“Every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.”
These lines from the gospel of John are inscribed on Stanley Spencer’s gravestone in Cookham cemetery and are the central thread of the current exhibition at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham.
Spencer was born at Fernlea, a Victorian house in Cookham High Street, the tenth child of eleven children born to William Spencer, an organist and music teacher, and his wife, Annie. From these fairly humble beginnings the short, odd, intensely religious boy went on to become one of Britain’s most famous painters, a fellow of the Royal Academy and knighted shortly before his death in 1959.
His early talent was fostered by a local artist, followed by a year at Maidenhead Technical Institute, then in 1908 he went to study at Slade Art School in London where he was one of the “Crisis of Brilliance” generation described in a 2009 book by David Boyd Haycock and at the recent exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Although he didn’t live there all his life (apart from service in the Great War he had spells in Hampstead, near Burghclere chapel in Hamshire, in Dorset and so on) Spencer did spend most of his life in his home village which, from his earliest years, had an intense artistic, emotional and religious significance for him. He was a lifelong devout and visionary Christian.
The Stanley Spencer Gallery fittingly occupies the Victorian Methodist chapel where Stan was taken to worship as a child. It holds a large number of paintings, drawings, letters and memorabilia including the battered pram Stanley packed with his paints and brushes and wheeled around the village to his latest location. It’s open every day from 10.30 to 5.30 and admission is £5. (Interior view of the Stanley Spencer Gallery). It consists of one large room hung with paintings and drawings, with a staircase lined with more artworks up one wall to a small gallery. A few cases show objects and mementoes.
Every year the Gallery organises their collection into a themed exhibition. The current exhibition is Perspectives on Love and uses 41 art works to demonstrate the different kinds of love Spencer – and by extension all of us – are capable of. (For the sake of extending the argument I’ve included paintings not in the exhibition; those in the exhibition are in bold.)
Love of God A lifelong and visionary Christian, Spencer notoriously set scenes from the life of Christ in his native Cookham, making the serious point that, if there is a God, he is as much in Cookham High Street as anywhere else; that he is as likely to send his angels to help an old lady who’s slipped on the pavement as to Ezekiel; and, conversely, that the most banal incidents of the everyday contain the seeds of the divine. In one of his essays CS Lewis asks, What is the most holy object in a church? Answer: the person sitting next to you with their immortal soul. It is in this homely Anglican spirit that Spencer painted works like Christ Carrying the Cross (1920), The Last Supper (1920), Veronica Unmasking Christ (1921), The Resurrection, Cookham (1926) or Christ Preaching At Cookham Regatta (unfinished) which dominates one wall of the Spencer Gallery. The more you are in contact with Spencer’s very English Christianity – akin to Blake’s visions of Ezekiel in Lambeth – the more appealing, the more reasonable, and the more loving it becomes.
Sexual Love According to Boyd Haycock the discovery of sex when Spencer married Hilda Carline, aged 33, came as a thunderbolt. His nudes are often grotesque, florid, platefuls of blotchy livid flesh which anticipate Lucien Freud: as in Nude (1935), Double Nude (1937), Patricia Preece (1935), Self Portrait with Patricia Preece (1937) . In the exhibition is the rather repellent Beatitudes of Love: Sociableness (1938), an uncomfortably distorted image which nonetheless, for Spencer obviously represents an ideal of physical and mental intimacy.
Love of People “The greatest of these is Charity…” Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors (1933) records the old lady who thought the appearance of Halley’s comet in 1911 portended the end of the world. It captures Spencer’s charity, his love of really ordinary people, the old ladies of village life. there’s a fine pencil drawing of Mr Francis the Cookham baker, along with a sequence of pencil drawings of ordinary domestic scenes with titles like Shopping, Patricia and Gramophone, Cutting Nails by a Bed. Neighbours (1936) records his sister handing a bunch of tulips over the garden hedge to their next door neighbour. Crossing The Road (1936) records the village tradition of an old man who each day bought a bone from the butchers and was helped by a girl across the High Street to give it to a dog who lived opposite. If you consider what was happening in Spain and Germany in 1936, then a painting like this is a statement about morality, about Christian charity, and about what an ideal world, what Heaven, will look like, a place where people are kind to each other. and, by loving each other, worship their Creator.
