Of Angels and Dirt: Stanley Spencer's village people

27 June 2016

With canvases focusing on the tranquillity of rural life, along with highly sexualised nudes, and Bible scenes imagined in a sleepy English village, the works of Stanley Spencer mark him out as one of Britain's most distinctive and unusual artists. Spending his life in his beloved Cookham on the banks of the River Thames, Spencer's problematic and colourful private life informed his highly personal art. With Of Angels and Dirt, a major new exhibition of his work at the Hepworth Wakefield, WILLIAM COOK pays a visit to appraise the singular vision of a remarkable artist.

The Art Class, 1929, Stanley Spencer. Gift from the Audrey & Stanley Charitable Trust, 2009. University of Leeds Art Collection © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images.

‘I like my life so much that I would like to cover every empty space on a wall with it,’ said the great British painter Stanley Spencer. Here at the Hepworth Wakefield, curator Eleanor Clayton has done exactly that.

The walls of this gallery are covered with life-affirming paintings from every stage of Spencer’s career, from his first steps as an artist before the First World War to his death in 1959. In these troubled times, this is a show to cheer you up.

These uplifting pictures reconfirm Spencer’s status as one of the finest British artists of the last century

Of Angels And Dirt is the first big Spencer show since Tate Britain’s retrospective in 2001. It’s been worth the wait.

These uplifting pictures reconfirm Spencer’s status as one of the finest British artists of the last century - a brilliant draughtsman with a unique, euphoric vision of the world. The title comes from something he said himself: ‘I am on the side of angels and of dirt.’ Spencer doesn’t shirk the pain of life, but his art is full of hope.

‘Maybe I’m biased,’ says Stanley Spencer’s grandson, John Spencer, as he shows me round this exhibition, ‘but every single picture I could put on the wall at home. I cannot find a picture of his that I don’t like!’

Stanley Spencer was born in 1891 in Cookham, a pretty village on the River Thames. His father was a piano teacher. His childhood was cultured, eccentric and financially constrained. The eighth of nine children (all of whom grew up to become artists or musicians) he was home-schooled by one of his elder sisters and showed a flair for drawing from an early age.

Stanley won a place at the Slade, one of Britain’s most prestigious art schools, where he prospered, but his career was interrupted by the outbreak of the Great War.

He joined up, and was sent to Macedonia. This trauma could have crushed him. Instead, it elevated his art to new heights. While his Slade contemporary Paul Nash portrayed the desolation of the Western Front, Stanley depicted the humanity of his comrades, and his belief in a happy afterlife. ‘I had buried so many people and saw so many dead bodies that I felt that death could not be the end of everything,’ he said.

Stanley returned to Cookham, married and had two children. However in 1937 he entered a disastrous second marriage with Patricia Preece, a lesbian who refused to leave her lover or consummate the marriage and subsequently kicked him out. ‘It’s a Shakespearean tragedy,’ says John.

Spencer’s spirituality illuminates his greatest works of art, from paintings of the Last Supper to paintings of shipbuilders on the River Clyde

Stanley’s nude portraits of Preece were among his most powerful artworks. He said his paintbrush was like an ant, crawling over her body.

‘He loved the bizarre and the bonkers,’ says John. ‘He wasn’t trying to be clever or cocky.’ Stanley was a man out of time, a hippy in ration book Britain. This caused great problems in his private life, but it galvanised his art

Stanley ended up alone, and his painting became darker and more sexualised. In 1950, the President of the Royal Academy tried to prosecute him for obscenity. This was absurd, but understandable. Stanley’s paintings were revolutionary. No wonder they were an affront to the Establishment.

‘He doesn’t follow a trend, a fashion or a style,’ says John. ‘He just had to paint these pictures – he had no choice.’ John never knew his grandfather – Stanley died before he was born – but he grew up in Stanley’s old house in Cookham. Maybe that’s why he has such a close connection with his grandfather’s paintings. ‘With Stanley, every picture tells a story,’ he says.

Of Angels And Dirt begins with a range of self-portraits, from Stanley’s youth to his old age, but the highlights of this show are his extraordinary religious paintings - scenes from the Gospels transported to the Home Counties. As Christ carries His cross up Cookham High Street, the dead rise up from beneath the paving stones of this quaint village beside the Thames.

‘Stanley had no time for the conventional church - his bible was important, and his faith was important,’ reveals John Spencer. In many respects, Stanley had more in common with the Old Masters than with his British Modernist contemporaries. A Botticelli in this show, on loan from London’s National Gallery, underlines his affinity with the artists of the Renaissance.

Spencer’s spirituality illuminates his greatest works of art, from paintings of the Last Supper to paintings of shipbuilders on the River Clyde. These Clydeside pictures sum up what made Spencer such a special artist. His shipbuilders are heroic figures, but they’re also tender and childlike.

Spencer went to Lithgows shipyard in Port Glasgow to research these monumental paintings. It was an experience which inspired him deeply. These shipbuilders warmed to him, but they clearly thought him rather odd.

‘Many of the corners of Lithgows factory moved me in much the same way as the rooms of my childhood,’ enthused Spencer. ‘You’ll go out of your nut,’ they told him. They were probably quite right, but what enthralling visions he produced.

There’ll never be another artist like him. Head for Yorkshire this summer, and see these life-enhancing paintings for yourself.

Stanley Spencer: Of Angels And Dirt is at The Hepworth Wakefield from 24 June to 5 October 2016.

Film: Spencer's The Lovers animated

Self-portrait By Gaslight Looking Downwards, 1949, Stanley Spencer. © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images, Photography © Reading Museum (Reading Borough Council).
Sausage Shop, 1951, Stanley Spencer. Reproduced with the permission of Newport Museum & Art Gallery © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images.
The Psychiatrist, 1945, Stanley Spencer. © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust.
Self-portrait, Adelaide Road, 1939, Stanley Spencer. Private collection, courtesy Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert © The Estate of Stanley Spencer/Bridgeman Images.
The Last Supper,1920, Stanley Spencer.Stanley Spencer Gallery Collection. © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images.
The Beatitudes of Love - Contemplation,1938, Stanley Spencer. Stanley Spencer Gallery Collection. © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images
Bellrope, Cookham, Berkshire, 1936, Stanley Spencer. © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images. Image courtesy Touchstones Rochdale Art Gallery, Link4Life.
The Resurrection: Tidying, 1945, Stanley Spencer. © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images. Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust.

Major art collections on BBC Arts

Zacharias and Elizabeth, 1913, Stanley Spencer. © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images, Photography © Tate, London 2016.
The Boatbuilder's Yard, Cookham, 1936, Stanley Spencer. © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images.
The Garden at Cookham Rise, 1946, Stanley Spencer. © The Estate of Stanley Spencer/Bridgeman Images.
Pen and ink drawing of Cookham from Stanley Spencer's sketchbook. © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield.
The Hepworth Wakefield. © Hufton + Crow.

More from BBC Arts