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Spencer, Stanley

Category: Artist and sculptor

 

Sir Stanley Spencer KCB CBE RA (30 June 1891 – 14 December 1959) was an English painter, perhaps best known for his Biblical scenes set in Cookham, the small village beside the River Thames where he was born and spent much of his life.

Spencer referred to Cookham as "a village in Heaven" and in his biblical scenes, fellow-villagers are shown in scenes from the New testament. Spencer's works often express his fervent ‘if unconventional’ Christian faith, which allied a great love for his fellow man with compassion and empathy for their various lives.  Even his very early paintings, completed whilst he was at the Slade had a religious theme - John Donne Arriving in Heaven, The Nativity, [for which he won a Slade Composition Prize] Zacharias and Elizabeth and The Centurion's Servant.  Faith never left him and events tended to reinforce rather than remove it.

Thus he merits a place on this site simply because he believed in the spiritual.  But Spencer also had a quite momentous vision - a revelation - which he had while in Glasgow working on the Shipbuilding on the Clyde series during the War.  We have provided this as an observation along with the paintings it inspired. 

Resurrection - waking-up - 1945

Spencer's original plan for realising this vision would have required a canvas some fifty feet wide.

Appreciating that this was impractical, he instead embarked on a series of paintings, the two largest of these, Resurrection:The Hill of Sion and Resurrection:Port Glasgow, at some twenty-two feet long each, matched the scale of his original vision. These were supplemented by a series of triptychs, Reunion, Rejoicing, Waking Up and The Raising of Jairus' Daughter plus two smaller pieces. Spencer wanted the entire series displayed together, but each piece was sold to a different collector or gallery.

Visions are awe inspiring at the best of times, but in Spencer we had someone capable of showing us what they can feel like.  It is perhaps one of the sadder aspects of his story, that we shall never see his vision in its entirety or grasp the scale of the scene he 'saw'.

His art

 
 

Despite trying to pigeon hole his style as “a synthesis of French Post-Impressionism, plus early Italian painting typified by Giotto”[Wikipedia], his style is entirely his own.  No French Impressionist ever painted his women with such graphic realism, nor did Giotto paint his figures in such an abstract endearing fashion.  One might better say he is Beryl Cook combined with Lucian Freud, except they probably based their works on his, not the other way round.

He was also a painter of Light.  It fills his earlier work, his paintings are full of Light – religious and not religious.  But as he became perhaps more brutalised by the events that dogged him later in life, the Light fades and we are left with simply vibrant colour.  Spencer’s story is a sad one, as he went from being in the Light, to losing it, perhaps the worst thing that can happen to anyone who is spiritually inclined.

Early life

Spencer was the eighth surviving child of William and Anna Caroline Spencer (née Slack). His father was a music teacher and church organist. Physically Spencer was not very robust, slightly built and only about 5 foot tall, even in manhood.  In most photos of him with other men, they tower over him, making him look like a very vulnerable child. 

 

He was sensitive, emotional, somewhat solitary and thus in many ways not ‘normal’.  He was educated at home by his sisters Annie and Florence, as his parents had reservations about how he would cope with the local school. Both Stanley and his brother Gilbert took drawing lessons from a local artist, Dorothy Bailey.

Eventually, Stanley was sent to a school in Maidenhead, but the family had deep misgivings about this move.  He was “developing into a solitary teenager given to long walks, yet with a passion for drawing”.

His father approached local landowners, Lord and Lady Boston, for advice, and Lady Boston agreed Stanley could spend time drawing with her each week. In 1907 Lady Boston arranged for Stanley to attend Maidenhead Technical Institute, where his father insisted he should not take any exams.

Almost photographic, but with clarity unlike any photograph and soft jewel colours

From 1908 to 1912, Spencer studied at the Slade School of Art at University College, London.  One of his contemporaries was Paul Nash and if one was to say anyone influenced him, Nash and he appear to have influenced each other.  So profound was his attachment to Cookham that most days he would take the train back home in time for tea. It even became his nickname: his fellow student C.R.W. Nevinson dubbed him Cookham, a name which Spencer himself took to using for a time.

For those unfamiliar with Cookham it would have been in those days, a quiet, rural village set in the beauty of the English countryside, surrounded by trees and gentle meadows.  It would not have been very large, which means most people would have known one another and in fairly typical English village life would have ‘looked out for one another’ – either to gossip or to ensure the vulnerable were alright.  Most village life in those days centred on the church as a focal point for village gatherings, festivals such as harvest festival or Easter and religious worship every Sunday.  It was thus a relatively threat free, peaceful existence.

