Si­mon Tait

Metaphors of a Trou­bled Mind

The London Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

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-

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