Love of Nature The exhibition focuses on people but Spencer painted plenty of landscapes and pictures of the flowers and gardens of Cookham. These tend to be much more naturalistic in style than most of the others; Boyd Hancock calls them potboilers, that Spencer disliked making but which were easier to sell than the more personal religious works. The only work in the exhibition that captures his brilliance at Nature is Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill (1935) where, although the figure in the foreground is subject to characteristic Spencerian distortion, the landscape of yarrow, thistles and (hawthorn?) hedges is faithfully conveyed.
Spencer’s Styles: Distortion and anti-Naturalism
What is most disconcerting to the casual approacher to Spencer is his use of distortion: all his paintings are figurative – he is not an abstract painter – but almost always with a high degree of stylisation and mannerism.
More than the theme of love, what struck me about these 41 works is what I can categorise as Spencer’s four styles: Naturalistic, Shipbuilding-style social realism, Religious vision, and Grotesque.
1. Naturalistic – When he wanted to (or when he needed to, to make money) Spencer could paint truly marvellous portraits like that of Eric Williams (1954), or of Mr and Mrs Baggett (1956), or the wonderful pencil portrait of his daughter, Shirin Spencer (1947). He could do wonderful scenes like Turk’s Boatyard, Cookham (1931) which looks like a photo, or the famous images of Southwold (1937).
And then there’s the loads of paintings he made of flowers, country views and the gardens and buildings of Cookham, the lots and lots of paintings he made of flowers in the countryside or in the gardens of Cookham – Cookham Rise (1935), or the flowers of Bellrope Meadow (1936), or any of the flowery villagescapes on this blog page,
I didn’t know about the landscape and flower aspect of his oeuvre until visiting the exhibition and discovered there is a whole book – Stanley Spencer and the English Garden – dedicated to it. But these were his potboilers. Paintings he made to sell for large amounts. Brilliant though they are, they weren’t where his heart, his creativity lay. It was an official or public style.
2. Socially acceptable distortion – what I call his Shipbuilding style after the marvellous paintings of shipbuilders on the Clyde he did during the Second World War. Here the figures are stylised, ignoring post renaissance understanding of human anatomy, bodies are arranged into tubular puppets or dolls, generally bending like toys rather than articulated human bodies. But they are generally set in highly detailed backdrops: in the exhibition exemplified by The Garage (1929) – a commission from the Empire Marketing Board – a wonderful picture travelling a long way to see in the flesh; and by the detailed backdrop of Hilda and I at Pond Street (1954) – note the precise clear decorative detail of the carpeting, the sofa, the bookshelves, of the male figures odd harlequin suit. It is the hyper-reality of the background detail which led some critics to say Spencer was continuing the tradition of the pre-Raphaelites.
3. Religious distortion – Most of the paintings people associate with Spencer are probably of the religious and visionary subjects – Christ Carrying the Cross (1920), The Last Supper (1920), The Resurrection, Cookham (1926) or Christ Preaching At Cookham Regatta (unfinished) , paintings which wonderfully combine profound religious conviction with an almost cartoonish simplification of the human form. People in these look like nativity figures made out of cardboard; there is a strange fascination to the way their bodies incline at impossible angles, devoid of all the usual human joints and articulations to become stiff hieratic figures. Spencer loved Giotto. You can see these figures as attempts to paint people as if the Renaissance had never happened. In this exhibition The Last Supper is an example: look at the patterning of the disciples’ legs sticking out from under the table, at the stiffly painted folds of material and the jumble of pale feet.
In fact I would place the Resurrection and Christ Preaching in the Shipbuilding category because of their attention to fine detail. The real religious visions – Christ carrying the Cross, the Last Supper, Veronica – are distinguished by their deliberate absence of detailing, by the post-impressionist use of simple blocks of colour, by stylised wedges of light and shade.
4. Grotesques – Finally, there is a definite category of grotesques: the glaring example in the exhibition is Toasting (1937), subtitled the Beatitudes of Love. Is it a portrait of intimacy? The exhibition guide speculates that the couple have just had sex which makes it even more punishing a picture. Why is the woman’s neck so distorted and elongated? What is happening to the man’s left leg? Or head? Similarly in the would-be cosy At The Chest of Drawers (1936) what is going on with the woman’s shoulders? Or back? Or in Sunbathers at Odney (1935). If we weren’t familiar with Spencer’s loving mentality we could see the naked grotesques as on the way towards Francis Bacon.
We know Spencer could paint a portrait of Eric Williams or his daughter if he wanted to: clearly he doesn’t want to in a whole set of paintings which combine heavily distorted human bodies with, more often than not, very frank nudity. This is his vision; or one of his visions; or one of his styles.