Ethel Louise Spowers

Ethel Spowers

Born: 1890
Died: 1947

Ethel Louise Spowers, painter and printmaker, was born on 11 July 1890 at South Yarra, Melbourne, second of six children of William George Lucas Spowers, a newspaper proprietor from New Zealand, and his London-born wife Annie Christina, née Westgarth. Allan Spowers was her only brother. She was educated at the Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, Melbourne, and was a prefect in 1908. Wealthy and cultured, her family owned a mansion in St Georges Road, Toorak. Ethel continued to live there as an adult and maintained a studio above the stables.

After briefly attending art school in Paris, Miss Spowers undertook (1911-17) the full course in drawing and painting at Melbourne’s National Gallery schools. Her first solo exhibition, held in 1920 at the Decoration Galleries in the city, showed fairy-tale drawings influenced by the work of Ida Outhwaite. In 1921-24 Spowers worked and studied abroad, at the Regent Street Polytechnic, London, and the Académie Ranson, Paris. She exhibited (1921) with fellow Australian artist Mary Reynolds at the Macrae Gallery, London. Two further solo shows (1925 and 1927) at the New Gallery, Melbourne, confirmed her reputation as an illustrator of fairy tales, though by then she was also producing woodcuts and linocuts inspired by Japanese art and covering a broader range of subjects.

A dramatic change in Spowers’ style occurred in 1929 when she studied under Claude Flight (the leading exponent of the modernist linocut) at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, London. Her close friend Eveline Syme joined her there. Following further classes in 1931, during which Spowers absorbed modernist ideas of rhythmic design and composition from the principal Iain Macnab, she published an account of the Grosvenor School in the Recorder (Melbourne, 1932). In the 1930s her linocuts attracted critical attention for their bold, simplified forms, rhythmic sense of movement, distinctive use of colour and humorous observation of everyday life, particularly the world of children. They were regularly shown at the Redfern Gallery, London. The British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum purchased a number of her linocuts.

Stimulated by Flight’s proselytizing zeal for the medium, Spowers organized in 1930 an exhibition of linocuts by Australian artists, among them Syme and Dorrit Black, at Everyman’s Library and Bookshop, Melbourne. A founding member (1932-38) of George Bell’s Contemporary Group, Spowers defended the modernist movement against its detractors. In an article in the Australasian on 26 April 1930 she called on ‘all lovers of art to be tolerant to new ideas, and not to condemn without understanding’.

Frances Derham remembered Spowers as being ‘tall, slender and graceful’, with ‘a small head, dark hair and grey eyes’. A rare photograph of Spowers, published in the Bulletin (3 September 1925), revealed her fashionable appearance and reflective character. In the late 1930s she stopped practising as an artist due to ill health, but continued her voluntary work at the Children’s Hospital. She died of cancer on 5 May 1947 in East Melbourne and was buried with Anglican rites in Fawkner cemetery. Although she had destroyed many of her paintings in a bonfire, a memorial exhibition of her watercolours, line-drawings, wood-engravings and colour linocuts was held at George’s Gallery, Melbourne, in 1948. Her prints are held by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, State galleries in Melbourne and Sydney, and the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, Victoria.