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Syme, Eveline Winifred (1888–1961)

by Stephen Coppel

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Eveline Winifred Syme (1888-1961), painter and printmaker, was born on 26 October 1888 at Thames Ditton, Surrey, England, daughter of Joseph Cowen Syme, newspaper proprietor, and his wife Laura, née Blair. Ebenezer Syme was her grandfather. Eveline was raised in the family mansion at St Kilda, Melbourne. After leaving the Church of England Girls' Grammar School, Melbourne, she voyaged to England and studied classics in 1907-10 at Newnham College, Cambridge (B.A., M.A., 1930). Because the University of Cambridge did not then award degrees to women, she applied to the University of Melbourne for accreditation, but was only granted admission to third-year classics. She chose instead to complete a diploma of education (1914).

Syme's artistic career was enhanced by her close friendship with Ethel Spowers. She studied painting at art schools in Paris in the early 1920s, notably under Maurice Denis and André Lhote, and held a solo exhibition, mainly of watercolours, at Queen's Hall, Melbourne, in 1925. Her one-woman shows, at the Athenaeum Gallery (1928) and Everyman's Library and Bookshop (1931), included linocuts and wood-engravings. While many of her watercolours and prints drew on her travels through England, Provence, France, and Tuscany, Italy, she also responded to the Australian landscape, particularly the countryside around Melbourne and Sydney, and at Port Arthur, Tasmania. Syme's chance discovery of Claude Flight's textbook, Lino-Cuts (London, 1927), inspired her to enrol (with Spowers) in his classes at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, London, in January 1929. In keeping with Flight's modernist conception of the linocut, she began to produce prints incorporating bold colour and rhythmic design.

Returning to Melbourne in 1929 with an exhibition of contemporary wood-engravings from the Redfern Gallery, London, Syme became a cautious advocate of modern art. She published a perceptive account of Flight and his teaching in the Recorder (1929) and spoke on the radio about wood-engraving; she also wrote a pioneering essay on women artists in Victoria from 1857, which was published in the Centenary Gift Book (1934), edited by Frances Fraser and Nettie Palmer. Syme was a founding member (1932-38) of George Bell's Contemporary Group. She regularly exhibited with the Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors and with the Independent Group of Artists. Her linocuts, perhaps her most significant achievement, owed much to her collaboration with Spowers.

During the mid-1930s Syme was prominent in moves to establish a women's residential college at the University of Melbourne. In 1936, as vice-president of the appeal committee, she donated the proceeds of her print retrospective (held at the gallery of the Arts and Crafts Society of Victoria) to the building fund. A foundation member (1936-61) of the council of University Women's College, she served as its president (1940-47) and as a member of its finance committee. She was appointed to the first council of the National Gallery Society of Victoria in 1947 and sat on its executive-committee in 1948-53. In addition, she was a member (1919) and president (1950-51) of the Lyceum Club.

A tall, elegant and reserved woman, Syme had a 'crisp, quick voice' and a 'rather abrupt manner'. She died on 6 June 1961 at Richmond and was buried with Presbyterian forms in Brighton cemetery. In her will she left her books and £5000 to University Women's College. Edith Alsop's portrait (1932) of Syme is held by University College. Syme's work is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, State galleries in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, and the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Deutsher and R. Butler (compilers), A Survey of Australian Relief Prints 1900/1950, exhibition catalogue (Melb, 1978)
  • J. Burke, Australian Women Artists 1840-1940 (Melb, 1980)
  • S. Coppel, Linocuts of the Machine Age (Aldershot, Eng, 1995)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 21 Sept 1925, 5 Mar 1928, 9 June 1961
  • Age (Melbourne), 22 Sept 1925, 6 Mar 1928, 8 June 1961
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 Sept 1925, 23 Nov 1927, 18 Aug 1931, 5 May 1936
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 6 Mar 1928, 18 Aug 1931, 5 May 1936.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Stephen Coppel, 'Syme, Eveline Winifred (1888–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/syme-eveline-winifred-11814/text21139, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 26 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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