Sybil & Cyril: Cutting Through Time by Jenny Uglow - review by Norma Clarke

Norma Clarke

Printmakers in Motion

Sybil & Cyril: Cutting Through Time


Faber & Faber 416pp £20

Two 1930s prints hung in Jenny Uglow’s home as a child: The Eight by Cyril Power and Bringing in the Boat by Sybil Andrews. It never occurred to her to wonder about them, and then it did. The result is this marvellous book.

The prints were linocuts. Between the wars linocutting, ‘a small yet significant corner of avant-garde art’, became a craze. It’s probably still true, as Sybil reflected at the end of her long and productive career, that few people understand the processes that go into making linocut prints: the importance of drawing and design, the reduction of superfluous detail, the carving of multiple blocks, the inking, the choice of paper (Japanese tissue for Cyril and Sybil). Preparing for exhibitions was exhausting and the returns were not quite enough to live on because part of the attraction of these bright prints was that they were cheap. ‘I had to work for what I had,’ Sybil said, ‘but the work was the exciting part.’

Work, work, work was her mantra. She was energetic, independent and ‘vehement’ when it was suggested that she was the junior partner in anything but age in the relationship with Cyril that extended over twenty years – ‘He followed me, not vice versa’ – or that they were lovers. He was old enough to be her father when he followed her to London from Bury St Edmunds in the early 1920s, leaving behind a wife and several children, while also abandoning architecture for art, music and theatre. Sybil’s own father had left his family and emigrated to Canada. Sybil and Cyril were a couple, sharing studios and cottages, collaborating on work, exhibiting together, sparking ideas in one another, going to concerts and taking trips together, and playing instruments and singing folk songs with their shared friends.

Cyril’s love was early church architecture but with Sybil (a trained welder) he entered the machine age. Their prints are extraordinarily dynamic, full of whirling movement: they feature helmeted dirt track riders, footballers, skaters, tennis players, passengers on the London Underground at rush hour, an air raid, men at work with sledgehammers or turning a winch. Manual work was a favourite theme of Sybil’s, while Cyril became obsessed with the Underground. In the ‘rhythmic composition’ of The Tube Station, with its narrowing perspective, the train rushes from the tunnel and ‘its red carriages seem to fan out toward the viewer, missing us – but only just’. There’s danger here as well as exhilaration. Escalators, lifts and staircases loom and tumble. The men and women in Sybil’s prints are ‘robustly physical’, working at machines, bracing umbrellas against a storm or soaring over fences on horseback. She wasn’t interested in prettiness; the balance and strength of heavy lifting excited her. ‘The curve of the movement, the curve of the machine, the curve of their arms,’ she wrote in relation to Sledgehammers, ‘it’s the action I am always looking for.’ In Flower Girls, for instance, the titular figures are seen from behind carrying huge baskets and striding up steps, all angularity and purpose. Later, she turned to country scenes, with Fall of the Leaf, where the ploughman and his team are dwarfed by the immense fields and trees, and the huge horses of Tillers of the Soil and Day’s End, one of her own favourites.

Sybil eventually tired of London and perhaps outgrew Cyril. It’s hard to say for certain, because all their letters were destroyed after they went their own ways in 1943 and Sybil married Walter Morgan, a widower, and moved to Canada. Uglow has only fragments to work with, ‘a ragged collage of two lives’: sketchbooks, appointments diaries, scrapbooks stuffed with cuttings and photos. With these limited resources and a lifetime’s experience of writing about subjects as diverse as Hogarth, Bewick, English gardens, the ‘Lunar Men’, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell (among others), Uglow does wonders. She follows the journey of two artists whose prints ‘summed up the dizzying mood and unease of the late 1920s and early 1930s, while at the same time they looked back, to a dream of pre-industrial life’. She is a superb guide to the period, using deftly selected passages from literature to convey these feelings of apprehension while showing how the pull of the past manifested itself across the arts, in music and dance, church murals and village pageants. Sybil’s country scenes celebrated landscapes she loved; they also formed part of a revival of interest in country crafts and traditions that were slowly disappearing. Though it is true that Andrews and Power tended to be ‘outliers’ rather than members of any group – apart from the Grosvenor School with which they are fully identified – it’s also evident from their work how embedded they were in the moment.

Few historians write better about pictures than Uglow, and her commentaries make you look and look again at bright colour plates that deliver little shocks. Physically, linocuts are not large: the whirligig of Cyril’s The Merry-go-round and the glorious swirl of ’Appy ’Ampstead burst from confined spaces; The Eight and Bringing in the Boat are not much bigger than a sheet of A4. The technical ability required to succeed in this medium is immense. The same could be said for piecing together the lives of individuals who covered their tracks and told themselves stories that were only partially true. Enough scraps survive to suggest that Cyril loved Sybil and was sad to lose her (he went back to his ‘quiet’ and kindly, amenable wife, and nothing was said in the family about his twenty-year absence). Sybil, who settled happily on Vancouver Island and whose reputation grew as she continued to work, was always busy, if not sketching and painting and linocutting then teaching, making her own clothes and boiling prodigious quantities of jam. To her brisk denial that her domestic relationship with her artist-collaborator had been that of lover, Uglow responds, ‘and who can deny her the right to possess the facts of her own life?’

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter