Stanley Spencer - British painter - Tate Britain

On 12 June 2001 I went to see the Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) exhibition at the Tate Britain. He was one of the most original painters of his generation. He was flowering in the years just before the First World War culminating in his masterpiece Zacharias and Elizabeth 1913-14 (completed at the age of 22). He was at a high point in his career during the stranger, complex period of the mid-1930s, when marital and artistic problems propelled Spencer into a flow of extraordinary paintings.

He was a strange and complex man and his paintings a mixture of sexual desire and religious yearning. He imagined that the Thames-side village of Cookham was on the other side of the Jordan river from Galilee and that Christ and his circle were frequent visitors; Christ Carrying the Cross is accompanied by a pair of local window-cleaners carrying ladders. He was always mixing the sacred with the secular, or sexual.

The exhibition is comprised from the entire range of Spencer's achievement. There are early religious pictures depicting his military service in Macedonia, an experience which was to generate later the great Murals painted between 1927 and 1932 for the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere. The later works include the famous paintings of the shipbuilding in Port Glasgow during the Second War and the autobiographical masterpieces such as Love Letters. The exhibition is laid out in a series of rooms as follows:

Room 1 - Innocence - Throughout the years in which he attended art school in London (1908 - 12) Spencer travelled back each evening to the Berkshire, Thames-side village of Cookham. He had grown up there in a large and gifted family. To the young artist Cookham was a kind of Eden in which every detail of life was enfolded with Christian meaning. He cherished its lanes, meadows, waterways and churchyard. In short, he regarded it as paradise. His idea of Christianity is reflected in John Donne Arriving in Heaven and Zacharius and Elizabeth both were set in a Cookham landscape of extraordinary intensity. Nativity is also set in a Cookham garden where Christ has a wheelbarrow for a crib, Joseph is picking chestnuts from a tree and Mary is watching cuddling couples (note his mixture of the sacred and the sexual).

Room 2 - War and its Aftermath. Spencer spent almost four years away at war, first as a hospital orderly in Bristol and later in the Macedonia campaign. Returning to Cookham at the end of 1918 he painted (commissioned by the British Government) Travellers Arriving with the Wounded at a Dressing Station, a testimony to the recent war. The Bughclere Murals, painted 1921-32, celebrated the unheroic aspects of military service: mosquito nets, duck-boards, bandages, shampoo, even a hot water bottle.

Room 3 - Forsaking the Vision - By 1934 he had become involved with Patricia Preece (hence the Self Portrait with Patricia Preece, 1936). She was a neighbour who regarded posing for him as a chore she undertook in order - as she was penniless - to earn some money. However, she lurked him away from his first wife, got him to sign over his house to her, marry her, and then kicked him out!! The marriage was not consummated and immediately after the honeymoon she returned to her long-standing partner the artist Dorothy Hepworth. In the midst of this agonising relationship Spencer painted an extraordinary series of "naked portraits" such as Double Nude Portrait, The Artist, Second Wife, Hilda (Hilda Carline, his first wife), and Unity and Doll (with his estranged first wife turning wearily away and their daughter Unity gazing outwards. Her stare echoed by the empty-eyed doll at her side. ). Many of these pictures suggest Spencer's disenchantment with love.

Room 4 -Those Couple Things - In the winter of 1937, with both marriages now collapsed, Spencer gave himself up to a prolonged meditation and fantasy on the theme of "Husbands and Wives". Depicted by hideous, figures in some of his most intimate paintings such as The Beatitudes of Love and Consciousness. In 1950 the painter Sir Alfred Munnings came across some of the paintings and drawings of the "couple" period and initiated a police prosecution against Spencer for obscenity. Spencer later agreed to destroy them.

Room 5 - The Church of Me - He said, "During the war I contemplated the horror of my life and the lives of those around me. I felt the only way to end the ghastly experience would be if everyone suddenly decided to indulge in every degree and form of sexual love, carnal love, bestiality, anything you like to call it". Hence his pictures of this period have a strange collusion between Cookham and the Scriptures, with the Biblical story appearing almost as a folk tale and with grotesque-looking villagers having orgies that fall far short of the Divine (such an extreme painting being Adoration of the Old Men).

Room 6 - A Wonderful Desecration - Again Spencer was commissioned by the British Government (War Artists Advisory Committee), this time to record the building of tramp steamers in a Clydeside shipyard. He painted Burners and Welders making us share his wonder at the infernal glare and dazzle of these industrial processes; some of the most persuasive paintings of working life ever produced in Britain. His religious paintings at this time were The Resurrection and The Raising of Jairus' Daughter. The Love Letters, Spencer's last great "couple" painting commemorates the thousands of pages of love letters that passed between him and Hilda. The image presents the pair as eternal children although Hilda was by now dying of cancer. Spencer's last words - written since he was unable to speak - were "Sorrow and sadness is not for me".

Verinha Ottoni.


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