The Hepworth Wakefield. 25th June to 5th October, 2016

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Stanley Spencer Self Portrait 1959

We don’t really do art movements in Britain. All those “isms” tend to be foreign affairs, and you can’t imagine Impressionism or Abstract Expressionism as having their origins in this country. Yes, it’s true that individual artists picked up on the ideas propagated by painters in France or America, and we even had some who may have anticipated, in their own ways, elements of what later became identified as key components of a style. Turner pointed the way towards Impressionism in certain of his paintings. But on the whole, and leaving aside a few short-lived, loose cliques, such as the Camden Town Group, or the Kitchen Sink School, and the odd “ism” like Vorticism, artists have often not been much inclined towards wanting to be included under a group heading, useful though that can sometimes be in terms of arousing interest among art critics and journalists and attracting attention from a wider public.

What the British art scene has often excelled at is producing “eccentrics”. Or it may be better to say  “idiosyncratic artists”. Blake, Samuel Palmer, Turner, Cecil Collins, John Bratby. I’m pulling a few names out of the hat. And Stanley Spencer can surely be added to the list. The exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield offers a broad survey of his work and shows him to have been an individual who followed his own inclinations, curious though they sometimes were.

Born in 1891 in Cookham, a village he was to live in for most of his life and which played a major role in his paintings, Spencer showed a talent for drawing when young. He attended the Slade, where he studied alongside Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth, David Bomberg, and Isaac Rosenberg, all of who might be said to have developed personal styles, even if they are sometimes seen under group labels. Nash, for example, was associated with the Neo-Romantic movement (it was comprised of highly individual artists) of the 1930s and 1940s.

An exhibition, A Crisis of Brilliance: Nash, Nevinson, Spencer, Gertler, Carrington, Bomberg at the Dulwich Gallery in 2013, placed Spencer in context, as did David Boyd Hancock’s A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War (Old Street Publishing, 2009). It seems that, for a short time at least, Spencer did join with Bomberg and William Roberts in calling themselves Neo-Primitives, though that may have been youthful exuberance rather than any attempt to create a new movement. But the inclusion of Roberts is significant and some basic similarities between his and Spencer’s use of figures in large paintings can be observed.

Spencer’s eccentricity may have made him stand out, certainly on a personal level. He remained attached to Cookham, returning there regularly despite the attractions of London, and showed early on that it would be essential to his work. And his religious leanings, and their application to Cookham locations, soon became evident. After war service, where his experiences both as a medical orderly and a front-line infantryman, affected him deeply, Spencer went back to Cookham and began to paint pictures like “Christ’s Entrance into Jerusalem,” (1921), which shows Jesus on Cookham High Street surrounded by figures in modern dress.

Although Spencer painted numerous scenes with religious overtones, and which indicated his love of Italian paintings by Giotto and others, he did also produce commissioned portraits, brutally honest self-portraits, and landscapes. And it would be a pity if these were overlooked because the religious symbolism can be used for analysis and comment in a way that doesn’t always apply to what might be called the more conventional canvases. Spencer was a skilled draughtsman and something like his 1954 “Portrait of Eric Williams, MC,” is brilliantly realised. There is an attention to detail, as in the texture of the sweater Williams is wearing, that is a highlight of the painting. With regard to Spencer’s landscapes, the striking “Gardens in the Pound, Cookham” (1936), shows how careful he was to achieve a balance between buildings and the colourful and superbly painted flowers in the forefront of the painting. At the very top of the canvas there is a brief glimpse of sky with some grey clouds drifting across it. It is a very English scene.

Portrait of Eric Williams MC

During the Second World War Spencer was commissioned under the War Artists Scheme to paint panoramic accounts of work in the Glasgow shipyards. It would appear that the results, admired as they were at the time in artistic circles, and wonderful though they appear now, were not to the liking of the shipyard owner, who clearly preferred more straightforward representations of his employees and their jobs. A more-conventional artist replaced Spencer. Looking at “Shipbuilding on the Clyde, Burners” (1941), it’s possible to see why Spencer’s idiosyncratic take on men at work might have disturbed someone attuned to a formal, almost photographic, approach to art, but there is a liveliness in it that might never have been captured otherwise. One can sense the noise, the heat, the urgency (in a time of war) in what Spencer had done.

Caulking 1940

Upsetting people with his work was nothing new for Spencer. In the 1930s the New English Art Club had included his “The Dustman” (1935) in its Jubilee Exhibition. It had previously been rejected by the Royal Academy, and The Times described it as “a thoroughly ugly picture.” Looking at it in the Hepworth exhibition, it struck me as something so alive and joyous that it made me wonder just what the Times critic had failed to see. Or had not wanted to see. Kenneth McConkey in his The New English: A History of the New English Art Club (Royal Academy Publications, 2006) described it as, “a narrative of great personal significance in that it revisited the artist’s earlier preoccupations with resurrection. In this case the dustman has leapt into his wife’s arms in a passionate embrace, while his children kneel before him with votive offerings – a teapot, a jam pot and a cabbage or cauliflower.”

