Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)

Stanley Spencer was born in Cookham and spent much of his life there.  He was devoted to the place, whose building, and settings, walls and hedges feature in many of his paintings

Mainly due to his influence, Cookham comes across as a traditional and idyllic English village, full of bucolic inhabitants.  But that can be misleading – see below.

He studied at the Slade 1908-12, where his contemporaries included Paul Nash and Dora Carrington.  He attracted attention soon after finishing there.  Rejecting classical beauty, he painted people and things as they were, including discarded objects to which he gave place and presence. Even at this early stage of his career some aspects of his enduring style are apparent – the influence of religion, the rejection of the heroic, and the elevation of the mundane tasks of daily life.  Among the few acknowledged influences was Paul Gauguin.

At the same time his self-portraits made in his twenties are striking, using light and shadow to build volume and likeness.

Although many his works were not controversial at all, others arouse strong reactions.  Many paintings in mid-career reflect his sexual and other obsessions. His nude painting of himself and his second wife, now well-known, was not exhibited at the time.

He was not conventionally religious but spirituality was central to his life and was his preferred subject matter.  Among his best-known works are Biblical scenes filled with characters from Cookham.  Resurrection – Waking Up went for an all-time record for a modern British artist when it was sold in 1990.  On the other hand some of his spiritual works are difficult and require interpretation.

His love of nature and his attachment to Cookham are reflected in his meticulous landscapes, local views and paintings of trees and magnolia. He is not so interested in showing a human presence. It is almost as though any figures would be an intrusion. He does not require sublime views but finds artistic inspiration in his own environment, notably the cottages of Cookham. He often prefers the back views of gardens and houses rather than a carefully curated frontage.

His subject matter was diverse.  His portraits and garden landscapes he treated as ‘potboilers’ – work he did to earn a living.  Today they are among his most loved painting.

He was never well-off but became poor after his disastrous second marriage.  His salvation was that he was well-known in Cookham, not least for his eccentric looks and behaviour.

The village may be been poor at one stage but by Spencer’s time money was much in evidence, as is obvious from the houses going down to the river and alongside it.

Consequently there were well-heeled people living locally who knew Spencer and admired his work. They were happy to commission the conventional work through which he supported himself.

A central episode in his life was his service in the Salonika campaign in the First World War.  He was a member of the RAMC and saw much death and destruction, by which he was deeply affected.  As a result of this service he was commissioned to paint and design the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, built to honour a fellow member of this little-known campaign.  This was monumental work, carried out in 1927-32.  The chapel was Spencer’s idea but fortunately the Behrend family offered to pay.

The sixteen paintings in the chapel are double hung on opposite walls akin to the progress of altarpieces in a Renaissance church nave.  Spencer was influenced by Giotto’s approach in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, which he admired for its composition and emotional effect.  Unlike some war painters, Spencer did not depict heroism and sacrifice.  Instead he showed everyday tasks in panels such as Scrubbing the Floor, Filling Tea Urns and Sorting and Moving Kit Bags.  The overall effect is impressive, although it needs interpretation for the visitor.

The approach to figures at Sandham – small, anonymous men going about their appointed tasks – was taken further in his massive and well-known Shipbuilding on the Clyde, executed as an official war artist in World War 2 and triumphantly restored in recent years.  This was commissioned as a propaganda effort but Spencer transcended that.

Within the art world Spencer had many ups and downs.  One low was a threatened prosecution for obscenity, initiated by Sir Alfred Munnings and subsequently dropped.  On the other hand he also had admirers, notably Sir John Rothenstein who became Director of the Tate Gallery, which has the biggest collection of his paintings.  He was knighted in 1959, in the last year of his life.  Over the past fifty years his standing has risen steadily. His influence on Lucien Freud is clear, especially  in portraiture and in his muscular, unflattering treatment of the human body.  He is now rightly seen as one of the outstanding British artists of the twentieth century.

David Howells


Stanley Spencer

Heaven in a Hell of War

 Selected extracts

 Foreward – Helen Ghosh, DG of National Trust

 “Sandham Memorial Chapel is a rarity amongst National Trust properties.  The Trust looks after very little in the way of modern British art, partly because families from large estates now in Trust ownership had little or no money to spare in the inter- and post-war years to spend on what was then contemporary art.”

Between  Men: Masculinity and Fraternity in Stanley Spencer’s Vision of War – Katy Norris

 “A monument to a single person, Sandham Memorial Chapel was originally conceived purely as an outlet for Spencer’s unique vision of war and neither overtly glorifies nor condemns military combat.  Across the cycle of arched paintings and predellas that line the chapel’s walls, acts of violence or heroism are deliberately avoided in favour of commonplace events, described by the artist as ‘a general reflection of the attitude of men during the war.  The works are also resoundingly autobiographical, based upon the specific roles of medical orderly, soldier and patient that were each fulfilled by Spencer.”

“In addition to the relationships of friendship, mentorship and fraternal love upon which military camaraderie was based, Spencer places men in domestic, nurturing and emotionally supportive roles that were traditionally perceived to be the domain of women.”

“Painted across the spandrels above the chapel’s arched canvasses, the vast panoramas of the Army settlement at Kalinova and the riverbed at Todorovo offer an astonishingly comprehensive account of military life.  Featuring over 70 infantrymen of different ranks, including privates, sergeants and officers, the lack of women is perhaps the most notable aspect, but even more significant is the way that the men bond and interact over domestic tasks.”

Stanley Spencer’s Holy Box and the Influence of the Italian Primitives – Simon Martin

 “The Sandham Memorial Chapel is more than anything else an artist’s deeply personal response to his own experience of the war.  Housed within a modest, modern red-brick building that has been likened to a municipal crematorium or water board pumping station, Spencer’s cycle of murals has been described by Simon Schama as ‘the most powerful art to emerge from the carnage of the Great War.  As a commemoration the chapel has no parallel.  Spencer’s scheme is a total work of art, an installation that employs the language of the early Italian Renaissance to reflect on a twentieth century war….It amounts to a subversive memorial that is ultimately a depiction of the Resurrection in which hierarchies of rank and social status are collapsed in a way that is akin to medieval doom paintings.”

“Spencer’s figurative paintings of modern life that  reference stylistic motifs from the Old Masters can be seen as part of the wider ‘return to order’ in modern European art following the First World War.”

“Spencer was part of a loose and temporary grouping dubbed the ‘Neo-Primitives’ who synthesised the influence of the early Italians with the Post-Impressionist colours of artists such as Paul Gaugin.”

“It is significant that the starting point of the project was the result of the Behrends wishing to realise Spencer’s vision, rather than it originating as a memorial to Lieutenant Sandham.”

“The chapel occupies a fluid position between being a memorial, a place of devotion, an art museum, a heritage attraction or simply a place of reflection.”

“Although the architect Lionel Pearson designed the exterior of the building, the interior was a total work of art created to Spencer’s single-minded and detailed plan.”

A Psychological Perspective – Jenny Beddington and Jamie Hacker Hughes

“Home for Stanley was his sanctuary, and he would think about it in the First World War and return to live there afterwards….The need for routine and the fear of change remained with him all his life.  It was the hospital and military routine, rather than the suffering of the soldiers, that he chose to paint for the Sandham Memorial Chapel.”

“How did Stanley protect himself from being affected from the horrors  that he must have seen?  Part of the answer lies in his ability to have internalised his home environment of Cookham.”

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