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Hell in Ar­ca­dia

Stan­ley Spencer – Of An­gel and Dirt, The Hep­worth, Wake­field, un­til 5 Oc­to­ber 2016

‘To be a great artist one must first be a nat­u­ral every­day hu­man be­ing.’ Stan­ley Spencer in May 1915

Al­though Stan­ley Spencer at­tended the Slade School of Art where he was a prizewin­ning stu­dent among other gifted stu­dents who in­cluded Dora Car­ring­ton, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash and David Bomberg, and though his tu­tor, Henry Tonks, claimed that he had the most orig­i­nal mind of any stu­dent he had taught, Spencer’s four years at the Slade were not, ac­cord­ing to his bi­og­ra­pher, Fiona MacCarthy, al­to­gether happy:

He was marked out as a mis­fit by his phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance: his diminu­tive­ness (he was only 5 feet 2 inches), his heavy fringe, and pud­ding-basin hair­cut. His aura of other-world­li­ness…enhanced by the fact that he com­muted daily by train from Berk­shire. He was known jeer­ingly as Cookham (a name given him by C.R.W. Nevin­son) and ter­ri­fied by be­ing put up­side-down in a sack.

Parochial, idio­syn­cratic and vi­sion­ary, Spencer was a quintessen­tially English painter, though his work looked back to Giotto and the Ital­ian Prim­i­tives while, in his un­flinch­ing, flesh-re­veal­ing nudes, fore­shad­owed the con­fes­sional in­ti­macy of Lu­cian Freud, as well as the mind- al­ter­ing ‘spir­i­tu­al­ity’ of the 1960s counter-cul­ture.

But it was his beloved Cookham, the small vil­lage on the banks of the Thames in Berk­shire where Spencer grew up and lived most of his life - ‘a

vil­lage in Heaven’ as he called it- that proved his ma­jor source of in­spi­ra­tion. With its red-brick houses, neat gar­dens and Wind in the Wil­lows at­mos­phere it be­came the back­cloth for his re­li­gious visions where lumpen provin­cials re-en­acted the Bi­ble as fire­side nar­ra­tives in lo­cal church­yards and back gar­dens. The Be­trayal, which takes place in Cookham High Street, be­hind the gar­dens of the two Spencer fam­ily homes, shows Peter rais­ing his arm to the High Priest’s ser­vant, while the dis­ci­ples cower be­hind a wall like cu­ri­ous vil­lage gos­sips. These bi­b­li­cal scenes of neigh­bours and fel­low vil­lagers were a visual ex­pres­sion of Spencer’s un­con­ven­tional Christian faith and the de­sire to make his ec­cen­tric feel­ings ‘an or­di­nary fact of the street.’

As with Wil­liam Blake, whose man­tle he in many ways adopted, life and art were seen as sa­cred and en­twined. Like Blake he be­lieved that the di­vine was to be found in the every­day and the or­di­nary; that the world could be seen in ‘a grain of sand, and…heaven in a wild flower’. Writ­ing from Twe­sel­don Camp, near Farn­ham in May 1916 where, dur­ing the First World War he served with the Royal Army Med­i­cal Corps (his puny physique pre­vented him from en­list­ing) he gave a clue to this phi­los­o­phy:

I think there is some­thing won­der­ful in hospi­tal life… the act of do­ing things to men is won­der­ful. Now I am sweep­ing… now I am clean­ing dishes…now I am pol­ish­ing. There is such unity and yet va­ri­ety in it. I think this feel­ing is in those things (bas re­liefs) in the Giotto Cam­panile.

