The year 1991 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Stanley Spencer, an artist of great individuality whose paintings are independent of any particular movement. As all art lovers know, Spencer's name is almost always linked with Cookham, a delightful English village in Berkshire, five miles from Maidenhead. Spencer lived here for forty-nine of his sixty-eight years and it was for him a heavenly paradise where everyday village events were transformed into visionary spectacles of spiritual significance.
Cookham remains unspoilt even today. So too do the houses in High Street connected with Spencer and his family. In 1962 the Wesleyan Chapel (now known as King's Hall), where he attended church services with his mother, became the Stanley Spencer Gallery, the first memorial gallery in England.
Spencer was born at Cookham, the eighth surviving child of William and Anna Spencer. His father was an organist, and music played an important part in his family life; although not as much as literature and religion. As William Spencer ran a library, the family house, Fernlea (later Fernley) was filled with books. He also read Bible stories to his children and these were to form a vital part of Spencer's compositions, not for their moral significance, but for their imagery. Most of his early works contain biblical images.
The village of Cookham was central to Spencer's work-he often portrayed villagers as heavenly beings in Cookham's celestial domain. The village itself became a holy place where miracles often took place. Here, through his paintings, he hoped to bring peace, happiness and security. His extraordinary temperament and mode of living, however, worked against his achieving this.
Spencer's lementary education was limited. He learnt from his sisters, Florence and Annie, but apart from this he was largely self-taught. His young brother Gilbert shared most of his interests, including art, and they wandered through the village using various barns and sheds for studios. He had some art lessons with a local artist, Dorothy Bailey, but the first artistic influences on him were the late-Victorian reproductions hanging on the parlour walls at Fernlea. Subsequently, his early drawings had an affinity with the pre-raphaelites, with their 'angular poses and sharp outlines'.
His first formal art lessons were at Maidenhead Technical Institute, where, without models, students learnt to draw from plaster casts. Under the patronage of Lady Boston, at one time a student at the Slade, Spencer was accepted there in 1908, and remained for four years. At the Slade he gained experience in pencil drawing from life, with emphasis on form. He flourished under the tutelage of the renowned Professor Tonks who was impressed by his original mind and his exceptional powers of draughtsmanship.
While Spencer was at the Slade he was given the nickname of 'Cookham' by his fellow students, and was teased unmercifully by C. R. W. Nevinson, aided and abetted by Mark Gertler, Paul Nash and William Roberts. This was because of his continual references to his heavenly village, Cookham, and his persistence in rushing off after classes to catch the train for Cookham to be in time for tea. At the Slade, Spencer acquired an appreciarion for Italian old masters, particularly Giotto, Mantegna, Masaccio and Uccello. He was also influenced by Ruskin's essay, 'Giotto and his works at Padua' which encouraged him to think about the relationship between the fourteenth century Giottoesque movement and the pre-raphaelites. Spencer's fellow students introduced him to the post-impressionist movement. At the first post-impressionist exhibition in 1910 there were forty of Gauguin's oils and there is some evidence that these influenced Spencer's style-his Nativity, is one example, with its bulky rounded figures and lack of perspective. Both artists painted scenes of crucifixion centred in their own villages. Nativity captured the imagination of the judges at the Slade, and was awarded two prizes. Spencer returned to Cookham in triumph and later recalled that he 'entered a kind of earthly paradise'. His triumph continued when Clive Bell, on behalf of Roger Fry, selected his painting John Donne Arriving in Heaven for the second post-impressionist exhibition in 1912. Because of its simplified, slab-like figures and style, the modernists were convinced it showed signs of abstraction.
Spencer was called up for war service in July 1915. He was intensely loyal and patriotic and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, although he was small and hardly physically endowed for soldiering. He faced his army responsibilities as a medical orderly with resignation, however, and even appeared to enjoy the menial tasks of feeding patients, attending operations, scrubbing floors and cleaning ablution blocks. These experiences were to find expression later in his famous Burghclere Chapel murals.
The war years left Spencer disoriented. His paintings lost their static quality; instead they became crowded with the sea of ideas and detail obvious in The Resurrection, Cookham. This was completed between 1926 and 1927 and, like so many of his visionary paintings, was largely biographical. Hilda Carline, who had become his wife in February 1925 was represented in it. It also portrayed the artist himself, many times and in the nude, and local people and friends rising out of graves in the Cookham cemetery. There was a favourable response in London but the Cookham folk were dumbfounded. No one was able to see why Spencer presented his strange visionary perceptions, using his friends and relations as subject matter, in, to them, such a depressing scene. The Times critic said' . . . it is as if a pre¬raphaelite had shaken hands with a cubist'.
At this time Spencer conceived the idea of acquiring a building to house a collection of war memorial paintings he was planning. In the mid-I920s he met Mr and Mrs J. L Behrend, who were delighted with his preliminary drawings and agreed to use the final paintings in a chapel to be built in memory of Mary Behrend's brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham. While these plans were in train, Spencer, with Hilda and their first child Shirin, (born December 1925) moved to Burghclere where the chapel was to be built. The murals he painted here showed all the ordinary tasks he had experienced earlier as a wartime medical orderly.
