On the Curve: The Life and Art of Sybil Andrews by Janet Nicol (Caitlin Press $28.95)

Review by Portia Priegert (BCBW 2019)

Poverty, hard work and two dramatic rifts marked the life of British-born artist Sybil Andrews. The first came when she was 12 and her father abandoned the family; the second, in mid-life, when she made the wrenching decision to move to Campbell River, B.C., to escape the economic privations that followed the Second World War.

In 1947, Campbell River was a working-class town at the north end of the Vancouver Island highway, a far different place than the pastoral countryside of Andrews’ homeland or the rush and bustle of art school in London. Despite the beauty of her new surroundings, Andrews felt “a great emptiness” in her early days there, as Janet Nicol makes clear in On the Curve: The Life and Art of Sybil Andrews.

Ever philosophical, Andrews made the best of things, settling into a seaside cottage with her husband, Walter Morgan, a carpenter and boat builder she had married in 1943. She would spend the rest of her days there, giving art lessons and creating an exceptional body of work, including the bold and stylized linoleum block prints that are her greatest accomplishment.

For most of her life, Andrews worked in almost complete obscurity. Her reputation would grow after curators and historians became interested in the accomplishments of female artists from earlier generations—such as B.C.’s Sonia Cornwall and Emily Carr.

Andrews, born in 1898 in Bury St. Edmunds, a town northeast of London, had to wait until the 1970s for the Canadian art world to take serious notice of her work. Since her death in 1992, at age 94, its value has continued to climb. For instance, Speedway, a stunning 1934 linoleum block print of racing motorcycles, fetched almost $130,000 at a 2015 Heffel auction in Toronto.

The book, which takes its title from the artist’s fondness for curves as a compositional device, further cements Andrews’ reputation. Nicol, a former high school history teacher, is a diligent researcher and her writing is clear and precise. Her account offers rich detail but does not overwhelm. In the first chapter she promises insight into the 1910 decision by Andrews’ father to leave his family, never to return. While this device helps propel readers forward, the information turns out to be less dramatic than such foreshadowing might suggest.

Particularly interesting is how Andrews adapted artistically to new subject matter in Canada. Her early work, influenced by Futurism, an art movement interested in speed and technology, often focused on the physicality of collective labour, whether a team of men rowing or people at work. Nicol also notes the influence of an early art teacher, a socialist, and also of Vorticism, a short-lived modernist movement in Britain that favoured geometric abstraction.

Canada’s resource economy offered fortuitous opportunities for such an eye. Particularly striking is her portrayal of workers in plaid shirts in the 1952 linocut, Coffee Bar. Another work from the same year, Hauling, depicts a logging truck laden with huge trees. Both demonstrate Andrews’ ongoing interest “in the shapes and rhythms and the pattern of things”—as well her enjoyment of movement. The angles of the logging truck may seem exaggerated, and its tires oddly flattened into the road, but the work captures the energy of passing these hurtling behemoths. Indeed, Vancouver curator Ian Thom, who included Hauling in his 2000 book, Art BC: Masterworks from British Columbia, noted: “Rarely has the vitality of the logging industry been expressed so forcefully.”

Much more could be said about Andrews’ life, including her wartime work as a welder and the early influence of her close friend, British printmaker Cyril Power, a married man who lived apart from his family. Nicol acknowledges the question of whether he was a lover, or simply a father figure, but delicately sidesteps it. In any event, Andrews, who comes across as practical, self-contained and deeply focused on her work, seems an unlikely subject for a psychological portrait. Vancouver art critic Robin Laurence, in the book’s foreword, underlines this reading, recalling her 1981 interview with Andrews, then 83, and describing her as kind yet reserved, “plain-spoken, plainly dressed.”

What Andrews has left for public consumption, however, and Canadian art the richer for it, is a body of world-class work created in a most unlikely place. Over her life, Andrews made 87 linoleum block prints, 34 of them in Canada. I suspect she’d probably like to be remembered for her commitment to art’s exacting labour. As she once said, presciently, as it turned out: “Fame, if any, lay in the future … after the work was done.” 9781987915877

Portia Priegert is the editor of Galleries West magazine. She spent ten years as a journalist at the Ottawa bureau of Canadian Press, and has also worked as an art gallery director. She holds a BFA in visual arts and an MFA in creative writing from UBC.