Review: Women on Screens – Printmaking, photography and community activism

Print-it-Yourself, courtesy of Hackney Museum

One of Audre Lorde’s poems talks about the master’s tools will never dismantle a master’s house. I think there was a real conscious use of imagery to use not the master’s tools but women’s tools, which were traditionally the broom and the vacuum cleaner. It was about looking at power and agency differently, and using women’s ways to create change.’

  • Suzy Stiles, worker at the Lenthall Road Workshops.

If you stepped through the ordinary-looking front door of 81 Lenthall Road in the 1970s and 80s, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d stumbled on a covert military operation. In this shabby townhouse down a quiet street in Hackney, East London, you’d find women kitted out in boiler suits, respirator masks, and thick gloves moving around chemicals and heavy-duty equipment. The artist Claudette Johnson, a member of the Lenthall Road Workshop, recalls feeling like ‘guerilla fighters’, ready to ‘change something in society’. The revolution they were planning, however, was a peaceful one: their weapons were cameras, screen-printing materials, and the power of a community united by desire for social change, and they were fighting to ‘change how women were viewed in society’. Posters and other printed material made by the group are currently on display in a small but inspiring exhibition at the Hackney Museum, which traces the history of the feminist Lenthall Road Workshop from its beginnings as a community silkscreen and photography service in 1975, to its collaborations with groups such as Women’s Aid, the Black Lesbian and Gay Support Group, and Hackney Urban Studies Centre throughout the 1980s, and ending with its ultimate loss of funding in 1993. 

Claudette Johnson at Lenthall Road Workshop, courtesy of Hackney Museum

The workshop was set up as a reaction against the invisibility of women, and, in particular, BAME and disabled women, in male-dominated, white, heteronormative representations of public life. From its inception, the Lenthall Road Workshop focussed on empowering, rather than speaking for, the community – Suzy Stiles notes that the group wanted to give women ‘access to the means to enable their voices to be heard’. To achieve this, the Workshop arranged skill-sharing sessions and offered affordable classes on screen-printing and photography. By learning these skills, ordinary women gained the tools they need to gain both a place for themselves in society and a platform to shout about issues affecting their lives and communities. One section of the exhibition is dedicated to the Hackney Girls Project, a youth initiative set up by the Lenthall Road Workshop to provide a safe space for girls to play sport and hang out with friends, but also to learn practical skills such as self-defence. Crucial to the Hackney Girls Project and the Lenthall Road Workshop’s wider mission was the sense that activism and revolution start at home. To empower women in their everyday lives, the group organised lessons from electricians and other tradespeople; members could gain the skills they needed to improve their own homes and also become more employable. In Eithne Nightingale’s memories of the workshop, she fondly recalls learning to make curtains to liven up her grotty flat. 

Reclaim the Night (1980), courtesy of Hackney Museum

Perhaps the most striking element of the exhibition is the Lenthall Road Workshop’s total commitment to accessibility and inclusion. Posters that the group created to promote the many feminist festivals, screenings, and workshops they helped organise throughout Hackney consistently proclaim that events support LGBT members, are accessible to wheelchair users, and include crèche facilities. The exhibition includes images publicising a vast range of causes and initiatives, from the Lesbian and Gay Employment Rights’ Black Lesbian and Gay Support Group, to the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and photographer Gonul Zeki’s prints and t-shirts declaring slogans like ‘HETEROSEXUALITY IS NOT NORMAL, IT’S JUST COMMON’. Equal representation was something that the Workshop viewed as an ongoing process: by the mid-1980s, its core group of organisers were all black working-class women, in an effort to encourage more women from this section of the community to participate. In this way, a genuine concern with engaging and empowering local people was consistently at the heart of the Lenthall Road Workshop’s operations. Beyond offering practical skills, it also facilitated a supportive network for working-class women. The exhibition repeatedly reminds us that it functioned as a crucial space of communication and exchange in a pre-internet era, a place where women could share stories, discuss ideas, and build confidence together. One poster promoting Shintaido lessons features a quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road, which encapsulates a key part of the Workshop’s ethos: ‘all these are the powers and privileges of friendship’.

