They were unlikely childhood friends, the daughters of rival newspaper tycoons, born into Melbourne society in the late 19th century but determined to forge their own creative paths. Ethel Spowers and Eveline Syme were at the forefront of a modernist revolution in art, but like so many marginalized artists, their work was long forgotten. Only now, thanks to an exhibition at the Geelong Gallery, are we learning the truth about their importance, their friendship, and their art.
Spowers and Syme lived in Melbourne but studied abroad together at a time when women’s newfound freedoms were opening doors in ways previously unattainable. Spowers was born in 1890, Syme in 1888 and although the exact moment they met is not known, they attended the same prestigious South Yarra School.
Both come from families with six children. Spowers’ father, William, owned it The Argos and The Australasianwhile Syme’s father, Joseph, part-owned Age. Fortunately, this media rivalry did not lead to social competition: the families moved in the same social circles and were equally philanthropic, their mothers charitable and philanthropic—a generosity their daughters would inherit.
But as Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax, curator of Spowers & SymeShe explains they had something their mothers didn’t have. “What’s important is that they were part of the first generation of Australian women to pursue careers,” she says. “They were encouraged and allowed to study.”
In post-World War I Australia, the hard-won gains of women’s suffrage were being realized, and the pressure on women to marry and have children had eased. Spowers and Syme dedicated their lives to creativity – and printmaking captivated them. “The way Spowers and Syme initially learned about printmaking didn’t come 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 woodcut method, the couple were also inspired by avant-garde printmaker Claude Flight’s innovative approach to color linocuts. In early 1929 they studied with Flight at London’s Grosvenor School of Modern Art. In addition to learning formal techniques and the process of layered linocuts, Spowers and Syme were drawn to Flight’s belief that art should reflect life.
Flight was driven by a desire to represent modernity and perpetual acceleration. “It was about capturing the energy and vitality of the time you live in,” says Noordhuis-Fairfax, “and all these formal ideas of how to do that; how to simplify shapes, use patterns and repetition to get a strong sense of rhythm and energy.”
https://www.smh.com.au/culture/art-and-design/two-women-changed-our-art-scene-in-the-1900s-why-did-we-forget-them-20220708-p5b08x.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_culture Ethel Spowers and Eveline Syme remembered in an art exhibition at the Geelong Gallery