War and its consequences

unveiling a war memorial at cookham 1921

During World War One Spencer, Spencer volunteered to serve with the Royal Army Medical Corps, joining in 1915.  He spent thirteen months at Beaufort War Hospital, Bristol, before being transferred to Macedonia.  In all, Spencer spent two and a half years on the front line in Macedonia, before he was invalided out of the Army following persistent bouts of malaria. His elder brother Sydney was killed in action in September 1918, and this and his own experiences indelibly marked Spencer's attitude to life and death.

Returning to England and his painting, Spencer found it difficult to continue after his war-time experiences.  Many of his commissioned paintings after the War were various forms of memorial to those who had died and simply reinforced his memories. 

Spencer lived in Cookham until April 1920 when he moved to Bourne End; but in 1921, Spencer stayed with Muirhead Bone at Steep in Hampshire where he worked on mural designs for a village hall war memorial scheme and in 1923 he spent the summer in Poole, Dorset, with Henry Lamb working on sketch designs for another war memorial scheme.

Two early patrons of Spencer's work, Louis and Mary Behrend, also commissioned a group of paintings as a memorial to Mary's brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham, who had died in the war. The Behrends planned to build a chapel in the village of Burghclere in Berkshire to house the paintings. So death and ‘resurrection’ was a continuing theme of all this time. All this constant immersion in themes of death, came to fruition in October 1923, when Spencer started renting Henry Lamb's studio in Hampstead to begin work on The Resurrection, Cookham.  He worked on the picture from 1924 to 1927.

After completing the  The Resurrection, Spencer moved to Burghclere to begin work on the Sandham Memorial Chapel for the Behrends.  Working on the Memorial Chapel has been described as a six-year process of remembrance and exorcism for Spencer and he explained the emphasis on the colossal resurrection scene, "I had buried so many people and saw so many bodies that I felt death could not be the end of everything."

First Marriage and Preece

Family group, Hilda, Unity and dolls

In 1925, Spencer married Hilda Carline, then a student at the Slade and the sister of the artists Richard and Sydney Carline. A daughter, Shirin, was born in November of that year and a second daughter, Unity, in 1930.

By 1932 Spencer was back in Cookham with his two daughters and Hilda living in a large house, Lindworth, off the High Street. Here Spencer painted observational studies of his surroundings and other landscapes, which would become the major themes of his work over the following years.   During 1932 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and exhibited ten works at the Venice Biennale.

However he was becoming dissatisfied with married life. Hilda was often in Hampstead as her elder brother was badly ill and when she was in Cookham, life with her was not the cosy domestic idyll Spencer expected.

In 1929, Spencer had met the artist Patricia Preece in Cookham and now he became infatuated with her. Preece was a young fashion-conscious artist who had lived in Cookham since 1927. In 1933, she first modelled for Spencer and when he visited Switzerland that summer, to paint landscapes, Preece joined him there.

Portrait of Patricia Preece 1933

Although much emphasis has been placed on his affair with Preece, understandably since she features in a number of his more well known works, Spencer had at least two other significant affairs during his life, one with Daphne Charlton while at Leonard Stanley, and the other with Charlotte Murray, a Jungian analyst, when he was in Glasgow.

Spencer was fascinated by love of all kinds, sacred love and profane love, platonic love and lustful love!  And he appears to have decided to explore them all.  One way in which we know of the loves in his life are because he dedicated chapels to the women he loved.  As well as a chapel dedicated to Hilda, he had plans to build a chapel dedicated to Elise Munday, the Spencer family servant, the subject of Hilda's finest painting and one of his platonic loves.  Daphne Charlton and Charlotte Murray were also clearly significant, there were to be chapels dedicated to both of them.  But not one to Preece.

Marriage to Preece

Preece

When Spencer made a return visit to Switzerland in 1935, Patricia Preece travelled with him and when they returned to Cookham, Spencer's wife Hilda moved to Hampstead.

Preece began to manage Spencer's finances and he signed the deeds of his house, Lindworth, over to her. Between the middle of 1935 and 1936 Spencer painted a series of nine pictures, known as the Domestic Scenes in which he recalled, or re-imagined, life with Hilda at home. While Spencer was painting these, Hilda, as shown by her letters from the time, was growing increasingly despondent and hurt at Spencer's fixation with Preece.

Hilda finally started divorce proceedings and a decree absolute was issued in May 1937.