Rolling Sisters, courtesy of Hackney Museum

Stepping out from the museum back in to the Hackney of 2019, it’s hard not to feel a sense of frustration. The racist, sexist, and ableist society that the Lenthall Road Workshop challenged seems sadly all too familiar: rising hate crime against minority groups, the hollowing out of London’s youth services, and a racist, chauvinist egotist as our soon-to-be prime minister make it seem like little progress has been made. Conversely, Lenthall Road today feels like a completely different world – now a smart street with houses selling for well over a million pounds, it’s impossible to imagine that this could be the site of radical activism and community action. ‘Women on Screens’ ends on a call to harness digital technology and online platforms in the continued struggle for women’s empowerment and freedom of self-expression, yet it’s worth bearing in mind that in-person activism and print publications such as OOMK, Gal Dem, and Doll Hospital are still essential agents for change in our digital age. ‘Women on Screens’ is an important reminder that small acts can revolutionise our everyday lives, as well as the need – now as much as then – to build bonds in and across the community, share knowledge, and leave no one behind.

A is for ‘Ackney (c. 1970s), courtesy of Hackney Museum

Women on Screens: Printmaking, photography and community activism at Lenthall Road Workshop 1970s-1990s, at Hackney Museum, London, between 14 May – 31 August

Words: Lottie Whalen

Review: The Cutting Edge Women of British Modern Printmaking

Image of Dorrit Black's 'Music', made between 1927-1928. Colourful, abstract patterns in the background overlaid with stylised figures dancing.
Dorrit Black, Music, 1927-28. Elder Bequest Fund 1976, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. 

With bold colours, pulsating patterns and dynamic figures, the works of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art exude the great vitality and rhythm of modern life in 1930s Britain. This little known group of artists is the subject of the current exhibition Cutting Edge: Modern British Printmaking at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Taking place 90 years after the first exhibition to showcase British linocuts in London, it celebrates the innovative work made by ten artists affiliated with the Grosvenor School during its short but intense period of activity between the world wars.

The Grosvenor School of Modern Art’s contribution to British modern art has largely been forgotten and under-researched. Yet, the over 120 prints, drawings and posters on display illustrate why these artists deserve to have their moment in the spotlight. Founded in Pimlico, London in 1925 by the Scottish wood engraver Iain Macnab, the Grosvenor School of Modern Art was dedicated to the production of modern printmaking during the interwar period. At its heart was Claude Flight, the artist and teacher is credited as a champion of linocut printmaking and the force behind the school’s promotion of this modern technique as a serious art form. 

Developed in Germany in the early twentieth century, linoleum colour print (linocut) was a new art form that involved an accessible making-process and affordable materials (linoleum is a mixture of cork and linseed oil on a canvas backing that was invented in the 1860s as a cheap and easily cleaned floor surface). The democratic nature of this medium offered fresh opportunities for experimentation and expression. Flight promoted linocuts as ‘an art of the people’ since it allowed a great range of people to appreciate modern art and practice it themselves.

Students at the Grosvenor School 1930s.

The exhibition’s opening room thoughtfully introduces this unique school, displaying archival materials and prints by members of the British Avant garde such as Paul Nash and Christopher Nevinson – the latter whom Flight studied alongside at art school – to illustrate its contextual groundings and modernist approach. Displayed in dialogue on opposite walls, it is clear how Flight’s own work and that of his students were influenced by international Avant garde movements such as Vorticism, Futurism and Cubism: their use of stark contrast, harsh lines and abstracted forms to emphasize speed and mechanics when capturing the horrors of the modern world as witnessed during the First World War.

However, as evident in the following room and throughout the exhibitions, the Grosvenor School group draw upon these styles to present a more positive view of life in Britain during the interwar period. The progressive aims of the Grosvenor School artists – which included staff and students – is also seen in the subject matter their linocuts present. Gordon Samuel, the exhibitions curator, divides the works into themes across six rooms: labour and leisure, sporting life, the pastoral, London and transport. The works wonderfully capture the bustle of life in the 1920s and 1930s, turning every day scenes and relatable subjects into vibrant, captivating works of art. 

