SIR Stanley SPENCER CBE: Nothing like a crisis! Patricia coaxed his best work? She paid off after all.

(Stanley Spencer, b.Cookham 1891, died Cliveden, 1959, age 68)

The eccentric talented English Neo-Romantic was blooded during the pre-WW1 Modern art thunderflash.

But ran his own consummate reactionary Cooky race.

Nothing like a crisis! And Stanley weathered two (three if you count both world wars).  

So ironic his bizarre tangential entanglement with the duplicitous Ms Preece triggered arguably his best work?

Stanley… wedding bells, 29 May 1937. A clue is the hat. Her’s too.

ah-art spencer 0 photo 29 may 1937                                                                                                          

SUMMARY – his Art

  • Have I finally nailed Stanley? So to speak. Thus, ironically, his unexpected bizarre erotic obsession c1935-1937 with the impecunious duplicitous gold-digger Ms Patricia Preece – at the expense of his beloved wife one Hilda, the Old Fellow ruling his head – provoked his most original art?
  • A 20thC great? No, a visionary, reactionary Neo-Romantic eccentric.
  • But a consumate, complex and brilliantly original painter, who delivered some great images.
  • And who could only have happened in England?!
  • Arguably Spencer‘s single most memorably original works are the three Patricia Preece nudes of 1934-37 (amid many other worthwhile works in the same period), fortuitously provoked by his unfortunate encounter with the manipulative thieving Ms Preece, looking to replenish the larder after her finances had been crippled by the 1929 Crash. The infatution destroyed his first marriage, causing great pain to his stoic wife, Hilda. The images were pathbreaking in terms of intense in-your-face Modernist realism, vivid, cramped, overpowering and confronting, reflecting the powerful emotional unsettling of Spencer.
  • An as the personal crisis played out it triggered other great paintings, especially reflecting his ongoing love for his ex-wife Hilda, in pictures like, Hilda, Unity and Dolls (1937, ie soon after the wedding), Love Letters (1950, the year Hilda a died), Hilda and I at Pond St (1954).
  • The turmoil reflects also in the Beatitudes of Love sequence over 1937-38, where the „human love“ he celebrated was „best articulated not through beauty, but through the grotesque.“ (Tate, 2001).
  • His second major achievement was a series of paintings occasioned by another crisis, WW1, so again, ironically, works he never planned. His WW1 work in particular represents touching poignant personal reporting on the daily circumstances of the casualties of the calamity, rather than depiction of the fighting.
  • He also left a powerful confronting sequence of self portraits, from a youthful 23 (1914) to a dying 68 (1959).
  • Lastly rank a legion of works reflecting the manifold strands of his whole nostalgic, religious Neo-Romantic Christianity-come-to-Cookham (England) theme, all oddly infused by sex, the same lustful appetite which Ms Preece had exploited.


SUMMARY – his essence

  • A very curious case, one of the famous „second class of brilliance“ at the Slade art school in London, preWW1, but who ran off on his own complete tangent.
  • „A little over 5 feet“ of weird concoction! Despite ongoing radical contemporary change in the modern industrial world, and its art, overlaid improbably by the sudden unexpected calamity of two world wars, he stayed forever rooted in the fervid religious (Christian), downhome English village mindset of his family and childhood.
  • Discovering sex at 34 (1925) he folded it into his singular vision of paradise: English Everyman in Christian Cookham – „a holy suburb of Heaven“ he called it – celebrating, quasi-pantheistically, the minutiae of village life, people and their habitat, in work and play.
  • Spencer wrote of his Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta Conversation between Punts (1953): “They are nearly all middle-class ladies… . They have had a tiring day dismissing servants, and they are all going bye-byes under a shared blanket…. This all expresses to me.. that I want all to know that what they wish for will be received…… The Christ talk is that their joy may be full. If it is carnal wishes, they will be fulfilled. If it is sexual desires or picture-making inspiration that is to be satisfied, then Christ will heave the capstan round. All will be met. Everything will be fulfilled in the symbol of the Regatta. The complete worshipfulness and lovableness of everything to do with love is meant in this Regatta scene. In that marvellous atmosphere nothing can go wrong.”
  • Late in life, back in Cookham, he was: a “small man with twinkling eyes and shaggy grey hair (often wearing his pyjamas under his suit if it was cold)… wandering the lanes of Cookham pushing the old pram in which he carried his canvas and easel.”
  • Sir Stanley Spencer, engaged artistically his rapidly changing modern world armed firstly with a strong unorthodox life-long Christian faith born of his close-knit village upbringing within a large religiously active family, all later garnished by sex, and, secondly, with an extraordinary imagination walking arm-in-arm with a great technical facility in drawing and painting.
  • Moreover, by chance, he emerged, was trained, pre-WW1 during an unparalleled period of revolt in Western art, and then as a young man (23) was tipped into the first of two calamitous world wars in his lifetime.
  • But, notwithstanding collecting some stylistic traits from Gauguin, he remained staunchly unscathed by Modern art, especially by „Cubo-futurism“ and abstraction unfolding around him, and embraced for life a quirky down-home reactionary religious Neo-Romantic Realism.
  • He served in WW1, so knew its horror, but he stayed steadfastly true to his faith and English village roots and the war did not deflect his overall painting style and content, unlike some of his famous prewar student colleagues (like David Bomberg and CRW Nevinson).
  • Conversely, perhaps the war served only to reinforce his eccentric Romantic vision?
  • Comparison with an earlier Romantic William Blake, also at odds with his time, seems to fit (eg The Economist 9th Feb. 1991), „an original in the visionary line of WB and with the visionary’s innocent unquestioning egotism..“ And Stanely apparently once remarked: „The most interesting thing I ever came across was myself..“
  • Stanley was „a chatterbox“! So reported a lady on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow! The daughter of Spencer’s doctor and who he sketched Oct. 1959, only two months before he died. He was very energetic, had an „engaging personality”, „was a most sociable character”. He remained very keen on music and liked “bread and jam“.
  • And he died as he lived, optimistic, „sorrow and sadness is not for me.


