Black, Grace Crowley, Anne Dangar and Edith Alsop.
Spowers’s life was cut short by breast cancer, but her final years were spent writing and illustrating children’s books. Syme’s output would slow to a crawl, with Noordhuis-Fairfax noting that after her friend’s death she would produce only four more linocuts over 14 years.
There’s a touch of melancholy about the relatively small amount of work we have by these two talented artists who took a more adventurous course during the 1930s than almost any of their male counterparts. They were trailblazers and intellectuals who influenced the course of a modern art in Australia, but this compact exhibition doesn’t fill the gallery, even when supplemented with documents, photos, memorabilia, and prints by fellow travellers such as Dorrit Black, George Bell, Nutter Buzzacott, Lill Tschudi and Cyril E. Power.
The curator gives us the impression that neither Spowers nor Syme were ever under any pressure to earn an income or to marry. They seem to have been the quintessential women of leisure, who used their time to explore the frontiers of art and the life of the mind. One wonders if they would have been more productive with a touch of economic hardship, but then again, they might never have had the opportunity to travel, to study, or to make anything at all. These are the puzzles we encounter time and again when we look at the work of women artists. At this distance it’s hard to undestand the obstacles they encountered, both material and psychological, and the way this influenced their creative decisions and choices in life. This exhibition gives us a working outline of Spowers and Syme, but there’s room for a lot more detail.
Spowers & Syme
S.H. Ervin Gallery, 3 December, 2022 – 12 February, 2023
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 21 January, 2023