The world that shaped Stan­ley Spencer has long since dis­ap­peared and with it a cer­tain kind of English­ness em­bed­ded in the com­fort­ing co­her­ence of cosy vil­lage life. His lo­cal home-spun bo­hemi­an­ism was part of an ‘is there honey still for tea’ nurs­ery in­no­cence that saw English­ness as a sort of pre-lap­sar­ian utopia that was dis­man­tled by the hor­rors of the First World War. The eighth sur­viv­ing child of Wil­liam and Anna Caro­line Spencer, Stan­ley’s fa­ther, af­fec­tion­ately known as Par, was a church or­gan­ist and mu­sic teacher who gave lessons at home. The fam­ily villa, Fern­lea, on Cookham High Street, was built by Stan­ley’s grand­fa­ther, Julius Spencer. His par­ents were

what, to­day, we’d call ‘de-school­ers’, with reser­va­tions about the lo­cal coun­cil school. Un­able to afford pri­vate fees they ar­ranged for Stan­ley to be taught at home by his sis­ters. As a re­sult his ed­u­ca­tion was fairly patchy, a fact il­lus­trated by the odd streamof-con­scious­ness prose that pro­lif­er­ates his co­pi­ous let­ters. He and his brother Gilbert also took draw­ing lessons from a lo­cal artist, Dorothy Bailey. When Gilbert was, even­tu­ally, sent to a school in Maiden­head the fam­ily didn’t feel this would be right for Stan­ley, a soli­tary teenager given to long walks, with a pas­sion for draw­ing. So Pa Spencer ar­ranged with lo­cal landown­ers, Lord and Lady Bos­ton, that he should spend time draw­ing each week with Lady Bos­ton. In 1907, she ar­ranged for him to at­tend Maiden­head Tech­ni­cal In­sti­tute. His fa­ther agreed, on condition that he did not sit any of the ex­ams.

The ex­hi­bi­tion at The Hep­worth Wake­field cel­e­brates the 125th an­niver­sary of Spencer’s birth and brings to­gether more than seventy sig­nif­i­cant works span­ning a forty-five year ca­reer. One of the high­lights is the num­ber of rarely seen self-por­traits where the fresh-faced boy can be seen slowly trans­mut­ing into the be­spec­ta­cled ec­cen­tric of pop­u­lar myth. Pre­sented the­mat­i­cally the richly de­tailed paint­ings re­veal the ap­par­ent con­flicts be­tween Spencer’s slightly off-the-wall re­li­gious be­liefs and his sex­u­al­ity, his re­la­tion­ship to na­ture and his pas­sion for the do­mes­tic. Bi­b­li­cal al­le­gories filled with bul­bous fig­ures with big bo­soms and am­ple thighs that echo Ge­org Grosz or Otto Dix’s car­i­ca­tures (but with­out their satire) are shown along­side evoca­tive pas­toral land­scapes and stud­ies of ship­build­ing on the Clyde, ex­e­cuted while Spencer was a war artist at the Kingston ship­yard Port Glas­gow, in which he cel­e­brates and mythol­o­gises the dig­nity and hero­ism of work.

The Res­ur­rec­tion was, for Spencer a re­oc­cur­ring theme. Af­ter his first solo ex­hi­bi­tion at the Goupil Gallery in 1927 The Times art critic wrote ‘What makes it so as­ton­ish­ing is the com­bi­na­tion…of care­ful de­tail with the mod­ern free­dom of form. It is as if a Pre-Raphaelite had shaken hands with a Cu­bist.’ Spencer re­peat­edly re­ferred to the war as his in­spi­ra­tion for these

paint­ings: ‘I had buried so many peo­ple and saw so many dead bodies that I felt that death could not be the end of ev­ery­thing.’ This meld­ing of lived ex­pe­ri­ence with bi­b­li­cal story telling is there, also, in his 1912 The Na­tiv­ity, in­spired by his walks at Clive­den ‘along the path skirt­ing Sir Ge­orge Young’s fish­eries’ with its deep grass and bent gar­den trel­lis, while a Cookham malt house pro­vided the set­ting for the elon­gated fig­ures of The Last Sup­per, seated around a U--shaped ta­ble, their legs and big bare feet pok­ing be­neath the white cloth. Started be­fore the war, Spencer added the legs on his re­turn. A de­tail with which he was par­tic­u­larly pleased. While Sarah Tubbs and the Heav­enly Vis­i­tors, is based on a story told to him by his fa­ther. In 1910 the tail of Hal­ley’s Comet cre­ated an ex­cep­tional sun­set that caused old ‘Granny’ Tubb to fear that the end of the world was neigh, so that she knelt by her gate in the High Street to pray. Spencer’s paint­ing shows her com­forted by ‘heav­enly vis­i­tors’ who present her with cher­ished items in­clud­ing a pa­pier mâché text and a post­card of Cookham Church held by Stan­ley’s cousin An­nie Slack, who worked in the vil­lage shop. Spencer claimed, rather mys­te­ri­ously, that the fact he was now ‘sex­u­ally con­scious added and in­creased the il­lu­sion.’

