Cut to the Chase

Sybil & Cyril: Cutting Through Time by jenny uglow. new york: farrar, straus and giroux. 416 pages. $40.

The cover of Sybil & Cyril: Cutting Through Time

IN A TEACHING MANUAL she wrote in the 1980s, the artist Sybil Andrews stressed the importance of reaching into an image for its essence, stripping away whatever stagnated it. “Can you catch that? Can you get that sense of movement?” she would ask. The advice revealed a design philosophy that had defined her work for decades: her 1931 linocut In Full Cry shows a row of horses leaping over a hedge, their riders’ coattails soaring behind them. The lines themselves are Andrews’s subject, vigorous and unflinching. “I don’t draw the horse jumping,” she said. “I draw the jump.”

Jenny Uglow’s new biography, Sybil & Cyril: Cutting Through Time, is a portrait of Andrews and her partner, Cyril Power, and the art world of the interwar years that they were steeped in. Power, an architect by training, met Andrews, twenty-five years his junior, after being discharged at the end of the First World War. He was studying the historic buildings in Bury, England, and noticed her on the street, working on a drawing of a house. Within two years, they were inseparable. In what Uglow glosses as “a post-war crisis as much as a mid-life crisis,” Power left his wife and family in 1922 to join Andrews in London (“He followed me, not vice versa,” she later wrote), where they attended concerts and plays, took life drawing classes, and wrote in each other’s diaries.

Andrews and Power became important members of a fleeting but popular modernist art movement in London influenced by the pre-war Futurists but also their contemporaries, Cubists and Constructivists. In the decade that brought the world Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, Andrews and Power offered their own response to the end of the war. Their 1924 manifesto, “Aims of the Art of To-Day,” called for the boldness and “radical simplicity” exemplified by Andrews’s In Full Cry, with its inky color fields and concentric curves. They dispensed with the “charming” watercolors they had first bonded over and produced faithful etchings of London architecture only for money’s sake. Eager to embrace the dynamism of the modern age, they believed its art should reflect the brutality of rapid industrialization and reject the traditional beauty of classicism.

Uglow, the prolific biographer of artists and writers like George Eliot, William Hogarth, and Edward Lear, was introduced to linocuts as a child: her father had received two prints, one by Andrews and one by Power, as a wedding gift. “I have known them all my life—in my father’s study, then my mother’s hall, blasted by sunshine, and finally on the stairs in my own home,” she writes in the introduction. Inspired by how “their 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 a pre-industrial life,” Uglow sets out to highlight the contradictions embodied by the life and work of this odd couple. 

In London, Andrews and Power met Claude Flight, a cofounder of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, where they traded watercolors for linocuts. Like the North American modernists, Flight wanted to bring a more democratic form to high art: linoleum was cheap, and the colorful prints it made were accessible to households of every income. And linocuts inspired innovation: “Having no tradition behind them,” Flight wrote, “lino-cut artists are not hampered by any cult of technique, but have invented one of their own.” This new medium, he continued, would bring them “nearer to the spirit of their age than is usually found in the work of the older forms.”

Sybil Andrews, In Full Cry, 1931, color linocut on paper, 11 3/8 × 16 1/2". © Glenbow Museum, Calgary
Sybil Andrews, In Full Cry, 1931, color linocut on paper, 11 3/8 × 16 1/2". © Glenbow Museum, Calgary

Flight had established the “spirit of the age” in 1922 with his famous linocut Speed, a dark, dizzying print of a busy London street. An omnibus towers fearsomely on one side, its lines and colors blending with those of the skyscraper behind it. Whether the bus or the building is moving is hard to say, but the picture is ominous and somewhat vertiginous. “Everybody is in a hurry,” Flight wrote in 1925. “This speeding up is one of the psychologically important features of today.” 