ART – essence

  • Spencer’s steadfast Neo-Romantic reaction was born of a genuine if naive compassion, rooted in his intense village-family context and his Christian faith.
  • Yes he was shaken by his exposure to WW1, which catastrophe would have landed in his timeless village-anchored cultural mind-world like a comet.
  • But interesting is how, unlike Bomberg or Nevinson, his exposure to the horror of WW1 did not deflect his painting style, rather reinforced and embellished it?
  • Thus his philosophical life template – compounded of, rooted in, the profound impressions from his village childhood, his family and Christian faith – not just withstood the barrage, was resilient, strengthened?
  • Firstly his art was profoundly informed by his strong Christian religious mindset, which, tapping an old tradition, he expressed artistically through his own life and times, bringing Bibilical stories to his own beloved home village of Cookham (starting with The Nativity in 1912), where he was raised within a close-knit cultured, religiously active family.
  • Secondly, he highlighted, celebrated nostalgically everyday English village social and working life. And beyond the village, throughout his country England he celebrated the working man, about his daily business, in peace and war, inspired in part by the Confessions of Saint Augustine, how everyday drudge can bring you closer to God?

Thus a major series of paintings was occasioned by WW1, to „celebrate the unheroic aspects of military service”, thus: (1) soldiers at the Beaufort War Hospital near Bristol, where he worked as orderley from 1915; (2) Travoys [sleds] Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, Sep. 1916 (1919), after serving for 2 ½ years in Macedonia with Field Ambulances from May 1916 to December 1918, on the Salonika front.

Then he was approached April 1918 by British War Memorials Committee. Characteristically he wrote of the subsequent work: “I meant it not as a scene of horror but a scene of redemption”), a major (5 year) commission of a cycle of 19 wall paintings for the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire, painted from memory after losing his sketchbooks, the chapel design recalling Giotto at Padua.

Writing to sister 1923, “They don’t look like war pictures; they rather look like Heaven, a place I am becoming very familiar with…” “a symphony of rashers of bacon” with “tea-making obligato”, “a heaven in a hell of war.’.

  • And in WW2 he painted at home a major series on ship building workers on the Clyde.
  • Thus curiously Spencer’s “war” paintings contained no “war”! No fighting, no violence, no weapons, no battlefields. . soldiers heading to hospital (1916), and soldiers recuperating at a hospital (ie the Burghclere chapel, based on his Beaufort Hospital experience), and wartime workers.
  • He took his parochial naive English village simplicity on the global road, famously meeting PRC’s Premier Zhou Enlai in China, 1954, „I’m Stanley from Cookham“. In sobering utter incongruity, as Mao’s PR China right then was busy devouring millions of its own in the name of some secular visionary’s notion of Paradise!
  • Though he was not naive by experience. He had lived and trained in London and was well aware of contemporary intellectual currents.
  • Thirdly sex, when it arrived like a revelation in 1925, became important, was folded into his life‘s souffle. „Despite the unhappiness caused by his second marriage, Spencer believed in the sanctity of sex. “During the war I felt the only way to end the ghastly experience would be if everyone suddenly decided to indulge in every degree or form of sexual love…These are the joyful inheritances of mankind.” For Spencer, sexual and religious fervour were closely allied.” (“Stanley Spencer, Notes for Teachers”, Tate 2001 ). And sex was integral to his vision of paradise, to be represented by the planned Church-House. Fitting the theme Spencer also liked to paint Big Women.
  • His visionary Neo-Romanticism recalls the (English) Pre-Raphaelites who flourished half a century earlier, in the 1850s, and who also looked backwards for solace, then in face of the Industrial Revolution.
  • Within the England context, it is interesting to compare him with another giant in English painting, but at the other end of a spectrum. William Hogarth was also a good-hearted man who celebrated ordinary people, but he was born heart of London and kept his feet firmly on the ground, engaged directly – satirically, polemically – with the busy secular urban life there, trying to make his world a better place, at a time when the growing England’s economy was leading Europe.
  • As a leading Modern Neo-Romantic, Spencer recalls contemporaries cut from the same cloth
  • A near contemporary was the Transatlantic German-American painter Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), 20 years older but who started painting almost the same time as Spencer. Feininger was a fine draughtsman who built a successful early career in Germany as a cartoonist for German and US publications. But art was his love, and from c1907 he carried his cartooning into his initial painting phase, depicting striking comic caricatures of urban life figures. Unlike Spencer his style embraced Modernism, but like Spencer he was also firmly religious, if traditionally, and he applied his own distinctive take on Cubism to a series of other-worldly qusi-religious village churchscapes and seascapes.
  • Another famous exponent of Modern Neo-Romanticism, a generation earlier, was Paul Gauguin (1848-1907), who also steadfastly averted his gaze from the modern world around him, sought his own Cookham at Pont Aven then far off in Tahiti and the Marquesas.
  • And one could even here throw in Claude Monet.