The Dustmen 1934

I was intrigued by a prose statement by Spencer which accompanies the painting in the Hepworth display, and in which he celebrates the people he portrays and the fact that the ordinary hides a wealth of emotions and religious meaning. It’s a purely personal response when I say that the fervour inherent in what Spencer said reminded me of the intensity in pronouncements by religious idealists of the English Civil War period. I’m thinking of people like Lawrence Clarkson and Abiezer Coppe, though Spencer’s gentle comments might seem simple compared to their radicalism. But the resurrection was important to them, as well as Spencer, and all were in an English tradition. They also possibly shared some of Spencer’s notions about sex and love as a kind of liberating force.

There may also be a link between Spencer’s devotion to the village life of Cookham and the distrust of London that many radicals expressed, even if they lived there. I can’t prove this, and contemporary critics will no doubt look askance at what I’m saying. But I feel the connection even if I can’t pin it down. One of my favourite writers on art, Andrew Lambirth, said that Spencer’s “paintings and drawings must be seen as art and not literature,” but when someone writes about their art, as Spencer often did, it’s reasonable to think in literary as well as artistic terms. I can’t resist the temptation to quote Spencer himself, who said, “so good do I think what I have written about my pictures I would almost prefer that other people should paint them in order to leave me to write about them.”  

One thing that struck me about “The Dustman” is the way that Spencer had an eye for detail in the sense of what people do with their bodies, where their hands are, and how they hold themselves in certain circumstances. One woman has her hands behind her back, another has one hand on her hip. Spencer’s figures might seem exaggerated in some ways when he departed from straightforward portraiture, but they still come across as “real” because of the detail. In another painting, “Domestic Scenes: At the Chest of Drawers” (1936), a woman has one leg cocked up behind her as she bends to rummage in the bottom drawer. And in two group scenes, “The Garage” (1929) and “The Art Class” (1935), the various figures are shown in a collection of poses that add to the impression that they’re not just involved in static activities. There is a feeling of constant movement in both paintings.

I mentioned earlier that Spencer was clearly a brilliant draughtsman, and could draw and paint people and places to perfection. His “Southwold” (1937) is a realistic picture of a beach scene, complete with sea, sand, deckchairs, fluttering towels hung out to dry, and several idling figures. Another painting, “The Harbour, St Ives” (1937), isn’t in the Hepworth exhibition, but is worth referring to for its devotion to detail and the angle at which the subject is shown. A third, “View from Cookham Bridge,” (1936) also relies on a slightly angular aspect to emphasise the relationship between the water and the land with its trees and buildings.

Despite what was said earlier about not treating Spencer’s work as literature, it is undoubtedly very autobiographical. His wife, children, friends, neighbours, and others, are in the paintings, and not just as models. So is Cookham, even when he paints with a religious idea in mind. The backgrounds to scenes are easily identifiable. And there are the facts of his life. He married Hilda Carline in 1925 and had two daughters by her, but in the 1930s he became obsessed with Patricia Preece, who was, to quote Andrew Lambirth again, “a man-hating and gold-digging tease.” He divorced his wife, though still deeply loving her, and married Preece, who it seems had led him on by posing for him in the nude, but she refused to consummate the marriage and the couple separated within days. There’s a well-known painting of Preece and Spencer naked together, but it’s obvious that it’s a creation of his fantasies and not based on any kind of truth about their sexual relationship. Or perhaps it is almost factual. He could look but not touch.

Preece was already involved in a long-term lesbian relationship, and she proceeded to fleece Spencer by persuading him to sign his house over to her and taking general control of his finances. As a consequence, he ended up in debt.  All this, and subsequent events, has been written about extensively elsewhere, so there’s no need to delve further into it. There are portraits of Patricia Preece in the exhibition, including one that Spencer would never show during his lifetime. It may well have been considered obscene had it been seen when it was painted, though it doesn’t seem unusual now. Another painting, “Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill (1935), is less provocative and shows only her head and shoulders in the foreground with the hill, skilfully painted, rising in the background.

I have to say that, whatever Spencer’s intentions, I find a lot of humour in his paintings. His 1920 canvas, “The Last Supper,” shows the disciples seated around a table with their feet stretched out in front of them and protruding from their gowns. This presumably indicates that their feet have been washed, but it can’t help being amusing. Spencer, after all, frequently gave his people curious, even funny looks and gestures. He wasn’t so much laughing at them as with them. Even his own appearances in the paintings more often than not appear to give him a look of what might be bewilderment, especially when he’s in the presence of Patricia Preece. That’s perhaps not surprising, given the circumstances. Most of the time, though, he’s laughing at himself, as well as at or with other people.

Stanley Spencer: Of Angels and Dirt is a compelling exhibition of work by an artist who followed his own path despite all the problems he encountered along the route. Personally, I don’t think it’s always possible to separate the life from the art in any meaningful way, but that doesn’t suggest that the paintings can’t be appreciated for their qualities as art. They’ll last even if their social or personal backgrounds are forgotten. In the meantime, is it an offence to rejoice in the paintings and still find the life fascinating to read about? There is something endearing about the picture of a “small man with twinkling eyes and shaggy grey hair, often wearing his pyjamas under his suit if it was cold,” being “a familiar sight, wandering the lanes of Cookham pushing the old pram in which he carried his canvas and easel.” And producing striking paintings.