“It is an ugly age,” Power declared of the interwar years, but he found much to defend in the new designs, writing that “our factories and industrial building have a majesty all their own.” It’s easy to imagine that such design choices—and artists like Power’s interest in capturing their “titanic, savage, satanic strength”—emerged as a response to the First World War. But more effective than any contextualizing of Andrews and Power’s work in their political moment is Uglow’s ability to situate their modernism within contemporary literary movements. When they arrived in London in 1922 and gazed at the bridges on the Thames, they were dazzled by the construction and machinery, the cranes on the piers. “Among them a red-sailed barge might glide downstream, like the horse-drawn carts amid the traffic—the Thames of Eliot’s Waste Land,” Uglow muses. “The river sweats / Oil and tar / The barges drift / With the turning tide.” In this world, she writes, “everything was on the move.”

In 1929, Power completed his most moving and haunting print, The Escalator, which has the same dizzying effect as Flight’s Speed. In the preliminary sketch, a hunched figure is going up a down escalator, climbing in place, while a crowd on the opposite side gawks at him. Power himself did this repeatedly, as Andrews noted amusedly in her diary. But “there’s a feeling of danger” to the print, Uglow writes. “Something is wrong—instead of rising, the escalator seems to cascade down towards him, baffling his escape.” She recalls the same suffocating feeling in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, when Jinny is standing in the Tube station: “Innumerable wheels rush and feet press just over my head. . . . I am in the heart of life. But look—there is my body in that looking glass. How solitary, how shrunk, how aged!”

While Power made unnerving linocuts and wrote fearful poetry reflecting on a “hideous” world “bewitched by speed,” Andrews, younger and keener, seemed less daunted. She had a “horror of ‘prettiness,’” Uglow writes, and the human figures in her prints are all “angles and elbows.” In 1926, in a rebellious revision, she turned an old print of a busy wharf—a very pretty scene—into a linocut of the dock, eliminating all but one of the moored boats and the ripples of the water to focus on the competing patterns and textures. Power was perhaps less artistically courageous, but judging by his wariness had better foresight about the war to come.

Uglow is attentive to the tensions of Andrews and Power’s curious partnership. She animates their twenty years together through contrasts: courage and caution, nostalgia and newness, London and the countryside. In the 1930s the two began making trips out of the city, and by 1937 the rumors of war were enough to persuade Andrews to purchase a home in a small Hampshire village. When she and Power started making nature the subject of their linocuts, they maintained the bold, Grosvenor School style they had previously used to depict the industrializing city.

At some point after 1943, all of the letters Andrews and Power had exchanged were lost or destroyed in an unknown event. Uglow envisions a great “clearing-out,” “scorched pages fluttering and curling, handwriting vanishing into air.” Without their correspondence, it is impossible to pin down the nature of their relationship; their friends and families assumed they were lovers until Andrews later denied it. Uglow is politely deferential, suggesting it doesn’t matter: “If their relationship was platonic, it was intense and life-absorbing,” she writes. “There are many kinds of couples.”

So Uglow makes do with what she has: diaries and date books, which recorded “close-ups of daily life, shopping lists and dentist appointments and printing dates, rather than comments on a wider world.” Andrews recorded the news in her diary curtly: “Edward VIII abdicated. . . . Got ready puff paste.” “Bad newspapers.” “Germany invaded Austria.” The characters of Andrews and Power that emerge in Uglow’s telling are deeply involved in their routines, in the logistics of their relationship, especially after they left London and war seemed increasingly imminent. In Hampshire, they planted strawberries, harvested potatoes, took long walks in the forest, photographed each other, painted insistently, prepared Christmas feasts. In September 1939, a single-word-entry in Andrews’s diary: “War.” Andrews learned how to shoot a gun, and they hung blackout curtains, but for the most part, Uglow writes, the pair’s routines remained “determinedly, doggedly, normal.” 

Uglow’s account itself is diligently chronological and thorough. For a book about artists who insisted on stripping away “unnecessary” details, it makes a resolutely contrary case for minding them. Andrews met someone else and quickly ended her relationship with Power, got married, and moved to Canada, where she taught art and made linocuts of loggers in plaid shirts. Power returned to his wife, moped a little, and rebuilt his life with his children and grandchildren. In lingering with Andrews and Power after what seem to have been the most remarkable and terrifying years of their lives, Uglow insists on how the aftermath can make us see the inflection point differently. Like the linocut artists, she is trying to catch a larger sense of movement. 

Apoorva Tadepalli is a writer and editor living in Queens.