On his home-com­ing from Mace­do­nia with the Berk­shire In­fantry he drew up plans to cre­ate a me­mo­rial chapel based on his war ex­pe­ri­ences and in 1919 met the artist Hilda Car­line, with whom he set­tled in Cookham and had two chil­dren. But the mar­riage was sex­u­ally fraught, af­fected, per­haps, by Car­line’s Christian Science be­liefs and in the 1930s he be­gan to pur­sue fel­low artist, Pa­tri­cia Preece, a les­bian who lived in the vil­lage with her part­ner Dorothy Hep­worth. Naively Spencer wanted to be mar­ried to both Car­line and Preece.

Al­though this ex­hi­bi­tion is miss­ing the in­fa­mous Dou­ble Nude Por­trait: The Artist and his Sec­ond Wife of 1937 (of­ten known as The Leg of Mut­ton), his 1935 Nude shows what he de­scribed as ‘the pas­sion­ate in­ten­sity and mean­ing in her [Preece’s] love­li­ness’, and high­lights the pe­cu­liarly sado­masochis­tic flavour of their re­la­tion­ship. With her cold blue eyes, white skin and pen­du­lous breasts, her pert mouth and look of dis­dain to­wards the artist, there can be lit­tle sur­prise that she left him to re­turn to Dorothy.

Was Spencer sim­ply a Holy Fool, a quirky Ed­war­dian ec­cen­tric who went on paint­ing his beloved Cookham un­til his death in 1959 – well into the age of rock n’roll, Jack­son Pol­lock and Pop art - out of touch with the mod­ern world? A man un­able to move on be­yond the con­so­la­tions of child­hood? ‘Men­tally,’ he wrote, when in his for­ties, ‘I have been bedrid­den all my life,’ and ‘I wish all my life I could have been tied to my mother’s apron strings. It would have suited me, mostly in the kitchen or the bed­room...a long talk and plenty of cups of tea.’

Love for Spencer was a meld­ing of the sex­ual and the do­mes­tic. Not for him the great ro­mances of Troilus and Cres­sida or Abe­lard and Heloise. ‘The joy of this eter­nal home-com­ing,’ as he de­scribed the erotic, was de­picted in his ar­che­typal lovers - the dust­man and his wife - where the in­fan­tilised dust­man is car­ried Pi­età-like in his wife’s strong ma­ter­nal arms. A teapot, an empty jam jar, and some cab­bage stalks all pro­vide an es­o­teric link to the mys­tery of the Trin­ity. ‘Noth­ing I love is rub­bish,’ he said. ‘I am on the side of the an­gels and dirt.’

Al­though Spencer’s lan­guage is orig­i­nal and uniquely idio­syn­cratic it chimes with the mood of the English re­li­gious re­vival of the in­ter­war years ex­plored by Graham Suther­land and Eric Gill, by Bar­bara Hep­worth and Ben Ni­chol­son in their Christian Science, and in Tom Eliot’s po­etic flir­ta­tions with high Angli­can­ism and Bud­dhism. Heaven, for Spencer, was al­ways the vil­lage of Cookham, a sort of nurs­ery limbo for his Peter Pan­ish char­ac­ter. Yet de­spite his claim that ‘Sor­row and sad­ness is not for me’ there is a deep dys­func­tional lone­li­ness and ex­is­ten­tial alien­ation within his paint­ings. Look­ing at the crowds gath­ered on The Hill of Zion or es­cap­ing from their tombs in the Res­ur­rec­tion of the Good and the Bad it’s hard to de­cide whether his cast of char­ac­ters have found their way to an eter­nal par­adise in Berk­shire or some Cookham version of Dante’s cir­cles of hell.

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