In 1931 Spencer moved back to his beloved Cookham. He bought a house, Lindworth, close to Fernlea, and came back in triumph. His reputation was becoming established and he enjoyed the support of the critics R. H. Wilenski and the Rothensteins, and art collectors, Edward Marsh and the Behrends. In 1932 the tolerant Dudley Tooth became his agent and remained so for the rest of his life.
At this time Spencer's marriage began to fall apart. He had become fascinated by Patricia Preece who had come to live in Cookham with her companion Dorothy Hepworth. Her elegance, sophistication and association with the Bloomsbury set attracted him. At first Hilda tried to make the best of things, but gradually their relationship deteriorated into a mire of arguments and difficulties and their partnership came to an end. Long suffering Hilda eventually agreed to a divorce, believing it to be in Spencer's best interest.
The village was agog at all this risque behaviour, especially when his marriage to Patricia Preece, which took place a few days after the divorce, became common knowledge. On the wedding night, Patricia Preece set off for the honeymoon at St Ives with her companion, Dorothy Hepworth, suggesting that Spencer bring Hilda. The marriage was never consummated and Spencer attempted to maintain some sort of relationship with both his first and second wives.
The Loan Exhibition of Contemporary British Art was the connection which led to the paintings of Stanley Spencer coming to Adelaide and to Carrick Hill. This exhibition, with works by Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, William Roberts and Matthew Smith, also contained Spencer's New Cookham, lent by the discerning collector, Edward Marsh. The exhibition came to Adelaide in 1935 and caused a sensation. New Cookham interested the Hayward family and in July the same year they acquired Zermatt through Dudley Tooth.
Zermatt is unlike any of Spencer's visionary paintings. It is an academic landscape painted mostly in green and brownish tones with little contrasting colour. The landscape is relieved by an upturned wheelbarrow on a sand coloured area. Depicted with a thin oil on fine canvas, a pre-raphaelite attention to detail can be seen in the tree-studded hills and the static background of fir trees, birches and Swiss chalets. The foreground, with its bold flowing line, shows more movement and in painting it Spencer may have given it a smudge with a rag, as he was sometimes inclined to do.
At this time, Spencer's irregular marital arrangements were proving expensive, and his agent advised him to turn away from the visionary compositions which gave him most pleasure, to paint the landscapes which sold more readily. He was heavily in debt, with two women and two children (his second daughter, Unity, was born in 1930) to support.
At St Ives Spencer had finished six oils. One of these, A Wet Morning at St Ives was acquired in 1937, two years after their marriage, by Sir Edward Hayward and his wife Ursula. The painting captures Spencer's feelings of isolation and desperation, with its grey and white colours on an uninviting, cold, wet, dismal day. It portrays the sea front where the empty seats and the lone capstan mirror the artist's lonely mood on his so-called honeymoon. These six oils appear to be the only seascapes he was ever to paint.
Spencer's unhappy personal life continued to dominate his work. Patricia Preece permitted him to live at Lindworth (which he had signed over to her on their marriage) and, alone and working long hours, he painted on the Adorations and Beatitudes. These were attempts to justify his faith in universal love. On another level they were probably compensatory for the personal failure he was experiencing with his two wives. He tried to rekindle Hilda's love, but to no avail. At the same time he continued to have a strange fascination for his second wife and sold some of his paintings to give her luxuries.
In 1937-1938, born partly from frustration, there came an intense period of eroticism in Spencer's work. Sex had always been an inspiration in his art; personal sensual feelings bearing on the conception of sacred love; earthly love was the gateway to a heavenly one and marriage was sacred. Spencer believed he was married to both the women in his life.
At the same time, Spencer was painting both landscapes and flowers. In 1938 the Haywards purchased four flower paintings. These were probably chosen by Ursula, who was an ardent flower lover. Blue Iris was originally bought through Tooth from an English collector. In the foreground Spencer painted exactly what he saw, a bank of purple irises, sensuous, and growing naturally in a garden bed. Applied on a dry underpaint are botanically accurate details of each petal. Not quite so finely executed are the small flower beds in the background, fronted by a partly mottled pathway, together with a dark green trellis to the right. The whole makes a well-balanced composition.
In Sunflower, 1938, the work is dominated by a single full-blown sunflower, the bud and leaves finely textured. In the background there is a suggestion of a cloud in the sky. In the foreground is a half-torn leaf, its attention to detail characteristic of the pre-raphaelite style.
The third of these paintings, Flowers and Roof Tops, 1938, is a scene, as its name suggests, from a window at Lindworth. The rooftops recede into the distance at various angles, the tiles are meticulously drawn in muted tones, and show blemishes from years of wear and tear. There are intricately defined outlines of leaves in shrubs and hedges. In the foreground to the right are snowdrops with pale crocuses forming a loose bunch, and to the left a pot of flowers. The painting is tranquil and has an air of mystery.
