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The passion of Stanley Spencer

The passion of Stanley Spencer

He liked to say that he was as devoted to angels as he was dirt. A new exhibition of his paintings captures what he means

He liked to say that he was as devoted to angels as he was dirt. A new exhibition of his paintings captures what he means

Lily Le Brun | June 24th 2016

Stanley Spencer painted his first oil painting when he was 19. “Two Girls and a Beehive” depicts the daughters of the local butcher standing beside a beehive in Spencer’s beloved home town of Cookham in Berkshire. The painting, Spencer said, fused his “desires”, which he defined as “the place, the girls, the religious atmosphere”. A new survey at the Hepworth Wakefield gallery in Yorkshire shows how those teenage desires, both spiritual and prosaically sensual, remained present in his work up to his death in 1959. 

Spencer always believed that he was “on the side of the angels and of dirt”. The Hepworth Wakefield shows us what he meant. The largest exhibition of Spencer’s work in 15 years, marking 125 years since his birth, “Of Angels and Dirt” pairs his paintings with quotations from his diaries, to demonstrate his life-long attempt to reveal the relationship between the sacred and the profane. From shipbuilding in Glasgow to a resurrection (of sorts), from candid nudes to well-tended gardens, all his work reflected his career-long conviction that “all is one religious life.” 

Born in 1891, the seventh son of 11 children, Spencer displayed such talent as a child that his father, a piano teacher, persuaded a local landowner to sponsor him through art school. He flourished at the Slade, despite being nicknamed “Cookham” and teased about his height (he was 5 feet 2 inches). Spencer graduated two years before the first world war broke out. Sent to Macedonia as an infantryman, he returned even more convinced that he could “approach heaven through what I find on earth”. 

Spencer’s religious beliefs were far from conventional. In the 1930s, his developing personal philosophy of redemptive, sexual liberation led to divorce (Spencer’s proposition of bigamy did not appeal to his wife, Hilda), and two paintings were rejected from the Royal Academy’s 1935 summer exhibition on the grounds of obscenity. 

None of this proved fatal to his career. He exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1938, was commissioned as an official war artist, and re-joined the Royal Academy in the 1950s. In 1955, the Tate dedicated a retrospective to him; in 1959, he received a knighthood. A number of prestigious posthumous exhibitions have recognised him as an heir to visionary romantics like William Blake, and inspiration to unflinching figurative painters like Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.

“The Lovers (The Dustmen)” (1934)

Dense with figures, the scene depicts a dustman returning home after a day at work. All eyes are trained on the returning labourer, who has been lifted up by his wife and clasped tightly in her arms. Some neighbours stand and stare, mouths agape; others offer him bits of rubbish on their knees. Posed like a biblical scene, the painting reflects Spencer’s faith in objects that are apparently inconsequential. He once explained that these pieces of rubbish are tokens of home life that deserve resurrection. “What astonishes me is what people throw away; these things were bits of the lives of people to whom they belonged and express their characters.”

This was one of the paintings that was rejected by the Royal Academy. In a letter to Hilda, Spencer likened the work to “watching and experiencing the inside of a sexual experience. They are all in a state of anticipation and gratitude to each other.” It exemplifies his unorthodox view of marriage: “they in the dustman painting are super-married, all of them, all of them infinitely married to all,” he wrote. 

“Bellrope, Cookham, Berkshire” (1936)

In the financially turbulent years following his divorce from Hilda, Spencer came to depend on the sale of uncontroversial landscapes for income, and often expressed resentment about having to do so. Yet the meticulous detail of this work, the way in which he has observed the garden’s contrasting textures and tones, suggests nothing but tender curiosity. In 1944 he wrote, “My landscape painting has enabled me to keep my bearings. It has been my contact with the world, my surroundings taken, my plumb line dropped.”

“Self-portrait, Adelaide Road” (1939)

As well as accepting commissions and painting portraits of those close to him, Spencer took himself as his subject on many occasions over his lifetime. While the people in his large group compositions often have a mannered, cartoonish style, his portraits are intensely observed and searingly direct. This worried likeness was painted in north London, following Spencer’s separation from his second wife, Patricia Preece. There, he became increasingly isolated and focused on writing his autobiography, which is to be published for the first time next year. Spencer claimed that without it, no one would truly be able to understand his work. 

“The Resurrection: Tidying” (1945)

The idea of the resurrection fascinated Spencer. Although his pictures of the subject predated the war, release from military service made him feel as if he had been “born again”, a sensation that inspired him to paint the subject on many more occasions. 

Ever since his days at the Slade, Spencer venerated early Italian painters. From Botticelli he learned how biblical scenes could be transplanted to the present day, and how to show a story unfolding over time. And it is in narrative compositions such as this, with its complex layering of characterful figures, that the influence of Giotto and Fra Angelico can be seen. The main purpose of this painting, Spencer wrote, was to “suggest an idea of different kinds of ‘looking’.” Affection, devotion, wonder and sympathy can all be seen on the faces of these characters, who in the composition are separated by a central granite headstone that represents the division between heaven and earth. They are experiencing a resurrection through earthly experiences and human relationships.  

“Shipbuilding on the Clyde: Furnaces” (1946)

When the second world war broke out, the War Artists Advisory Committee commissioned Spencer to capture scenes of shipbuilding in Port Glasgow. This canvas of men heaving a red-hot steel from a blast furnace was the last in the “Shipbuilding” series, completed from a sketch made six years earlier.

Spencer had a happy time in Glasgow, seeing spirituality in the workers’ ritualistic routines and building up a rapport with them. He recalled one encounter with a man named Joe Buchanan: “Sometimes when I had let fly to a considerable extent on my ‘peculiar’ views, you know the sort of thing – ‘I’m married to everybody really in varying degrees, marriage of the conventional kind is only one kind of marriage’ etc. etc. – Joe’s boxing champion face looked up from poking the fire & in quiet voice said, ‘Yee’l go oot of your nut’.” 

“Self-portrait” (1959)

Spencer returned to live in Cookham after the war, and in the final year of his life moved back into the house where he was born. He received a diagnosis of terminal cancer in December 1958, and this was one of the last paintings he finished. “Sorrow and sadness is not for me,” were Spencer’s last words. His stalwart look and uncompromising paintwork reflect his stern determination to believe that was true.   

Stanley Spencer: Of Angels and Dirt The Hepworth Wakefield, Yorkshire, from June 24th - October 5th

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