ART – training, influences and content

  • Spencer was well trained, and showed early talent, a „skilled draughsman“.
  • “… formal teaching at the Slade was restricted to drawing [so] all Spencer’s early paintings were completed in the corners of sheds, barns and often-crowded rooms in Cookham..” (Tate 2001).
  • He emerged and trained at a time of then raging Modernist innovation which was crossing La Manche from France via keen local provacateurs like Roger Fry, whose lectures Spencer heard from 1909.
  • He was influenced by Post Impressionism (obviously by Gauguin), but also, as one of the Slade Neo-Primitives (with Gertler, Roberts and Nevinson), importantly by traditional art, especially the Renaissance pioneers (like Giotto, Piero della F., Mantegna, Massacio, Botticelli, Giorgione and Uccello), and encouraged in this by the reactionary stalwart teacher Henry Tonks. His Nativity (1912), reflected both „Primitives“ and Gauguin (and won prizes at the Slade), then also first major painting The Apple Gatherers (1912), then Zacharias and Elizabeth (1913-14).
  • Then and thereafter he remained completely, staunchly unscathed by then fashionable „Cubo-futurism“ and abstraction. Rather he embraced and sustained a quirky down-home Neo-Romantic Realism. Though oddly he was hung at Roger Fry’s famous 2nd Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912 (John Donne Arriving in Heaven, in the same vein as Zacharias etc, selected by Clive Bell).
  • He brought an arresting vivid imagination to his genre compositions,his own wilful and eccentric imaginings” (AG NSW), the contemporary narratory content, the crowded figures, comic caricature figures. Eg The Centurion’s Servant (1914). Visionary?
  • He painted mostly assorted genre scenes, but also many portraits (including an important sequence of self-portraits, starting emphatically in 1914), and many landscapes / village-scapes, garden scenes, some still lives.
  • ‘The Resurrection Cookham’ (1927) famously introduced his own eccentric template and was a „sensation“ at his first solo show in London.
  • Across his life Spencer painted a number of important themed series, like
    • the Resurrection, Cookham (from c1923-27);
    • the Sandham Memorial Chapel (1927-33, about which on hearing of his commision he may have said, „What ho Giotto!“);
    • the Cana schema (from 1935, originating with his Marriage at Cana (1935), hence The Beatitudes of Love(from 1937), Dusting Shelves, Workmen in the House and Love among the Nations; Christ in the wilderness (1939-54, inspired also by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden);
    • Shipbuilding on the Clyde‘ (1940-46);
    • The Resurrection, Port Glasgow series (1945-1950);
    • and the ‘Pentecost Last Judgement’ (Christ in Cookham) series intended for the Church-House there, started c1933, Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors (1933) being one of the first paintings, based on a story his father told him of Halley’s Comet passing over Cookham 1910.
    • This series finished with a sub-sequence from 1953 to his death on Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta, with an apocalyptic clue.
  • Spencer painted profusely and despite „shocking“ the public time to time (eg in 1950 being pursued for obscenity by Sir Alfred Munnings!), he was generally successful. He was awarded a CBE in 1955 (as David Bomberg wallowed in obscurity) and knighted in 1959, just before he died. Also the Tate staged a major retrospective in his lifetime, in 1955.


LIFE notes.

