Metaphors of a Troubled Mind
Lucky to be an Artist, Unity Spencer, Unicorn Press, 2015, 256 pp. £24 (hardcover)
The title Unity Spencer has chosen for her autobiography is ironic, although not intentionally. She may have been lucky to be an artist, but she had the supreme misfortune to be the daughter of a great one. The children of great artists are on a hiding to nothing. They have the creative genes, often, and may be talented, as is Stanley Spencer’s daughter, but are doomed always to be compared, and negatively.
For Unity it was many degrees worse. Born in 1930, she was effectively abandoned by her parents, her mother to mental illness when she was eight, and her father when she was three to the disastrous and short-lived relationship with the artist Patricia Preece. Unity’s life as related in her book has been cursed by self-doubt, depression, frustration, exploitation, misplaced trust and the mental cruelty of people who should have loved her.
Not least damaging was the careless insensitivity of Stanley. As a teenager she was desperate to be part of his lonely artist’s world and when he was painting his complex allegorical piece Christ delivered to the People she offered to help with the boring bits, painting some of the pebbles. ‘He was very sweet and considered for a moment, and then with a little heave said, ‘I think I’d better do them myself’’. What a devastating dismissal for a vulnerable and lost young woman.
Yet through it all she paints, not with conspicuous market success – she would always be compared to Stanley – but because that is what she does. She is an artist. This was a valiant project for her to take on, confronting all those demons and making her struggle so public. Both her parents – Stanley (‘D’) and Hilda (‘M’) – were artists and she adored them uncondition-