Unity Spencer's doll delights - and deepens the mystery of Stanley Spencer painting

By Richard Moss | 16 October 2015

Unity Spencer's doll delights at a literary festival and leads to a bit of detective work at the Stanley Spencer Gallery

a photo of an elderly woman with a doll in her lap next to a painting of herslef as young girl holding the same doll
Unity Spencer, Golden Slumbers Sonia Rose and Stanley Spencer's Hilda, Unity and Dolls© Courtesy The Stanley Spencer Gallery
When Unity Spencer, the 85-year-old daughter of world-renowned painter, Sir Stanley Spencer, attended the Henley Literary Festival earlier this month to talk about her memoir, Lucky To Be An Artist, she astonished the audience by bringing out the doll depicted in the famous 1937 Spencer painting Hilda, Unity and Dolls.

The celebrated canvas, which was painted just three months after Stanley Spencer’s divorce from his first wife Hilda, captures the grief of both Hilda and their younger daughter, the seven-year-old Unity, as well as Spencer’s own growing sense of isolation from his beloved family. 

In the painting Hilda’s averted eyes suggest still-raw emotions, whilst Unity’s challenging gaze may speak of child-like recriminations. But it’s the apparently eyeless dolls that serve to heighten the painting’s sense of loss and dislocation.

a photo of a man up ladder taking a very close look at a painting
Chairman, Stuart Conlin, up a step ladder, taking a closr look © Courtesy The Stanley Spencer Gallery
Art historians have for years conjectured as to the meaning of the dolls' blackened eye sockets with some even suggesting that Unity had perhaps stabbed them out in a rage.

Yet as the doll, called Golden Slumbers Sonia Rose, emerged it soon became apparent that its eyes were still intact and, as Unity gently cradled it in her lap, they still opened and closed.

The painting, which is part of the Leeds Art Gallery collection, is currently hanging in the Stanley Spencer Gallery as part of their exhibition The Creative Genius of Stanley Spencer, and curators and staff there were keen to take a closer look.

Museum Chairman, Stuart Conlin, climbed a ladder to get 'eyeball to eye socket' with the dolls and it appeared that whilst Stanley Spencer included one doll which may in reality have been eyeless, 'Sonia Rose' must have been ‘made eyeless’ by Spencer himself.

“Those who analyse the intense emotions of this painting must make what they will of this intriguing circumstance,” said a gallery spokesperson.

a close up of an oil on canvas from the Stanley Spencer painting, Hilda, Unity and Dolls
The close up of Sonia Rose © Courtesy The Stanley Spencer Gallery
Yet for art historian and Stanley Spencer Gallery Trustee, Carolyn Leder, who joined Unity Spencer for her festival appearance, the dolls in Spencer's painting still carry no malevolent intent.

Hilda, Unity and Dolls is probably the most compelling and deeply felt of all of Spencer’s double portraits, painted as it was in 1937, so soon after Hilda and Stanley’s divorce and the debacle of Stanley’s subsequent marriage to Patricia Preece,” she explained.

“But I do feel confident that those who interpret the eyes of the two dolls as malevolent are not correct.

"Stanley Spencer always made things positive, no matter how difficult the experience, and he would never have wanted to alienate Hilda, whom he continued to love for the rest of his life. 

“It was wonderful to see that Sonia Rose was such a lovely, ordinary little doll, whose eyes were open and closed. Spencer, in all probability allowed himself a little ‘poetic licence’ in the way he represented her.”

a photo of a detail of a doll in a Stanley Spencer painting in close up
The second eyeless doll in the Spencer painting© Courtesy the Stanley Spencer Gallery
As for Unity, whose compelling memoir recalls some difficult times beyond the complicated web of relationships that overtook Spencer, she captivated her audience by recalling many scenes of life in Cookham with her celebrated father, both as a child and in the later years of her young adulthood and own career as a painter.

Among her entertaining anecdotes was Stanley Spencer’s use of Bronco toilet paper to make drawings of panoramic, peopled  scenes, later to be rolled up and tucked away in his pocket, and the way, when still a teenager, her father bamboozled the local priest during a religious discussion.

But the high point of the talk was the moment she bent down to an old shoe box at her feet and produced the elderly doll, a toy she has kept since the age of five.

The debate about the blackened eyes may continue, but as for Golden Slumbers Sonia Rose, she remains with her owner Unity Spencer, safely tucked away -  oblivious to all of the theories.

a photo of an old doll cradled on a lap with a pair of hands
Golden slumbers, Sonia Rose© Courtesy Stanley Spencer Gallery
  • The Creative Genius of Stanley Spencer runs at the Stanley Spencer Art Gallery, Cookham until March 20 2016. For more information phone 44 (0) 1628 47188544 (0) 1628 471885 or email info@stanleyspencer.org.uk

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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