|Saturday 14 July, 2001
Sir Stanley Spencer Stands Alone
Sir Stanley Spencer was not merely an eccentric English oddity, but a major artist who linked thematically and stylistically to his era and so captured the changing nature of the times and places within which he lived.
Following a major retrospective exhibition of Spencer’s work at the Tate Gallery, London, Meridian Masterpiece looks at the life and work of one of the masters of 20th century British art.
Once dubbed ‘the divine fool of British art’, Sir Stanley Spencer received a mixed reception during his lifetime.
Residents of his beloved village of Cookham remember him pushing a child’s pram full of paints around the local cemetery and fondly recall how he would wear his pyjamas under his clothes when the weather was cold.
His work equally defied convention. During his commission for the World War II Shipbuilding On The Clyde series of paintings he reportedly sketched on long lengths of toilet paper.
His painting, now heralded by the British art fraternity, was not always so warmly received.
|‘It is fair to say that Spencer’s work was divided into two distinct categories – comical versions of events and intense realism.’ |
His tendency to combine biblical themes with contemporary situations shocked audiences, who failed to share his view of Cookham as the New Jerusalem. And despite being something of a late sexual developer, Spencer made up for lost time, shocking audiences with nude portraits of his two wives.
His private life was unconventional and his emotional state was to have a profound impact on his work.
In 1919 Spencer met fellow artist Hilda Carline. He later recalled his first impression on meeting her. He said:
‘I felt she had the same mental attitude to things as I had. I saw myself in that extraordinary person. I saw life with her.’
They married in 1925 and later that year their first child was born. Five years later Hilda gave birth to their second child, Unity.
In 1932 the family moved to Lindworth, a large house in Cookham. Here Spencer began a strange dalliance with Patricia Preece. A local artist who exhibited the work of her lesbian lover, Dorothy Hepworth, under her own name.
In hindsight Preece could be considered a con-artist, but at the time she beguiled Spencer. In 1937 he divorced Hilda and one week later Spencer and Preece were married.
Their relationship was far from ordinary. The couple never actually lived together; the marriage was never consummated and after Spencer had signed his home and financial affairs over to his new wife, Preece secured the end of their relationship, when in 1938 she evicted him from the house.
Spencer’s imagery from this time was fuelled by marital and stylistic crisis. His sexual frustrations spilled onto his canvas as he tirelessly depicted the folds of naked female flesh.
His realism was to get him into trouble though when in 1950, the outgoing Royal Academy president, Sir Alfred Munnings, initiated a police prosecution against Spencer for alleged obscenity.
As a result Spencer hid his Double Nude Portrait, a frank depiction of the artist and his second wife, under his bed and it was not exhibited again until after Spencer’s death.
After the demise of Spencer’s relationship with Preece, the artist made frequent visits to his first wife that were to continue throughout Hilda’s mental breakdown and up until her death from cancer in the winter of 1950.
Much of Spencer’s late work was preoccupied with religious imagery. In his trademark idiosyncratic style he painted an ambitious series of images depicting Christ Preaching At Cookham Regatta and in 1958 his Crucifixion scene was exhibited for the first time in Cookham Church.
By 1959 Spencer’s health was failing. A knighthood early in the year neatly drew his career to a close and on 14th December he died from cancer at the Canadian War Memorial Hospital in Berkshire, UK.
A friend visiting him in hospital has recalled how the artist was unable to speak and wrote a note claiming that angels who had offered him a helping hand had visited him.
Reduced to scribbling the details of the visitation on a notepad, Spencer wrote of his impending death, claiming that it was ‘the most exciting experience of my life.’
| Life At A Glance
|1891 Born 30th June at Cookham on Thames, Bershire, UK.
1908-12 Attended Slade School of Art in London.
1915-18 Enlisted with the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Posted to Macedonia in 1916, returned to Cookham in 1918.
1925 Married art student Hilda Carline. Their first daughter Shirin was born in November.
1930 Second daughter, Unity born.
1932 Finished work on Burghclere Chapel and began work on Church House idea.
1935 Resigned from Royal Academy after the rejection of The Dustman from the Summer Exhibition.
1937 Divorced by Hilda and one week later married artist Patricia Preece.
1938 Moved to London and began work on Christ In The Wilderness series.
1940 Commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee to paint the Port Glasgow shipyards.
Moves back to Cookham.
1950 Sir Alfred Munnings instigated prosecution against Spencer for alleged obscenity.
Hilda Carline died of cancer in November 1950.
1955 Retrospective exhibition mounted at the Tate Gallery, London.
1959 Knighted. Died of cancer 14 December.