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Feature Archive
September, 2001

Love, Death and Resurrection:
The Paintings of Stanley Spencer
By Joseph Phelan
Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), one of the great visionary painters of the 20th century, is virtually unknown to North American audiences. Just a handful of his paintings can be seen in public collections; only two previous exhibits have been held in United States.

The upcoming retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Sept. 14 to Dec. 30), direct from its crowd-pleasing run at the Tate Britain, is a first for Canada. The exhibit, which features over 65 paintings and drawings from every stage of Spencer's career, will open many eyes to an astonishing artist who never tailored his work to the prevailing fashions or movements of the 20th century.

Stanley Spencer in Cookham
Cookham as Heaven on Earth

Stanley Spencer was born and lived most of his life Cookham on the Thames, a town about 30 miles west of London. One of twelve children, his childhood seems to have been an enchanted time: the love of a large family headed by a self-taught father and the wholesome atmosphere of small town England at the end of the Victorian era. Cookham and familiar figures became the ingredients for most of his paintings.

Characters and events drawn from the Bible readings his father made daily were to inspire his future work. The well-loved books of the original Everyman Library were his school texts; conversation about his daily reading was part of the family table talk. As Spencer's biographer, Kenneth Pople, notes: "Stanley, even if largely self-tutored, was better read than many of his later critics and commentators." Amen.

What's Over the Wall?

In those days Cookham was a small sleepy town filled with churches and detached Victorian houses. At a very early age Spencer was propelled by boyish curiosity to imagine what lay beyond the town walls. He liked to climb up a large yew tree from which he could survey his garden and also "the other gardens beyond." His desire to see what was "over the wall," first in Cookham and later in the world beyond, is one helpful metaphor for his art. His discovery of the unfamiliar but intriguing character of things, even "the holiness of everyday life", and his determination to capture these visions on canvas made him the maverick of an art world overwhelmed by progressive waves of expressionism, cubism and complete abstraction.

London and Roger Fry

In 1907, Stanley entered the Slade School, London, as a day student. He was quickly nicknamed "Cookham" by his fellow students because he returned each night to his hometown. Roger Fry, Bloomsbury eminence and the most influential writer on art that England had produced since John Ruskin, was lecturing at Slade then. Stanley attended some of these lectures.


Fry was the champion of Cézanne, Seurat, van Gogh and Gauguin. He coined the term Post-Impressionism to characterize the temper of those artists who had moved beyond naturalistic depiction of light and colour in favour of an emphasis on abstract qualities or symbolic content. [Incidentally most of this great if dogmatic writer's books are out of print despite the recent celebration of his centenary.]

In 1910, Fry supervised the first English exhibit of these these artists: Manet and the Post-Impressionists. Stanley must have found some of the work, especially Gauguin's, revelatory. In Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) and Self-Portrait with the Yellow Christ, Gauguin had placed events from the Bible in present day Brittany, mixing Biblical figures amid the peasants.

Equally influential on Stanley was the reevaluation Fry and Clive Bell were making of the Italian "Primitives", i.e. the early Italian Renaissance painters Giotto, Masaccio and Piero della Francesca, who revolutionized European painting. Though Spencer never traveled to Italy, he always carried little pocket books of these artist's reproductions. Such works provided templates and aides to memory for Spencer's imagery, composition, color and subject matter.

John Donne and The Nativity

Spencer's painting John Donne Arriving in Heaven, produced while he was still a student at Slade, proved good enough to win a place along side such names as Picasso, Cézanne, Matisse, Braque, and Wyndham Lewis in the second, more radical, Post-Impressionist exhibit curated by Fry and Bell. The painting owed its origins to Stanley's interest in interpretations of the Bible. The gift of a volume of John Donne's sermons helped him to imagine Donne's entrance into Heaven. Again his maverick tendencies were displayed. This was years before T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis re-discovered the great metaphysical poetry of Donne.

This seems to have been the high point of relations between Fry and Spencer. Fry was later to say he disliked Spencer's work, and the antipathy seemed mutual. Spencer, whose art aimed to reveal the holiness of everyday life, could hardly have taken Fry's privileging of "significant form" over subject matter seriously. By then, Spencer had firmly established his birthplace at the center of his spiritual universe

In 1912, Slade students were to enter a competition work painted during the summer vacation. The Nativity was chosen as the theme. Stanley's composition won the top prize, with his enigmatic version of the event set in Mill Lane, Cookham. As Joseph tends to the orchard in the extreme right foreground, a monumental Mary looks to the infant in his crib while an angel (Spencer?) kneels in adoration toward the left middle. But behind this traditional nativity group, separated by a wall of shrubbery, two couples seemingly oblivious to the miraculous event as well as to each other are caught in different stages of making love. The palpable barrier between these groups, and the two levels of reality depicted, offers us a key to Spencer's main achievement of these years: the integration of divine events with scenes from ordinary life in Cookham.

The Great War Changed Me

When I left the Slade and went back to Cookham, Stanley wrote, I entered a kind of earthly paradise. Everything seemed fresh and to belong to the morning. My ideas were beginning to unfold in fine order when along comes the war and smashes everything.

