Curator's Choice: Louisa Briggs on Stanley Spencer's The Dustman or The Lovers

By Ben Miller | 21 February 2012
A photo of a young woman looking at a colourful painting inside an art gallery
© Painting: The Estate of Stanley Spencer. Collection of Laing Art Gallery, Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums
Curator's Choice: Museums Sheffield’s Curator of Visual Art, Louisa Briggs, chooses The Dustman or The Lovers, a 1934 work by Stanley Spencer...

“The Dustman, or The Lovers as it’s also known, by Stanley Spencer is one of my favourite works in our new exhibition at the Millennium Gallery, The Family in British Art.

The exhibition examines how artists have looked at different aspects of family life in Britain during the past 400 years, exploring Inheritance, Childhood, Parenting, Couples and Kinship and Home.

The Dustman may seem like an odd subject for an exhibition about family, but it is a painting that is very much about love.

It shows a reunited couple caught up in each other’s arms in the centre of the work. According to Spencer, the dustman and his wife experience ‘the bliss of union which his corduroy trousers quicken’.

They are a jumble of limbs – it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Figures stand around looking at them, holding up items of rubbish.

Spencer based much of his work in his home village of Cookham in Berkshire, and his paintings are filled with ordinary people involved in everyday activities.

Spencer had a habit of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. In this work he’s elevated rubbish to the status of something almost sacred.

For him, rubbish represented ‘all the signs and tokens of home life, such as cabbage leaves and teapot, which I have so much loved that I have had them resurrected from the dustbin because they are reminders of home life and peace, and are worthy of being adored just as the dustman is’.

One of the things that I love about Spencer’s work is the small details he includes, such as the cat sprawling in the sunshine in the bottom right of this painting.

This work was one of two that were rejected by the Royal Academy in 1935 which led to Spencer’s resignation.

Although this work isn’t from Sheffield’s holdings, Modern British Art forms the core of the city’s collection and we own several works by Spencer.

The exhibition was opened by Frances Spalding, Professor of Art History at Newcastle University.

Frances talked very movingly about the impact Sheffield’s collections and galleries had had on her early career, having lived here for a number of years.

Museums Sheffield is at a difficult moment in its history following the recent, much publicised reduction in its funding.

In these challenging times, it is important to remember the lasting impression these wonderful collections in our care have had on so many individuals’ lives.”

  • The Family in British Art continues at the Millennium Gallery until April 29 2012. See our Preview.
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