Stanley Spencer A primer

Stanley Spencer: A primer

An essential introduction to one of the most extraordinary and best-loved British artists of the 20th century, renowned for his war paintings and putting Cookham in Berkshire on the art map

Who? Stanley Spencer (30 June 1891–14 December 1959). Or more precisely, Sir Stanley Spencer KCB CBE RA. Part of the Slade’s ‘Crisis of Brilliance’.

The what? ‘Crisis of Brilliance’ — how his drawing tutor Henry Tonks described him and his classmates at the Slade around 1908–1912. They were quite a class: Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Richard Nevinson, Paul Nash, David Bomberg.

Looks like it. What were they like? Wild and free. Boisterous. A heady cocktail of public-school and Jewish émigré students. By contrast, Stanley was the sixth son of a piano teacher from the Home Counties. He had tousled black hair, a rosy face and a generally untidy appearance. They teased him for going home to his family in Cookham, Berkshire, instead of attending drawing classes and staying in London to do miscellaneous art school/bohemian things. They called him ‘Cookham’. Still, Tonks said that he had ‘the most original mind of anyone we have had here at the Slade’, and that helped him make friends.

Who influenced him? People like Giotto and Mantegna. Historian and writer David Boyd Haycock notes that Spencer was included in Roger Fry’s Second Exhibition of Post-Impressionism in 1912 when he was still in his early 20s, so there was a perception among contemporaries that he had been influenced by recent French painters — Gauguin was perhaps the clearest influence at this early stage in his career. But when fellow Slade student Mark Gertler asked him what he thought of Picasso, Spencer replied: ‘I haven’t got past Piero della Francesca yet.’ It would be the early Italian Renaissance painters that proved his greatest long-term influence — although Paul Nash described him as ‘the last of the Pre-Raphaelites’.

Did he have a lovely war? Full of death and sickness. He was keen to fight but decided to join the Royal Army Medical Corps and was ordered to report for duty as an orderly at Beaufort Hospital, Bristol in July 1915. In May 1916 he was sent to Macedonia, treating casualties. He requested a transfer to the infantry in 1917, then was invalided out after contracting malaria. His brother was killed in action in September 1918. All this would have an immediate and profound effect on his work.

Sir Stanley Spencer, R.A. (1891-1959), Hilda and I at Burghclere, 1954. Oil on canvas. Sold for £2,938,500 on 25 June 2015 at Christie’s in London

What changed? He became an official artist for the British War Memorials Committee. André Zlattinger, Head of Modern British and Irish Art at Christie’s, tells us ‘he was commissioned to paint a large picture for the Ministry of Information off the back of sketches he submitted. In April 1923 he travelled to Poole, Dorset, to stay with Henry Lamb, where he produced a series of works based on his time spent in Bristol and Macedonia. They were noticed by a Mr and Mrs J.L. Behrend, who became his first patrons and commissioned him to paint the mural decorations for the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, 1926–1932, a memorial to Mary Behrend’s fallen brother Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham RASC, who died in active service in Macedonia. That Spencer had also served in Macedonia made him perfect for the job, and let him use his intimate knowledge of that front.’

How did it turn out? Brilliantly. It is, as David Boyd Haycock enthuses, one of his ‘major, most memorable achievements’, alongside The Resurrection, Cookham, 1924–1927. ‘Both in their different ways are responses to Spencer’s religious faith and his experiences in the Great War. These are paintings on a majestic scale; inspirational and highly personal evocations of his existence, rendered in extraordinary and painstaking detail. When The Resurrection was exhibited in 1927, The Times critic would call it “the most important picture painted by any English artist during the present century... What makes it so astonishing is the combination in it of careful detail with modern freedom in the treatment of form. It is as if a Pre-Raphaelite had shaken hands with a Cubist.”’

They sound very distinctive… They are. His Christian faith, role as a medic and love of the early Renaissance masters made him see the war in spiritual terms or in terms of the gospel story as well as witnessing its brutal realities. He wrote to Henry Lamb: ‘If I go to war, I go on the condition I can have Giotto, the Basilica of Assisi book, Fra Angelico in one pocket, and Masaccio, Masolino and Giorgione in the other’. The sacrifice of the soldiers, the wounded men lying on stretchers that appeared to his artist’s eye like figures in a Pietà, and the work of the surgeons combined with a belief in the Resurrection makes his approach to his role as a ‘war artist’ wholly unique.

Did anyone care? Oh yes, he was a very successful artist in his own lifetime as Zlattinger explains: ‘Throughout his career he had a steady market for his work, although before the war he had found it hard to make a living. He was extremely blessed with having a number of important patrons who commissioned him throughout his career and his work was skilfully promoted by his dealer Dudley Tooth. With Tooth’s support he was able to focus on painting his unique vision throughout his life.’

