Hell in Arcadia
Stanley Spencer at The Hepworth

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Stanley Spencer, Self-portrait By Gaslight Looking Downwards, 1949, oil on canvas
© The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images

‘To be a great artist one must first be a natural everyday human being.’
Stanley Spencer in May 1915

Although Stanley Spencer attended the Slade School of Art where he was a prizewinning student among other gifted students who included Dora Car­rington, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash and David Bomberg, and though his tutor, Henry Tonks, claimed that he had the most original mind of any student he had taught, Spencer’s four years at the Slade were not, according to his biographer, Fiona MacCarthy, altogether happy:

He was marked out as a misfit by his physical appear­ance: his diminutiveness (he was only 5 feet 2 inches), his heavy fringe, and pudding-basin haircut. His aura of other-worldliness…enhanced by the fact that he commut­ed daily by train from Berkshire. He was known jeeringly as Cookham (a name given him by C.R.W. Nevinson) and terrified by being put upside-down in a sack.

Parochial, idiosyncratic and visionary, Spencer was a quintessentially Eng­lish painter, though his work looked back to Giotto and the Italian Primi­tives while, in his unflinching, flesh-revealing nudes, foreshadowed the confessional intimacy of Lucian Freud, as well as the mind- altering ‘spiri­tuality’ of the 1960s counter-culture.

But it was his beloved Cookham, the small village on the banks of the Thames in Berkshire where Spencer grew up and lived most of his life – ‘avillage in Heaven’ as he called it- that proved his major source of inspira­tion. With its red-brick houses, neat gardens and Wind in the Willows atmo­sphere it became the backcloth for his religious visions where lumpen pro­vincials re-enacted the Bible as fireside narratives in local churchyards and back gardens. The Betrayal, which takes place in Cookham High Street, behind the gardens of the two Spencer family homes, shows Peter raising his arm to the High Priest’s servant, while the disciples cower behind a wall like curious village gossips. These biblical scenes of neighbours and fellow villagers were a visual expression of Spencer’s unconventional Christian faith and the desire to make his eccentric feelings ‘an ordinary fact of the street.’

As with William Blake, whose mantle he in many ways adopted, life and art were seen as sacred and entwined. Like Blake he believed that the divine was to be found in the everyday and the ordinary; that the world could be seen in ‘a grain of sand, and…heaven in a wild flower’. Writing from Twe­seldon Camp, near Farnham in May 1916 where, during the First World War he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps (his puny physique prevented him from enlisting) he gave a clue to this philosophy:

I think there is something wonderful in hospital life… the act of doing things to men is wonderful. Now I am sweeping…now I am cleaning dishes…now I am polishing. There is such unity and yet variety in it. I think this feeling is in those things (bas reliefs) in the Giotto Campanile.

The world that shaped Stanley Spencer has long since disappeared and with it a certain kind of Englishness embedded in the comforting coherence of cosy village life. His local home-spun bohemianism was part of an ‘is there honey still for tea’ nursery innocence that saw Englishness as a sort of pre-lapsarian utopia that was dismantled by the horrors of the First World War. The eighth surviving child of William and Anna Caroline Spencer, Stanley’s father, affectionately known as Par, was a church organist and music teacher who gave lessons at home. The family villa, Fernlea, on Cookham High Street, was built by Stanley’s grandfather, Julius Spencer. His parents were what, today, we’d call ‘de-schoolers’, with reservations about the local council school. Unable to afford private fees they arranged for Stanley to be taught at home by his sisters. As a result his education was fairly patchy, a fact illustrated by the odd stream-of-consciousness prose that proliferates his copious letters. He and his brother Gilbert also took drawing lessons from a local artist, Dorothy Bailey. When Gilbert was, eventually, sent to a school in Maidenhead the family didn’t feel this would be right for Stanley, a solitary teenager given to long walks, with a passion for drawing. So Pa Spencer arranged with local landowners, Lord and Lady Boston, that he should spend time drawing each week with Lady Boston. In 1907, she arranged for him to attend Maidenhead Technical Institute. His father agreed, on condition that he did not sit any of the exams.

The exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield celebrates the 125th anniver­sary of Spencer’s birth and brings together more than seventy significant works spanning a forty-five year career. One of the highlights is the number of rarely seen self-portraits where the fresh-faced boy can be seen slowly transmuting into the bespectacled eccentric of popular myth. Presented thematically the richly detailed paintings reveal the apparent conflicts be­tween Spencer’s slightly off-the-wall religious beliefs and his sexuality, his relationship to nature and his passion for the domestic. Biblical allegories filled with bulbous figures with big bosoms and ample thighs that echo Georg Grosz or Otto Dix’s caricatures (but without their satire) are shown alongside evocative pastoral landscapes and studies of shipbuilding on the Clyde, executed while Spencer was a war artist at the Kingston shipyard Port Glasgow, in which he celebrates and mythologises the dignity and heroism of work.

