ETHEL LOUISE SPOWERS (1890-1947)

 

Ethel Spowers is remembered as one of Australia's most important early modernists. Closely associated with the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, Ethel Spowers produced works that were considered to be highly influential and almost 'dangerous' in Australia. She defended the movement throughout her life. Today Ethel Spowers is one of the most highly desirable Australian artists on the international art market.

Ethel Louise Spowers was born into a well-established family in South Yarra in 1890. Ethel Spowers was one of six born to a newspaper proprietor, William George Lucas Spowers and Annie Christina Westgarth and attended the Church of England Girl's School in Melbourne. After completing her education in Melbourne, Ethel Spowers travelled to Paris (as many girls from wealthy families did at the time) to study art. 

Greatly enjoying her time in France and realising her talents, Ethel Spowers enrolled and completed the course in painting and drawing at the National Gallery School in Melbourne between the years of 1911-17. Influenced by the children's illustrator Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, Ethel Spowers's early works demonstrated the same fascination with highly detailed fairy-tale scenes. Spowers first stand-alone exhibition was held at the Decoration Galleries in Melbourne city in 1920. 

The following year Ethel Spowers returned to Europe with her family to continue her studies at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London and the Academie Ranson in Paris. A successful joint show with fellow Australian expat artist Mary Reynolds  in 1921 at the Macrae Gallery in London encouraged Ethel Spowers to remain in Europe with her sister Elison while the rest of the Spowers family returned to Australia. 

After three years of study and travel, Ethel returned to Melbourne in 1924 and exhibited with the Victorian Artists' Society and solo exhibitions at the New Gallery, Melbourne in 1925 and 1927. By this period, Ethel Spowers, like many artists at the time, was beginning to experiment with Japanese influenced woodblocks. Prior to this Ethel Spowers had gained a reputation as a brilliant illustrator, illustrating Arrows of Longing by Furnley Maurice in 1921 and her style had remained consistent. Studying under Claude Flight would soon change this.

In 1929 Ethel Spowers returned to London to study at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art under the modernist printmaker, Claude Flight. Fellow modernist and close friend, Eveline Syme studied with her and the pair threw themselves into the latest style, incorporating the rhythmic design and composition taught by both Claude Flight and later Iain Macnab in 1931. Prior to this Spowers returned to Melbourne briefly in 1930 where she organised a exhibition of linocuts including her own, Eveline Syne, Dorrit Black's at the Everyman's Library and Bookshop. Although modernism was by this point in time well-established in Europe, Spowers noticed how critical many conservative critics in Australia were and defended the movement in an article in the Australasian in April 1930. 

Now considered a fully fledged member of the Grosvenor School, Ethel Spowers published an account of the Grosvenor School in the Recorder in 1932. That same year Spowers held a solo exhibition at Grosvenor Galleries in Sydney and another one four years later in 1936. Ethel Spowers's beautiful linocuts gained the critics attention and her linocuts were regularly on display in Australia and in London at the Redfern Gallery. Both the Victoria and Albert Museum and The British Museum purchased works, cementing Ethel Spowers's position as a serious artist.

By the end of her life, Ethel Spowers was well travelled. She had spent time in Colombo, Japan and Europe. Ethel Spowers was a member of the Victorian Artists' Society and was consistently involved in the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria throughout her life.

This success is often overshadowed by the story of Ethel Spowers destroying many of her works in a bonfire. From 1935 onwards, Spowers began to produce less works. Increasing illness prevented Ethel Spowers from completing prints and on 5 May 1947, Ethel Spowers died of cancer in Melbourne. 

Ethel Spowers's works can be found in many public galleries in Australian and in the United Kingdom including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Australia, Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

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