Stanley Spencer and Patricia Preece outside Maidenhead Registry Office on the day of their wedding, accompanied by Dorothy Hepworth and best man, Jas Wood, a long-term friend of the artist. The wedding to Patricia took place just five days after the divorce from Hilda. Courtesy the Archive of the Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham, Berkshire

What was his personal life like? At this point, on the up. Zlattinger tells us that ‘in 1922 he travelled with a fellow Slade student, Hilda Carline and her family, to Yugoslavia. Although initially courted by Stanley’s younger brother Gilbert, Hilda became the focus of Stanley’s romantic attention and five years later she and Stanley were engaged. Reluctant to commit to the finite institution of marriage, Stanley broke off the couple’s engagement frequently until in 1925 they were married at Wangford, Suffolk.’

Happily married? Stanley was easily irritated, restless, and had an overwhelming amount of energy. He tired her out insisting on late-night discussions, and told her off for getting up late and not keeping the house in order. Beneath that, roughly happy at the time, yes, but a scandal was in the offing.

Well come on, what was it? It was becoming increasingly obvious to Hilda that Stanley was infatuated with an acquaintance of theirs, Patricia Preece. In 1933 he declared he wanted to become Preece’s lover. Hilda remained on good terms with them until 1937, but eventually divorce was the only option. A week later Spencer and Preece were married.

And were they happily married? As David Boyd Haycock explains, ‘Patricia Preece’s effect on Spencer’s life can only be called devastating. He left the woman he truly loved, and the mother of his two children, to marry a woman who had no interest in him sexually (she was a lesbian living with her lover), and used his devotion to milk him socially and financially. Both women were artists in their own right who modelled for some of his most intimate paintings, but there their similarities end.’

Sir Stanley Spencer, R.A. (1891-1959), Wisteria at Englefield, 1954. Oil on canvas. Sold for £962,500 on 25 June 2015 at Christie’s in London

So what happened to him? He began painting works concerned with sexuality and carnal passion (or frustrated lack thereof), most famously Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife, 1937, also known as the Leg of Mutton Nude. Few of these paintings were shown in his lifetime due to their graphic content, and it was rumoured that their existence was used by Preece to blackmail him. Whatever the reason, he signed over the large house in Cookham to her and eventually she evicted him in order to rent his house out in order to combat growing money troubles.

How did he end up? ‘After his marriage to Preece failed, and suffering with a bout of depression,’ Zlattinger relates, ‘Spencer travelled to Hampstead to be closer to Hilda and her family, and then to Glasgow where he studied the shipbuilders, seeing in their camaraderie the same cosiness and familial relations he had felt at Burghclere. Returning to Cookham in 1942, Stanley still idolised Hilda. Despite refusing his proposals of re-marriage and a visit to Wangford, where they had married and honeymooned, Hilda always welcomed his visits. Throughout the 40s these visits continued and Stanley would accompany her during her hospital visits until her final illness in 1950, and he was by her side until her death.’

What are his final works like? ‘Following the Second World War he worked hard to complete a number of commissions,’ explains Zlattinger, ‘including Shipbuilding on the Clyde, his official war artist’s commission, and the Port Glasgow Resurrection series from 1945–50. However, his most ambitious programme of paintings, never completed, were the eponymous ‘Church House’ scheme that he had begun as early as 1930. Many of the works from this series were sold during his lifetime by Tooth and this enabled Spencer to have a steady income, despite his complicated personal life.’

And the man himself? Nostalgic, I suppose. He returned to Cookham after Hilda’s death and worked on his ‘Church House’, which became a kind of devotional chapel to her. It’s a recollection (or idealisation) of happier times, such as family bathtime in Hilda and I at Burghclere and Love Letters, 1950, which celebrates their correspondence. On 14 December 1959, Stanley Spencer died. Despite surviving Hilda by nine years, her memory was immortalised in his saint-like depictions of her and through his letters, which he continued to write to her after her death.

Has he been commercially successful since? Of late, yes. Zlattinger recounts that ‘after his death in 1959 Spencer’s reputation continued to generate interest with collectors and museums internationally, but his prices began to fall during the 1960s and 1970s. Leg of Mutton Nude, one of his most evocative and daring paintings, was sold in March 1974 for £8,500 — approximately £160,000 today. Since the 1980s he has been recognised as one of the most extraordinary and best loved British artists of the 20th century, and his prices have continued to rise. In 2013 Christie’s sold Spencer’s Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta: Conversation Between Punts, 1955, for £6 million, the world record for the artist at auction.

Main image at top: Stanley Spencer with his old pram chassis, a common sight for Cookham villagers. His easel, a canvas and an umbrella are to be seen aboard the pram. Courtesy the Archive of the Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham, Berkshire


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