Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1890 – 1947
London, Greater London, England
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on linen
‘Miss Ethel Spowers looked most picturesque in a frock of porcelain white silk crepe etched with an artistic convolvulus flower pattern in delicate black,’ wrote the columnist in The Argus on 23 November 1935 of the Spowers family’s garden party at Toorak House, St Georges Road, Toorak. Ethel Spowers’ father, newspaper baron WGL Spowers, once owned both The Argus and The Australasian before handing over his interest to his son to concentrate on his other great loves, literature and art. With his ample encouragement, Ethel became a great modernist artist. Her exhibitions were as widely reviewed in the papers as her exquisite outfits worn at fashionable Melbourne gatherings.
Born in 1890, Spowers was predominantly a printmaker and illustrator of children’s books. While she dabbled in watercolour she rarely painted in oils, only exhibiting around nine paintings in her lifetime. Anecdotal family reports suggest that she was so disenchanted with her efforts in oils (and the reviews of them) that she ceremoniously burnt them. Thus the rarity of these two surviving paintings, produced in 1931 at an important turning point in her artistic development, makes this acquisition all the more significant.
The skaters and The gust of wind were painted in London when she returned for her third stint studying at the Grosvenor School under the great modernist master, Claude Flight, whose influence on Spowers was seismic. Whereas she had previously worked in the Japanese style of woodblock printmaking, she now adopted his practices and ideas and embraced the colour linocut technique. Evelyn Syme summed up Flight’s influence when she said, ‘I had seen nothing more vital and essentially “modern” in the best sense of the word’.
Remarkably preserved, The skaters and The gust of wind were probably prepared by Spowers following the success of her prints, in particular The gust of wind, which had first been exhibited in Canberra in 1930. By comparing the painting with the print we observe a plasticity to the painting and a greater sense of flattening and abstraction in the print marked by the typical dynamism and vorticist elements that prevail in Grosvenor School prints. Spowers did not adapt The skaters from a print but the subject had currency in the period with Evelyn Syme, Sybil Andrews and Cyril Power all depicting the subject in their prints.
Spowers returned home to Melbourne and in April 1932 showed her new prints at Everyman’s Library to the great acclaim of George Bell, who wrote in The Sun on 5 April 1932, ‘Miss Spowers, lately returned from study abroad, shows capital work’. In 1933 she showed both paintings and prints at the Everyman’s Library, which Arthur Streeton praised in The Argus: ‘There are also seven works in oil … and probably from some of these has been condensed the knowledge that has gone into the making of [a] beautiful print’. The Age critic was less glowing but we know from this review that Spowers exhibited The skaters in the show. While the reviews of her paintings may have disappointed, she was triumphant in the social pages when hosting a party for artist Mary Cecil Allen at the Lyceum Club in 1935. She stood next to her co-host Evelyn Syme, two daughters of great newspaper men, greeting her guests resplendent in ‘silver fox furs with her suit in a lovely tint of Etruscan red’. In art, as in life, Ethel Spowers remained ever the high priestess of style, effortlessly crossing that often slippery bridge from mere decoration to high art.
Lara Nicholls Assistant Curator, Australian Paintings and Sculpture
in artonview, issue 79, Spring 2014