Sybil Andrews, Speedway, 1934. Photo Osborne Samuel, London/ © The Estate of Sybil Andrews.

It is the women of the Grosvenor School artists who steal the show. Outnumbering their male counterparts on display, these innovate women illustrate a full mastery of the art forum with seemingly great ease and flair. Central to the group was Sybil Andrews, an artist recruited by Macnab to be the secretary of the Grosvenor School. Her works feature in each room, but two that especially highlight her extraordinary skill were Speedway from 1934 (pictured above) and Straphangers from 1929 (pictured below). Considered to be her most successful print, Speedway depicts motorcyclists racing along the bend of the road as they make their turn around the speedway. Andrews used multiple blocks to craft her composition by building up the layers of colours to form her figures and give texture to the landscape, seen in the top left corner, as well as brilliantly utilising curved lines to illustrate the drivers great speed. Whereas in Straphangers, the curved lines of the block mimic the swaying of passengers as they hold on to the straps from above whilst riding the tube. It is almost as if one is looking through the window from another train carriage to where Andrews has paused the unique moment in which the commuters are suspended to one side as the train hurtles down its track. Erase the top hats and it could a contemporary view of the District line today.

Sybil Andrews, Straphangers, 1929. Linocut, 25.3 x 33 cm. Private Collection.

Inspired by Flight’s teaching and books on linocuts that were printed globally, international students came to study at the Grosvenor School. A majority of these students were middle class women traveling throughout Europe studying art, although the wall labels give no distinct explanation for this particular trend. Three Australian artists – Dorrit Black, Eveline Syme and Ethel Spowers – and Lill Tschudi, the Swiss student who first came to Grosvenor at the age of 17, feature prominently in the show and exhibit their great command of linocuts. For example, Dorrit Black’s Dance from 1927-28 (pictured at top) is inspired by a night out at a jazz evening in London. Black translates the energy and joy of jazz music through her use of bold colours segmented by black lines across the flat surface, resembling stained glass. With no differentiation between the floor and ceiling, her figures dance across the page seemingly with the rhythm flowing through their limbs, one can almost hear the hiss and tap of the drums with the crooning of a saxophone.

Lill Tschudi, Gymnastic Exercises, 1931. Photo Bonhams/ © The Estate of Lill Tschudi, courtesy of Mary Ryan Gallery New York. 

The work of female artists within the Grosvenor School group show the full range of possibilities and potential of linocuts by taking everyday subjects and turning them into masterpieces of modern art. Their innovative use of colour, form and composition present a positive and celebratory view of daily life in Britain in the 1930s.

The exhibition concludes with a large display of the posters Andrews and Cyril Power – an artist and Grosvenor teacher of architecture – created together under the name ‘Andrews-Power’ for the London Underground, highlighting the mass appeal of the Grosvenor style at the time. It further emphasises how peculiar that these artists have remained largely unknown for so long given the high number of women artists, the group’s progressive aims and success in advertising. It is rare to come across a modern art group and more generally art school from this time that involved many women, and the lack of information specifically acknowledging this was clearly lacking. What were the motivations of international and middle class women being drawn to the Grosvenor School to pursue linocut printmaking as their chosen craft?

Regardless, it was refreshing to see modern women artists prominently featured in both the group’s activities and the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The work of Andrews, Tschudi, Black and their fellow female artists demonstrate the innovative ways in which they utilised linocuts to craft unique yet accessible and exciting reflections of work, play and modern life around them in abstracted form. Their images seem so familiar and simultaneously completely new. Their work and their stories illustrate why this exhibition on the Grosvenor School of Modern Art is relevant and important to people, and especially artists, today. Hopefully, as this thoughtful and elegant exhibition at Dulwich Gallery successfully argues, people are inspired further research and delve into the work of the cutting edge women and their contributions to modern art and design in Britain and beyond.

Suzanna Petot is a curator and writer based in London.

Cutting Edge: Modern British Printmaking is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, open until 8 September 2019 (Book tickets here). All images courtesy Dulwich Picture Gallery.