Stanley Spencer, Self-Portrait, 1923, oil on canvas. Stanley Spencer Gallery Collection
© The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images

The Resurrection was, for Spencer a reoccurring theme. After his first solo exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in 1927 The Times art critic wrote ‘What makes it so astonishing is the combination…of careful detail with the mod­ern freedom of form. It is as if a Pre-Raphaelite had shaken hands with a Cubist.’ Spencer repeatedly referred to the war as his inspiration for these paintings: ‘I had buried so many people and saw so many dead bodies that I felt that death could not be the end of everything.’ This melding of lived experience with biblical story telling is there, also, in his 1912 The Nativ­ity, inspired by his walks at Cliveden ‘along the path skirting Sir George Young’s fisheries’ with its deep grass and bent garden trellis, while a Cookham malt house provided the setting for the elongated figures of The Last Supper, seated around a U–shaped table, their legs and big bare feet poking beneath the white cloth. Started before the war, Spencer added the legs on his return. A detail with which he was particularly pleased. While Sarah Tubbs and the Heavenly Visitors, is based on a story told to him by his father. In 1910 the tail of Halley’s Comet created an exceptional sunset that caused old ‘Granny’ Tubb to fear that the end of the world was neigh, so that she knelt by her gate in the High Street to pray. Spencer’s painting shows her comforted by ‘heavenly visitors’ who present her with cherished items including a papier mâché text and a postcard of Cookham Church held by Stanley’s cousin Annie Slack, who worked in the village shop. Spencer claimed, rather mysteriously, that the fact he was now ‘sexually conscious added and increased the illusion.’

On his home-coming from Macedonia with the Berkshire Infantry he drew up plans to create a memorial chapel based on his war experiences and in 1919 met the artist Hilda Carline, with whom he settled in Cookham and had two children. But the marriage was sexually fraught, affected, perhaps, by Carline’s Christian Science beliefs and in the 1930s he began to pursue fellow artist, Patricia Preece, a lesbian who lived in the village with her partner Dorothy Hepworth. Naively Spencer wanted to be married to both Carline and Preece.

Although this exhibition is missing the infamous Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife of 1937 (often known as The Leg of Mut­ton), his 1935 Nude shows what he described as ‘the passionate intensity and meaning in her [Preece’s] loveliness’, and highlights the peculiarly sa­domasochistic flavour of their relationship. With her cold blue eyes, white skin and pendulous breasts, her pert mouth and look of disdain towards the artist, there can be little surprise that she left him to return to Dorothy.

Was Spencer simply a Holy Fool, a quirky Edwardian eccentric who went on painting his beloved Cookham until his death in 1959 – well into the age of rock n’roll, Jackson Pollock and Pop art – out of touch with the modern world? A man unable to move on beyond the consolations of childhood? ‘Mentally,’ he wrote, when in his forties, ‘I have been bedridden all my life,’ and ‘I wish all my life I could have been tied to my mother’s apron strings. It would have suited me, mostly in the kitchen or the bedroom…a long talk and plenty of cups of tea.’

Love for Spencer was a melding of the sexual and the domestic. Not for him the great romances of Troilus and Cressida or Abelard and Heloise. ‘The joy of this eternal home-coming,’ as he described the erotic, was de­picted in his archetypal lovers – the dustman and his wife – where the in­fantilised dustman is carried Pietà-like in his wife’s strong maternal arms. A teapot, an empty jam jar, and some cabbage stalks all provide an esoteric link to the mystery of the Trinity. ‘Nothing I love is rubbish,’ he said. ‘I am on the side of the angels and dirt.’

Although Spencer’s language is original and uniquely idiosyncratic it chimes with the mood of the English religious revival of the interwar years explored by Graham Sutherland and Eric Gill, by Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson in their Christian Science, and in Tom Eliot’s poetic flir­tations with high Anglicanism and Buddhism. Heaven, for Spencer, was always the village of Cookham, a sort of nursery limbo for his Peter Panish character. Yet despite his claim that ‘Sorrow and sadness is not for me’ there is a deep dysfunctional loneliness and existential alienation within his paintings. Looking at the crowds gathered on The Hill of Zion or escaping from their tombs in the Resurrection of the Good and the Bad it’s hard to decide whether his cast of characters have found their way to an eternal paradise in Berkshire or some Cookham version of Dante’s circles of hell.

Published in London Magazine


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