From the Artist's Window, Cookham was also presumably painted from one of Lindworth's upstairs windows. The daffodils and jonquils are out. It is springtime. In the foreground on the ledge of the window-sill spring flowers, some still showing the artist's pencil outlines have been tossed nonchalantly into a large greyish basin. Overlooking a colourful view of the Cookham rooftops, with their terracotta tiles richly painted are numerous chimney pots at different levels.
The whole harmonious scene has a living presence; garden sheds are open and on either side of the window, blowing in the breeze, are patterned curtains. Spencer claimed to hate sitting for hours, waiting for the right light to appear, but his work in this area was considerable, no doubt because he needed the money. Most of his landscapes were painted in fine oil, a mixture of linseed and turpentine, often using stock size fine canvases.
On a visit to his brother in Ireland in 1952, Spencer produced another academic landscape, The Monkey Puzzle Tree, Northern Ireland. It is not known whether this was purchased before or after the Haywards planted a monkey puzzle tree in Carrick Hill's expansive garden. This painting portrays an explicitly pre-raphaelite tracery of roses and daisies in a cottage garden surrounding the tree itself. The tones are a mixture of sedgy and mossy greens. Its floral delicacy is like a William Morris tapestry. In contrast, there is a single red rose in the lower left corner of the canvas. Spencer himself was a tapestry worker.
When war broke out in 1939, Spencer was commissioned to produce eyewitness accounts on canvas of Port Glasgow shipbuilders. These paintings are intensely figurative, with simplified cylindrical forms in limited space. They are portrayed uncompromisingly close up. On the metal hulks the riveters, burners and welders sweat, twisting and turning in the heat and noise. The colour is sombre, the draughtmanship, as always, superb.
Spencer's public world was a brighter place in the 1950s. He became a Commander of the British Empire; he was reinstated to the Royal Academy; he had a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1955, and finally received a knighthood in 1958.
His personal life was not so happy. He had hoped to remarry Hilda, and cared for her in her final illness-she died in 1950. He created Love Letters, 1953, a painting based on earlier correspondence between them. He had always written vast amounts, finding it easier to express himself on paper. After Hilda's death he wrote to her constantly.
He also started a series of paintings based on his first marriage, The Marriage at Cana: Bride and Bridegroom sequence. Carrick Hill's The Wedding Cake, a lithograph, is related to one of the paintings in this sequence. It is dated 1953 and is an example of a rare foray into lithography under Henry Trivick's supervision. While he was drawing on the plate Spencer made a mistake and had to turn it upside down and start again. This error can be seen on all the lithographic proofs.
The subject of the lithograph was part of a Church House scheme Spencer had had in mind since the mid- 1930s. The central theme is the wedding feast, symbolic of God's blessing on the marriage state. In trying to recapture happier times with Hilda, the artist has drawn the two of them faced by friends sitting around a table on which stands a four-tiered wedding cake. The third tier of the cake is decorated with toilet paper, and this led to an accusation that Spencer was a coprophiliac. In fact he had written love letters to Hilda on toilet paper and was probably merely recalling this. Further, his preliminary designs for his Port Glasgow paintings had been drawn on toilet paper.
Spencer did, however, like to deal in 'dirt', as he called it-referring to delving into dustbins and the like. He transformed such ordinary objects into expressions of joy and glory.
Stanley Spencer died from cancer in 1959. After his death his biographer, Maurice Collis found a staggering mass of notes, scribblings and unlisted letters, undated and unnumbered. Spencer had intended writing about his own life and had an accumulation of material, mostly unpublishable. In his outbursts on paper he expressed his frustrations and recriminations, was contradictory about his work, and had intimations of the divine. His writings included erotica, and most of all expressed his love for his wife, Hilda, years after her death. Spencer wrote incessantly in note books, pads of all sizes, and on toilet paper. Much of it was illegible.
It is impossible to consider Spencer's art without being aware of his personal experiences, so interrelated were they. His portraits, landscapes, figurative and visionary paintings were the result of extremely powerful draughtsmanship informed by a mystical, magical inner vision. His strikingly realistic self-portraits, produced at regular intervals, are compelling characterisations in self-expression without restraint, exercises in self-analysis. A similar analysis is to be found in his cold and calculating portrait of Patricia Preece (1933). His academic landscapes were executed with painstaking care and his figurative paintings are visual and emotional experiences, frequently distorted to the point of caricature in order to make a point.
Spencer, with his large canvas, Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta, uncompleted at his death, ended as he had begun, painting visionary biblical scenes of his beloved Cookham. He believed that most things are redeemable and he preferred to paint them in an imagined redeemed state.
Spencer was an extrovert: childlike, open, honest, almost unbelievably naive and with an exceptional sense of humour. He was at the time of his death far outside the mainstream of British art, but now, with the hundredth anniversary of his birth, Spencer has an assured place in the history of European art.