Ethel Spowers

Ethel Spowers, a prominent painter and printmaker, stands as an iconic figure in the canon of Australian art history. Her work embodies in particular the dynamism of the Modernist movement seen throughout the early twentieth-century. Like many of her contemporaries, Spowers embraced the medium of printmaking and saw it as quintessential to executing her artistic vision. The linocut, a type of relief print, resonated with the artist’s decorative style, embodying key principals of modernism, such as surface flatness and innovative shapes.  Through her dedication to the resurgent technique, Spowers left an undeniable mark on the art world, ultimately shaping the trajectory of Australian modernist art and printmaking.

Lot 2, Ethel Spowers (1890-1947) Afraid of the Dark 1927, woodcut, ed. 6, 16 x 15cm. $2,200-3,000

In 1929, Ethel Spowers and Eveline Syme both enrolled in art classes at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art in London, where they studied under the guidance of the innovative printmaker, Claude Flight. Alongside her contemporaries Cyril Power, Sybil Andrews and fellow Australians, Dorrit Black and Eveline Syme, Spowers played a part in elevating what was considered a simple linocut technique to new heights with their vibrant and geometrically radical designs. This shift marked one of the most significant advancements in twentieth-century printmaking. Her colourful linocuts captured both the energy and dynamism of the emerging era, effectively portraying the speed and movement characteristic of the modern age.

Upon their return to Australia, Ethel Spowers, Eveline Syme and Dorrit Black played pivotal roles in popularising the modern colour linocut in Melbourne and Sydney. The artists both taught and implemented Claude Flight’s ideas and methods, whilst simultaneously exhibiting their own creations. During this time, the artists began exploring subject matter some may consider closer to home. Their modernist interpretations of Australia in the interwar period indicate a duality that is both complex, yet simple. Their use of colour is both bold and subtle, while the line work is vigorous yet delicate. Rhythm, arcs and movement are instrinsic to their depictions of everyday spaces, people and places. Their works stand as an ultimate example of the profound influence they had on Australian printmaking.

Lot 4, Ethel Spowers (1890-1947) Bank Holiday 1935, linocut, printed from six blocks: yellow ochre, cobalt blue, reddish brown, green, grey and black, edition of 50, 24.5 x 24.5cm (image); 30.5 x 29.5cm (sheet). $25,000-35,000

Ethel Spowers’ produced some of her most renowned pieces during the 1930s, including the iconic ‘Wet Afternoon’ (1930-31) and ‘The Gust of Wind’ (1930). Her themes explored mundane every day activities, trivial children’s games, climatic conditions and simple landscapes into artworks fuelled by vibrant colours and rhythmic motion. Printed from six blocks, ‘Bank Holiday’ (1935) is a particularly rare linocut of Spowers’ works – rarely seen by the public and highly uncommon in the marketplace.

This print captures the unique Australian imagery of a billycan and a pineapple, while the graceful ascent of smoke trails mirror the contours of relaxed picnickers and undulating hills. Linear gouging in the landscape accentuates the interplay of light and shadow across the fields, enhancing the dynamic quality of the composition.

By Hannah Ryan, Prints & Multiples Specialist

Top Image (detail): Lot 4, Ethel Spowers (1890-1947) Bank Holiday 1935, linocut, printed from six blocks: yellow ochre, cobalt blue, reddish brown, green, grey and black, edition of 50
24.5 x 24.5cm (image); 30.5 x 29.5cm (sheet). $25,000-35,000

March 2024