An Artistic Affair @ the Stanley Spencer Gallery

Stanley Spencer

Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was a highly original, not to say quirky, English artist who, after his student days at London’s Slade School of Art, returned to his childhood village of Cookham and spent the rest of his life there painting powerfully ‘naive’ and vivid depictions of his life and surroundings.

Spencer’s sometimes distorted, sometimes cartoonish paintings mingle everyday village life with visionary Christian belief in a peculiar and haunting way: thus his famous painting of Christ preaching to a flock of modern day Cookhamites on the towpath of the River Thames, or his vision of the dead in Cookham churchyard rising from their graves.

Spencer had a number of distinct styles. In one mode he painted unflinching images of himself and the women in his life bare-naked.

In more cartoon mode, Spencer painted a host of images in which the (dressed) human characters are sometimes humorously, sometimes hauntingly distorted.

Stanley was unlucky in love. His first marriage, to Hilda Carline, fell apart when he became infatuated with neighbour Patricia Pearse. Hilda, forced to move out of their Cookham house, began divorce proceedings in 1937. Spencer married Pearse but their relationship quickly faltered. In 1938 Spencer retreated to live by himself live in Southwold, painting The Beatitudes of Live, a series about mis-matched couples. The emotional subject matter – the mismatch of feelings, the challenge of love – is reflected in the gruesome distortion of the figures.

One of the best paintings in the exhibition is a study of Hilda and daughter, Unity, who he went to see around the time she divorced him. Hilda’s face captures an expression of real hurt and upset, and the black eyes of the dolls make a terrifying contrast with the innocence of young Unity’s face.

Daphne Charlton

It was at this rocky period in his emotional life that he encountered Daphne Charlton. Born in 1909 and thus 18 years younger than Stanley, Daphne was already married to George Charlton, who had been her tutor at the Slade School of Art. Stanley went to stay at the Charltons’ home in Hampstead, London, and they began an affair. This wonderful exhibition – An Artistic Affair – at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, depicts and explores their affair, which lasted from 1939 to 1941.

Daphne (1940) by Stanley Spencer

Daphne (1940) by Stanley Spencer

(The exhibition features a display case housing the decorative blouse, jaunty black hat and Chinese bowl depicted in his striking 1940 portrait of Daphne.)

The exhibition brings together some 40 paintings, along with important examples of Stanley’s sketchbook. There’s a catalogue, a short guide to the exhibition and a 20-minute video featuring reminiscences of people who knew Stanley and Daphne. It’s worth visiting the show just to see this video which captures the homely innocence of Stanley’s art and the essentially comic aspect of his tangled love life. Daphne emerges as a big woman in every sense, who talked all the time, disagreed with everyone, and had, as she herself explained, ‘absolutely no inhibitions’.

Poor George Charlton had to put up with the fact his wife was having an affair, but it doesn’t seem to have been that unusual for her, and doesn’t seem to have affected his friendship with Stanley. Somehow, more civilised times.

Anyway, the real point of the affair is the works it inspired both Stanley and Daphne herself to produce. The Stanley Spencer Gallery is a converted Methodist chapel consisting of one room with steps up to a balcony level. This is a wonderfully light airy space in which to enjoy the artistic output of their affair.

As you’d expect there are a number of striking portraits of Daphne by Stanley, some portraits of Stanley by Daphne, and a winning self-portrait by poor George.

In July 1939, the trio of artists left for a painting holiday in the rural village of Leonard Stanley, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. Here they stayed at the ‘White Hart Inn’, which now has a plaque in honour of Spencer. There are a number of paintings from the Leonard Stanley period, including a characteristically distorted vision of the two lovers lying on a tiger skin.

While in Leonard Stanley, Stanley bought some blank notebooks and began to make sketches of figures from his complex love life – Hilda, Daphne, Patricia and himself – in a variety of settings, domestic and in public e.g. in shops or village high streets. Daphne features largely throughout and we can see her going about everyday tasks from dressmaking to cutting Stanley’s nails and fitting his shoes on. By setting sketches next to finished works, the show allows us to see how these preliminary sketches were often worked up into paintings.

Fetching Shoes, sketch by Stanley Spencer

Fetching Shoes, sketch by Stanley Spencer

For example the wool shop, was the first painting to be derived from a Scrapbook drawing. In the picture, the high-spirited, curvaceous Daphne, with a mane of fair hair, is buying wool, assisted by a diminutive Stanley. Spencer’s love of pattern and repeated motifs is seen in the bales of cloth on the shelves, and the convoluted skeins of wool that appear to take on a life of their own.

The Woolshop (1939)

The Woolshop (1939)

One painting, Village Life, depicts Stanley, Daphne and Stanley’s first wife Hilda, in  the same setting. This is a) purely imaginary, the two women never met b) worked up from a notebook sketch which we can compare and contrast with the final painting c) exemplifies Stanley’s timidity – he is smaller than both the female figures.

Many of Spencer’s paintings are an acquired taste. The realistic ones – such as Hilda and Unity or some of his nudes or his brilliant early self portrait (1914) – are readily likable. But at the opposite extreme the more distorted ones, like the Beatitudes of Love, are a stronger flavour and maybe harder to admire. Somewhere in the middle are the numerous works depicting people as stylised tube-like, sloping figures, including the ones which feature in Christ preaching or the Resurrection or countless other earlier depictions of Christ in Cookham.

Standing quite to one side of all these depictions of people, are Stanley’s landscapes. By and large these are much simpler and easier to like. There are several lovely examples in the exhibition, painted during the trio’s stay in Leonard Stanley.

They’re reminiscent of Paul Nash’s country paintings, in their stylised beauty, and maybe distant cousins of Eric Ravilious’s pastoral vision of 1930s England. This was the least expected part of the exhibition and made me wish for a show devoted entirely to Spencer’s landscapes and country paintings, if such a thing were possible.

As the affair with Daphne came to an end in 1941, Stanley found her ebullience and energy increasingly smothering. ‘I can’t work when she’s here,’ he complained.

The exhibition video includes a reminiscence from a lady who, as a young girl, remembers Stanley bursting through the front door and crying to her mother, ‘Hide me, hide me, Daphne’s coming,’ and watching her mother take Stanley through to a back room where they stored apples, hide him, lock the door and be back in the parlour by the time the imperious Daphne arrived. ‘Have you seen Stanley?’ the Amazon demanded. ‘Yes, I saw him going towards the common,’ came the lying reply.

It all feels like an episode of Dad’s Army and bespeaks a fundamental simplicity and innocence. This is a hilarious and beautiful and inspiring exhibition.


Video of the Stanley Spencer Gallery

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Perspectives on Love @ Stanley Spencer Gallery

“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.

Stanley Spencer's gravestone, Cookham churchyard

Stanley Spencer’s gravestone, Cookham churchyard

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.)

Four Loves

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.

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