Sir Stanley Spencer NEAC KBE CBE RA (30 June 1891–14 December 1959) was elected a member of the New English Art Club in the 1920s and was one of the greatest artists of his generation, known for his complex realist but imaginative style.
Shortly after leaving the Slade School of Art, Spencer became well known for his paintings depicting Biblical scenes occurring as if in Cookham, the small village beside the Thames where he was born and spent much of his life. He referred to Cookham as ‘a village in Heaven’ and in his biblical scenes, fellow villagers are shown as their Gospel counterparts. Spencer was skilled at organising multi-figure compositions such as in his large paintings for the Sandham Memorial Chapel and the Shipbuilding on the Clyde series, the former being a First World War memorial while the latter was a commission for the War Artists' Advisory Committee during the Second World War.
As his career progressed Spencer often produced landscapes for commercial necessity and the intensity of his early visionary years diminished somewhat while elements of eccentricity came more to the fore. Although his compositions became more claustrophobic and his use of colour less vivid, he maintained an attention to detail in his paintings akin to that of the Pre-Raphaelites. Spencer's works often express his fervent if unconventional Christian faith. This is especially evident in the scenes that he based in Cookham which show the compassion that he felt for his fellow residents and also his romantic and sexual obsessions. Spencer's works originally provoked great shock and controversy. Nowadays, they still seem stylistic and experimental, while the nude works depicting his futile relationship with his second wife, Patricia Preece, such as the ‘Leg of mutton nude’, foreshadow some of the much later works of Lucian Freud. Spencer's early work is regarded as a synthesis of French Post-Impressionism, exemplified for instance by Paul Gauguin, plus early Italian painting typified by Giotto.
Stanley Spencer was born in Cookham, Berkshire. He was educated at home by his sisters Annie and Florence, as his parents had reservations about the local council school but could not afford private education for him. Along with his brother Gilbert (who also went on to become a notable artist), he took drawing lessons from a local artist, Dorothy Bailey. He later attended Maidenhead Technical Institute where his father insisted he should not take any exams.
From 1908 to 1912, Spencer studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, under Henry Tonks and others. His contemporaries at the Slade included Dora Carrington, Maxwell Gordon Lightfoot, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth, Isaac Rosenberg and David Bomberg.
At the start of the First World War Spencer was keen to enlist but his mother persuaded him, given his poor physique, to apply for ambulance duties. In 1915, he volunteered to serve with the Royal Army Medical Corps, RAMC, and worked as an orderly at the Beaufort War Hospital, Bristol. He left Beaufort in May 1916 and after ten weeks' training at Tweseldown Camp in Hampshire, the 24-year-old Spencer was sent to Macedonia, with the 68th Field Ambulance unit. In 1917, he subsequently volunteered to be transferred to an infantry unit, the 7th Battalion, the Berkshire Regiment. In all, Spencer spent two and a half years on the front line in Macedonia, facing both German and Bulgarian troops. His survival of the war that killed so many of his fellows, including his elder brother Sydney, who died in action in September 1918, indelibly marked Spencer's attitude to life and death. Such preoccupations came through time and again in his subsequent works.
Spencer returned to England at the end of 1918 and went back to his parents at Fernlea in Cookham, where he completed Swan Upping, the painting he had left unfinished when he enlisted. Swan Upping was first exhibited at the New English Art Club in 1920 and was bought by J. L. Behrend.
In October 1923, Spencer started renting Henry Lamb's studio in Hampstead where he began work on ‘The Resurrection, Cookham’. In 1925, Spencer married Hilda Carline, a former student at the Slade and the sister of the artists Richard and Sydney Carline. A daughter, Shirin, was born in November of that year and a second daughter, Unity, in 1930.
By 1932, Spencer was back in Cookham with his family. Here Spencer painted observational studies of his surroundings and other landscapes, which would become the major themes of his work over the following years. During 1932, he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and exhibited ten works at the Venice Biennale. However, he was becoming dissatisfied with married life. In 1929, Spencer met the artist Patricia Preece, and he soon became infatuated with her. Preece was a young fashion-conscious artist who had lived in Cookham since 1927 with her lover, the artist Dorothy Hepworth.
In 1935, his wife moved to Hampstead, and their divorce was finalised in 1937. A week later, Spencer married Preece. She, however, continued to live with Hepworth, and refused to consummate the marriage. When Spencer's relationship with Preece finally fell apart, she refused to grant him a divorce. Spencer painted naked portraits of Preece including ‘The Artist and His Second Wife’, known as the ‘Leg of mutton nude’, a painting never publicly exhibited during Spencer's lifetime.
In 1938, Spencer had to leave Cookham and moved to London, spending six weeks with John Rothenstein before moving to a bedsit in Swiss Cottage. There was now no realistic hope of reconciliation with Carline and he was already distanced from Preece, who had rented out their home so effectively evicting Spencer. By 1939, he was staying at Leonard Stanley in Gloucestershire with the artists George and Daphne Charlton. Spencer created many important works in his room above the bar of the White Hart Inn which he used as a studio.
In 1940, Spencer travelled to the Lithgows Shipyard in Port Glasgow to depict the civilians at work there. Between trips, Spencer was renting a room in Epsom, to be near Carline and his children. The landlady there disliked him and he wanted to move back to Cookham to work on the paintings in his old studio, but he could not afford to rent it from Preece. However, in 1945, he was able to return to Cookham, living in a house which had once belonged to his brother Percy.
In 1950, the outgoing president of the Royal Academy, Sir Alfred Munnings, got hold of some of Spencer's scrapbook drawings and initiated a police prosecution against Spencer for obscenity. It was reported in the press that the, unnamed, owner of the pictures agreed to destroy them. Spencer also appears to have removed some drawings from his private scrapbooks and continued to ensure that the ‘Leg of mutton nude’ would not be exhibited during his lifetime. He was appointed a CBE and the new President of the Royal Academy, Sir Gerald Kelly, who had supported Spencer in the obscenity case, persuaded him to rejoin the Royal Academy, as an Associate before being elected an Academician. In 1955, a large retrospective of Spencer's work was held at the Tate. Spencer was made an Honorary Doctor of Letters by Southampton University in 1958, three days before he received his knighthood at Buckingham Palace.
In December 1958, Spencer was diagnosed with cancer. After an operation, he went to stay with friends in Dewsbury. There, over five days, he painted a final self-portrait. He died at the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital in December that year.
In 1973, the Tate acquired a large proportion of the Spencer family archives. These included Spencer's notebooks, sketchbooks and correspondence including the weekly letters he wrote to his sister Florence, while he was stationed in Salonika during the First World War. Other correspondence by Spencer is held in the archives of the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham.
This is an edited version of Stanley Spencer's detailed Wikipedia biography that can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanley_Spencer
You can also view over 200 of Stanley Spencer's artworks on his ArtUK website page: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/search/actor:spencer-stanley-18911959
Featured image: 'The Resurrection, Cookham' (1924–7) by Stanley Spencer. Photo: © Tate, London 2020
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