Wikipedia
Preece used her awareness of Spencer's sexual interest in her to manipulate him. Carline later wrote: "She vamped him to a degree unbelievable. … If he went to her house, she always received him half or quarter dressed." He bought her large amounts of clothing, jewellery and other gifts. Spencer's fantasy was to have both Carline and Preece as wives, both inspiring his art.

self portrait 1935

But all was not as straightforward as it seemed.  Preece was a lesbian and lived with the artist Dorothy Hepworth. Much of Preece's seduction of Spencer appears to have been in order to gain his money, as Preece and Hepworth were financially not at all well off, as a consequence of the financial  crash of the 1930s.  Even though Spencer knew of the relationship between Hepworth and Preece, a week after his divorce he married Preece.  She continued to live with her partner, Dorothy Hepworth, and refused to consummate the marriage. When Spencer’s bizarre relationship with Preece finally fell apart, though she would never grant him a divorce, he would visit Hilda, an arrangement that continued throughout the latter's subsequent mental breakdown.

 

Spencer painted naked portraits of Preece in 1935 and 1936 and, also in 1936, a double nude portrait of himself and Preece, Self-Portrait with Patricia Preece, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum. This was followed, in 1937, by Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and His Second Wife, known as the Leg of mutton nude, a painting never publicly exhibited during Spencer's lifetime. In a futile attempt to be reconciled with Hilda, Spencer went to stay with her in Hampstead for ten days. Her rejection of this approach is the basis of Hilda, Unity and Dolls, which Spencer painted during that visit.

Hilda 1949.  Hilda died from cancer in November 1950
 

In October 1938 Spencer had to leave Cookham.  He lost Hilda, he lost Lindworth his house, as Preece rented it out - effectively evicting Spencer. He separated and became estranged from Preece.  By September 1939, he was staying with the artists George and Daphne Charlton [with whom he had an affair] , effectively homeless, but not friendless.  And the War approached.

World War II

Spencer rented a room in Epsom, to be near Hilda and his children, but the landlady there disliked him.  He wanted to move back to Cookham and work in his old studio, but he could not afford to rent it from Preece.

All during the War Spencer worked on a series of monumental paintings depicting the work being undertaken in the shipyards for the War effort.  The War Artists' Advisory Committee, had commissioned Spencer in May 1940 and sent him to the Lithgows Shipyard in Port Glasgow on the River Clyde to depict the civilians at work there. As a result of his early paintings, the WAAC commissioned more and Spencer worked the entire war on these paintings.  The WAAC held Spencer in the highest regard and hearing he had no studio, agreed to further financial help for that purpose. Spencer whole series of paintings including Template, Bending the Keel plate, Riggers, Plumbers, and The Furnaces, which would become the central piece of the scheme,  are now on display at the Riverside Museum, Glasgow.

It was during his time in Glasgow that he had his vision or revelation.

In 1945 Spencer returned to live in Cookham in a house called Cliveden View, which had once belonged to his brother Percy.

Last years

 

In his later years Spencer was seen as a "small man with twinkling eyes and shaggy grey hair, often wearing his pyjamas under his suit if it was cold."

Spencer became a "familiar sight, wandering the lanes of Cookham pushing the old pram in which he carried his canvas and easel." The pram, black and battered, has survived to become the most curious exhibit in the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, which is dedicated to its owner's life and works.

Spencer was made an Honorary Doctor of Letters by Southampton University in 1958, three days before he received his knighthood at Buckingham Palace.

 

In December 1958 Spencer was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent an operation at the Canadian War Memorial Hospital on the Cliveden estate in 1959. After his operation, he went to stay with friends in Dewsbury. There, over five days from July 12 to July 16 he painted a final self-portrait. Self-Portrait (1959) shows a fierce, almost defiant individual. Lord Astor made arrangements so that Spencer could move into his childhood home, Fernlea, and he died of cancer at nearby Cliveden in December that year.

Spencer was cremated and his ashes laid in Cookham Churchyard, beside the path through to Bellrope Meadow. A discreet stone memorial marks the spot. The commemorative wording is:
"To the memory of Stanley Spencer Kt. CBE RA, 1891–1959, and his wife Hilda, buried in Cookham cemetery 1950. Everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God: He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love."

References

  •  
    Stanley Spencer, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, by Keith Bell, published 1991
  • Stanley Spencer, Letters and Writings, by the Tate Archivist Andrew Glew, published in 2001
  • Stanley Spencer by Kitty Hauser, also from Tate Publications 2001 - offers an introductory overview of the artist's work and life
  • THE ART and VISION of  STANLEY SPENCER  by Kenneth Pople (1917-2009) who wrote the acclaimed centenary biography, Stanley Spencer, published by Collins in 1991. It was nominated for the Whitbread Prize and went on to two paperback editions before going out of print in 1997. Copies still circulate.
  • Stanley Spencer: A Private View - Preece's posthumous memoir of her life with Spencer, written with Louise Collis, published in 1972.

Observations

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