  • Born Cookham, 30 June 1891, 8th of nine! To musical father, church organist and piano teacher.
  • Trained at the Slade.
  • WW 1. From August 1917 he joined the 7th Battalion, the Royal Berkshires as an infantryman, and returned to Cookham December 1918.
  • After WW1 in London, „.he and his brother Gilbert met at least monthly with a group of painters that included the Nash brothers, Mark Gertler, William Roberts, C.R.W. Nevinson and Henry Lamb, as well as the Carline family, who hosted their gatherings..
  • In 1922 Spencer journeyed with the Carlines to Munich and Vienna, met work of Northern masters such as Cranach and Breughel.
  • Engaged to Hilda Carline 1922, after meeting 1919, she an artist too, Hampstead based, and they married 23 Feb. 1925, sister of painter Richard Carline. Children born Nov. 1925 and May 1930 (Unity).
  • By about 1931 Spencer was becoming well established, supported by critics like “ H. Wilenski and the Rothensteins, and art collectors, Edward Marsh and the Behrends [Mr and Mrs J. L Behrend].” Burghclere chapel (1927 to 1931) was in memory of Mary Behrend’s brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham.
  • His sales agent from 1932 was Dudley Tooth. After ruining his finances in 1937 he needed to paint more to earn a living, including supporting Hilda and his children, so “anything that would sell”, said Mr Tooth. So he painted more landscapes and portraits than he wanted.
  • January 1932 he bought Lindworth, “comfortable residence in the centre of Cookham, with its tennis court and large garden.”
  • Spencer embarked on a curious painful 3 way relationship from early 1930s, with wife one Hilda Carline and (lesbian) wife two Patricia Preece (PP). After chasing PP, and explaining to Hilda he needed two wives (cf unsent letter of 8th Sep. 1936), Spencer finally divorced Hilda 24th May 1937 and married PP 5 days later at Maidenhead, 29th May, but Dorothy Hepworth joined PP on the honeymoon! He remained Cookham to paint and Hilda arrived for the night! Then tried to reclaim Hilda through summer 1937! Meanwhile he kept living at Lindworth, his house in Cookham he had signed over to Preece, till she kicked him out! And he went to London in 1938. Later she resisted his efforts to divorce her, and after he was knighted called herself Lady Spencer!
  • Preece and Hepworth moved to Cookham 1928, met Spencer in 1929. Then Hepworths lost in the 1929 Crash. In 1933 Preece and Spencer visited Switzerland for one of Spencer‘s patrons, then with Hilda’s blessing. But now he pursued her, painted her, bought her gifts. And by 1934 Hepworth and Preece were in financial straights. Spencer then suggested they come and live with him and Hilda.
  • But Spencer remained devoted to Hilda till she died Dec. 1950, visiting her frequently, and resuming relations with his children, who remembered him very fondly.
  • Elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. And moved back to Cookham, to live at Lindworth,”.. now holding a position of some renown in the art world and having a reasonable income..”
  • 1935, resigned from the RA after the rejection of The Dustman and other works from the Summer Exhibition. Hila moved back to Hampstad, with the two children. May 1936 she commenced divorce proceedings.
  • 1937!? Divorce May 1937 and married Ms Preece.
  • In financial difficulties, left Cookham to stay with the Rothensteins in London. His important Christ in the Wilderness series, executed during WW2, the second global conflict calamity in his life, „was painted between 1939 and 1954 during a difficult time of personal conflict in the artist’s life. In great penury, he sealed himself in a bare room in London [Swiss Cottage]’’”
  • July 1939-41, Stayed at the White Hart Inn, Leonard Stanley, Gloucestershire, with George and Daphne Charlton.
  • March 1940 the War Artists Advisory Committee commissioned Spencer to paint the Port Glasgow shipyards, which occupied him until 1946.
  • 1946 return to Cookham.
  • 1950 CBE and reinstated RA. Hilda died Dec. 1950.
  • Died Dec.1959.
  • Tate show 1955, Tate retrospective 2001.

 Some key works….

1914, The Centurion’s Servant      1915-19, Swan Upping at Cookham

1915, Mending Cowls, Cookham               1922, The Disrobing of Christ

      1927-32, The Resurrection of the soldiers (Sandham);   1933, Sarah Tubb and the heavenly visitors (Pentecost Scheme, Church House)

1935, Nude (Patricia Preece)            1935, St Francis and the Birds

1934, Crucifixion             1935, Workmen in the House

1936c, The Builders                      1936, The Jubilee Tree Cookham

1937, Hilda, Unity, and Dolls  The artist’s wife;    1937, Adoration of old men

1937, Consciousness (Beatitudes of Love)     1937, Self Portrait with Patricia Preece

 1939, Consider the lilies (Christ in the wilderness)   1939, The Hen (Christ in the wilderness)

1955, Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta Conversation between Punts                1956, Mr and Mrs Baggett

1954, Hilda and I at Pond Street          1959, Self portrait


(Wse ~ 28 Oct to 3rd D ec 2015, 3 Jan 2016)


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