Spencer served as a medical orderly and an infantryman during the Great War. Unlike many of the artists who fought, he choose to tell and paint a tale of honor not horror. [Two of Spencer's paintings can be compared to those of other artists at the Art of the First World War website.] But when he returned home to Cookham, he found he was unable to take up those paintings left unfinished. The war changed me, he admitted. I no longer have that assurance and feeling of security I had before. Like William Wordsworth in the Immortality Ode, Spencer wished "my days to be/ Bounded each to each by natural piety". But like Wordsworth he was tormented by the possibility he had lost his access to this paradisiacal vision and might never attain it again. Thereafter Stanley spent most of his artistic career capturing (or trying to recapture) the earthly paradise of Cookham.

Death and Resurrection

Yet this is a world of compensations. He who loses his Innocence thereby gains Experience. Two new and profound themes emerge in his paintings: sexual love and death. Death first takes place in the works he painted about the warriors, wounded and dying soldiers. Later he transmogrified them into the first of a great series of resurrection paintings set in Cookham and elsewhere. In Resurrection in Cookham, the entire population (Stanley included) are popping up out of their graves looking as dapper as ever squinting on a brilliant sunny day. Yet there is something odd here. This is a resurrection without a last judgment. It seems all of Cookham is to be forgiven their sins.

Hilda, Patricia and the Leg of Mutton

The other theme, erotic love, figures prominently in the paintings done around the period he married Hilda, his first love. After a period of bliss and the birth of two daughters, the passion cooled. A new woman appeared on the horizon. Patricia Preece was a tall, coolly elegant fellow student from his Slade days, whose high heels and long legs drove Stanley to abandon Hilda. Stanley and Patricia's ill-fated relationship (she was lesbian and wanted to provide for her lover by marrying Stanley) led to an unconsummated marriage and a heavy divorce settlement. [Also to a mediocre play by Pam Gems called Stanley.] Yet this emotional and moral fiasco gave us some of his most compelling work. The portraits of Patricia, including the nudes, and his self-portraits are among the most breathtaking bummers in all of English painting. The Leg of Mutton Nude and Self-Portrait with Patricia Preece are revelations of what mistakes we make when lust and desire are so wrongheaded.

Perhaps even more unsparingly honest and unpleasantly truthful is the portrait of Hilda and their daughter "Unity" painted after Stanley begged to be taken back. And Spencer's series of self-portraits authorized later British portrait painters Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud to take astonishing liberties with their models, painting every flaw, every lesion and scar on the skin of their subjects. Don't get me wrong - Stanley Spencer is no sadist. But here we have the judgment day we found strangely missing in the Resurrection paintings.

The Exhibit

Spencer came out of this misalliance a sadder but wiser man. The question is, did he also become a better painter? Well, you'll have to see the exhibit of his paintings in Toronto this fall or read the excellent catalogue and make up your own mind.

[For more information about Stanley Spencer, see his entry in the Artcyclopedia (which is unfortunately somewhat limited as there are not many good reproductions of this artist's work online.]

This article is copyright 2001 by Joseph Phelan. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.

Joseph Phelan can be contacted at joe.phelan@verizon.net

Past Articles

August, 2001

      Who is Rodin's Thinker?, by Joseph Phelan

July, 2001

      Celebrations North and South, by Joseph Phelan

June, 2001

      Rubens and his Age, by Joseph Phelan

May, 2001

      Great Reproductions of Great Paintings

April, 2001

      The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan

March, 2001

      Edouard Manet: Public Spaces, Private Dreams, by Joseph Phelan

February, 2001

      Henry Moore and the British Museum: The Great Conversation, by Joseph Phelan

December, 2000

      Advent Calendar 2000, narrated by Joseph Phelan

November, 2000

      Article: Notorious Portraits, Part II, by John Malyon

October, 2000

      Article: Notorious Portraits, Part I, by John Malyon
      Article: The Other Michelangelo, by Joseph Phelan

September, 2000

      Article: The Art of Drawing, by Joseph Phelan

August, 2000

      Article: Poussin and the Heroic Landscape, by Joseph Phelan

July, 2000

      Article: Great Art Museums Online, by Joseph Phelan

June, 2000

      Article: Venetian Painting and the Rise of Landscape, by Joseph Phelan

May, 2000

      Article: Forbidden Visions: Mythology in Art, by Joseph Phelan

April, 2000

      Article: Themes in Art: The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      Web site review: Christus Rex

March, 2000

      Web site review: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., by Joseph Phelan
      Online exhibit review: Inuit Art: The World Around Me, by John Malyon

February, 2000/Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Results)

January, 2000/Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part II)

December, 1999/Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part I)

November, 1999/The Louvre Museum

      Web site review: The Louvre

October, 1999/Impressionism

      Web site review: North Carolina Museum of Art

September, 1999/Optical Art

      Web site review: The Butler Institute of American Art

August, 1999/Animals in Art

      Web site review: National Museum of Wildlife Art
      Online exhibit review: PBS: American Visions

July, 1999/Surrealism

June, 1999/Sculpture

      Web site review: Carol Gerten's Fine Art
      Online exhibit review: Michael Lucero: Sculpture 1976-1995

May, 1999/Women in the Arts

      Web site review: National Museum of Women in the Arts
      Online exhibit review: Jenny Holzer: Please Change Beliefs

April, 1999/The Golden Age of Illustration

      Web site review: Fine Arts Museums Of San Francisco
      Online exhibit review: Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe online

March, 1999/Vincent van Gogh

      Web site review: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
      Web site review: The Vincent van Gogh Information Gallery

February, 1999/Great Art

      Web site review: The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
      Online exhibit review: John Singleton Copley: Watson and the Shark