Of all the periods of recent history being disinterred by historians and biographers, the interwar decades feel particularly close. Profound political disillusionment and corruption; desperate enthusiasms for fresh ways of living, and sexual experimentation; the excitement but also trepidation about powerful new technologies; and all this taking place alongside a deepening nostalgia for an older Britain. The 1920s and 1930s offer us warnings aplenty, but many heroes too.
The biographer Jenny Uglow has a reputation for searching out the unexpected. The Lunar Men (2002), about the radical-scientific Birmingham Society in the 18th century, is the best-known, but she has also produced much-praised biographies of Thomas Bewick, Walter Crane and Edmund Lear. This time, she has turned her attention to the relatively obscure boom in modernist linocuts between the wars, and an unlikely pair of allies.
[see also: The golden age of modernist British printmaking]
Cyril Power – an architect and historian of medieval buildings who worked on aircraft repair during the First World War – was a stocky, determined artist about to leave his large family in a late-midlife crisis. In 1922, when this story really gets going, he was 50 and Sybil Andrews was 24. Andrews comes across like a heroine from DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow – a bright, ambitious artist, desperate for high culture, and to shake the dust of Bury St Edmunds from her shoes. Once they had set up studio together in London, their friends assumed they were lovers, but there is no evidence of that. In later life, long after Cyril Power had died, Andrews angrily denied it. Yet between the wars they were joined at the hip and worked together so closely that it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between their art.
Uglow teases out some interesting themes. She reminds us that in this period – so often caricatured as a time of hunger marches and clashes between communists and blackshirts, with every intellectual agonising about Spain – large numbers of well-educated people more or less ignored global politics. Britain was throwing itself into new pleasures, from speedway racing to dance crazes and open-air swimming pools.
Linocut – fashionably modern, simple, brightly coloured and relatively inexpensive to buy – was an ideal medium for new times. It is less finicky and less academic than other forms of printmaking. It requires great skill, but it allowed Power and Andrews to focus on the dashing lines and angularities they used to illustrate the acceleration and whirl of postwar urban life. This was the period when, under the great Frank Pick, the London Underground was commissioning posters that remain a glory of modern British art.
Speed, bustle and discordance explode from the images that this lavishly illustrated and beautifully laid-out book contains. Together, they celebrate the release that came to the major cities after the First World War. You want to hear great music? Dance? Ice-skate or rush to the football? This is your time.
But nothing is ever quite that simple. Like so many artists of the age, from Paul Nash to John Cowper Powys, Benjamin Britten to John Piper, Power and Andrews were also powerfully drawn backwards to the culture of medieval England. They would bury themselves in the Suffolk countryside, and focus as happily on folk tales, early music and thatched cottages as on the escalators of the Tube. This was also the Britain of Kibbo Kift and Cecil Sharp’s revival of folk music and dancing.
I found this a subtle and nuanced account. The trouble with artist biographies however, is that unless you’re really lucky, the subjects spend most of their time in the quiet, blameless and rather private business of making art – drawing, cutting, colouring prints – rather than conducting wild affairs, saying outrageous things, or fighting. In this, Uglow has not been lucky. Power and Andrews were talented artists who made the grand experiment of “going for it” in the early 1920s. But they were not, beyond that, particularly extraordinary people – mostly they just ploughed on with their art.
In many ways the most intriguing person in the book is the quiet, mysterious wife that Power leaves behind. When eventually Andrews finds the man she loves and marries him, Power, after many years of being a bohemian artist, quietly returns home again. Andrews’s father had deserted her family when she was young; Power came from respectable, hard-working Victorian stock. Neither showed much interest in politics and for both Christianity mattered deeply – Power was a Roman Catholic and Andrews an adherent of the fashionable faith of Christian Science.
The biggest problem is the art itself. Power and Andrews arrived in a London art world consumed by the glib posturing of futurism, with its batty manifestoes and fundamentally uninteresting pieces – a little dressing of cubism over conventional thinking about the excitements of modern life. Vorticism had thankfully expired, but both of these artists seem to have gone to their graves thinking that the movement’s founder Filippo Tommas Marinetti was quite the thing. He wasn’t. Towards the end of this book, the powerful British abstract artists are getting going – Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson. Compared to Andrews and Power’s religious and rural linocut work, what a glorious blast of fresh air they were.
Sybil & Cyril: Cutting through Time
Faber, 416pp, £20
[see also: 2022: the year in art]
This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed