The year of Stanley Spencer: Galleries celebrate the life and works of an English genius

By Richard Moss | 14 April 2016

The 125th birthday of Stanley Spencer is being celebrated with a year of exhibitions, new books, talks, events and even an international poetry competition

a painting of white lilies in a garden
Stanley Spencer, Madonna Lilies, Cookham (1935)© Lent by Leeds Art Fund (Leeds Art Gallery)
According to his grandson John Spencer, a few weeks before his death in 1959, Stanley Spencer was heard to say “do you think they will remember me?”

Five exhibitions, five new books, an international poetry competition, continuing World War One Centenary events and numerous lectures, courses and other gatherings would seem to suggest that, in the 125th anniversary year of his birth, he is both remembered and cherished.

Eccentric and unconventional in life and experimental in his approach to painting, Stanley Spencer (1891 - 1959) was one of a crop of talented artists at the Slade School of Art (his alumni included Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash and C.R.W. Nevinson) described by the school’s drawing teacher Henry Tonks as the Slade's “second and last crisis of brilliance”

But perhaps with the exception of Paul Nash, it is Spencer and his biblical scenes set in his beloved spiritual bolt-hole and a place of visions, Cookham, who is currently best remembered and valued.

a photo of a pink flowers with tress, beds and shrubs in the background
Stanley Spencer, Magnolias, 1938© Private collection
At the gallery which permanently shows more of the artist's work than any other, The Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, the celebrations are already underway with the first of a brace of exhibitions looking at Spencer’s personal vision of “heaven in nature”, via his flower, garden and landscape paintings. 

Stanley Spencer: Visionary Painter of the Natural World (until October 31 2016) features a series of important paintings Spencer made mostly within the vicinity of Cookham of lush plants and flowers rendered in what the gallery describes as “almost hallucinatory detail”, together with his gardens, green spaces, landscape and river scenes.

Stanley Spencer's garden

Spencer often inferred that his landscape and plant paintings were done merely for financial gain – or at least in order to allow him to paint his biblical and revolutionary figurative works, but recent re-appraisals, fuelled by a major exhibition at Compton Verney in 2011, have led many to look again.

Works like the radiant Magnolias, 1938 (painted from the magnolia tree that can still be seen Berries Road, Cookham) and the Madonna Lillies (c 1935), painted in his garden, are remarkably vivid depictions of the English Arcadia. They exude something inherently mystical that manages to recall the spiritual pastorals of artists like Samuel Palmer whilst also evoking the mid century illustrations found in Ladybird books.

a painting of red, yellow and white flowers spilling over a brick wall
Rock Roses, Old Lodge, Taplow, 1957© Private collection
These and other flower and landscape works are complemented by a sublime display of paintings that directly reference the spiritual nature of Spencer’s work - including theological happenings, emanations in cemeteries, and some of his double portraits.  

Classics include The Angel, Cookham Churchyard, (1934), lovingly returned to its home village on loan from a private collector, together with the heartbreakingly tender Hilda, Unity and Her Dolls (1937).

Later in the year the gallery will also be revisiting many of the works that featured in the acclaimed 2015 exhibition, The Creative Genius of Stanley Spencer, intermingling them with additional works on loan from the City Art Galleries of Aberdeen and Leeds, together with selected major works from their own collection.

Hepworth Wakefield

While the Stanley Spencer Gallery continues its mission to spread the word about its local genius, one of the best galleries outside of London, Hepworth Wakefield, is mounting what it describes as “the biggest major survey exhibition in 15 years of work by one of Britain’s best loved painters”.

Stanley Spencer: Of Angels and Dirt brings together more than 70 significant works spanning the artist’s 45 year-career with his richly detailed paintings of religion and sexuality, work and leisure, nature and industry, highlighting his distinctive view of everyday life. As Spencer himself put it, “I am on the side of the angels and dirt”.

A large square oil painting by Stanley Spencer depicting the biblical story featured in Luke’s Gospel of Zacharias and Elizabeth. An elderly male figure dressed in white who is holding a pair of tongs over a flame with various other figures either side of a curved white dividing wall.
Stanley Spencer, Zacharias and Elizabeth, 1913-14 © Tate / Tate Images
A number of rarely-seen self-portraits and important works from private collections make a public appearance for the first time in decades, along with the famous World War Two series, Shipbuilding on the Clyde, on loan from the Imperial War Museum.

The show will also showcase a series of portraits of people close to Spencer, including a number of depictions of his much maligned second wife, the unconventional Patricia Preece, who he married after divorcing his first wife Hilda Carline.

Sexually charged portraits

Preece continued to live with her lover, the painter Dorothy Hepworth, and refused to consummate her marriage to Spencer – eventually persuading him to sign over the deeds of his house to her, which she then rented out. Little wonder his nude portraits of her are frequently interpreted as being symbols of sexual frustration and the painful complexities of his disastrous private life. 

Spencer’s writing also comes under the spotlight in the show to offer visitors a unique insight into his life and work alongside his paintings.

A painting of women and infants emerging from graves in a graveyard
Stanle Spancer The Resurrection, Tidying, 1945© The Estate of Stanley Spencer. Birmingham Museums Trust
The year of Stanley Spencer in UK galleries is concluded with a single room display at The Jerwood Gallery in Hastings of the  Spencer’s masterpiece, The Garage, which has been loaned from the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation.  

In 1929, the English Marketing Board commissioned Spencer to paint a series of five pictures on the theme of Industry and Peace, of which The Garage is one.  The work looks forward to a world of industry and technology and represents a less recognised side of Spencer: as a master of the realist movement in modern Britain.

Beyond UK galleries a succession of First World War anniversary dates relate to Spencer’s military training for overseas service and subsequent arrival in Salonika, working with the Field Ambulance Units.

Poetry and autobiography

A poetry competition based on the theme of Stanley Spencer will also be launched to mark the 50th anniversary of the Cookham Festival.

In publishing the major event will be Stanley Spencer: Looking to Heaven, the first of three volumes of a major autobiography launched in September 2016, edited by John Spencer with input from Johanna Stephenson, Adrian Glew of Tate Archive and Carolyn Leder of the Stanley Spencer Gallery.

a photo of three books featuring portraits of Stanley Spencer at different stages of his life
Three volumes of the Stanley Spencer autobiography - the first volume is published in September 2015© Unicorn Press
Selected almost exclusively from the writings of Stanley Spencer, many of the extracts have hitherto been unseen by the general public and are expected to arouse great interest from academic circles to the general public.

With a major exhibition planned for Carrick Hill art gallery in Australia in 2016 and more events and planned into 2017 it looks like, for now at least, Stanley Spencer is very much remembered.

“2016 feels like the ‘Year of Stanley Spencer'” adds his grandson, John. “I know my grandfather would be as proud as I am to be able to share this celebration of his life and art.”

Key dates in the Year of Stanley Spencer:

Stanley Spencer: Visionary Painter of the Natural World, until October 31 2016, Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham, open daily including weekends, 10.30am to 5.30pm.

Launch of The Cookham Festival Stanley Spencer Poetry Competition 2017, Friday May 13, Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham

Stanley Spencer: Of Angels and Dirt, Hepworth Wakefield, June 24 to September 25 2016

In Focus: Stanley Spencer - A Panorama of Life, The Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, October 15 2016 - January 8 2017

Stanley Spencer: A 20th Century British Master at Carrick Hill, South Australia August 5 2015 - January 31 2017

Stanley Spencer: Facets of Genius (title to be determined), November 3 2016 to March 29 2017, Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham

Stanley Spencer: Looking to Heaven, the first of three volumes of the Stanley Spencer autobiography published by Unicorn Press in September 2016

a photo painting of pink flowers with a park in the background
Stanley Spencer, Red Magnolia, 1938© Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust, Carlisle
a painting of a view across fields towards a river
Stanley Spencer, Cookham on Thames© Private Collection
a painting of two figures in hats and tweeds digging in a garden
Stanley Spencer, Gardening, 1945.© Private Collection
a painting of a cemetery with river and hills in the distance
Stanley Spencer, Port Glasgow Cemetary, 1947© British Council Collection
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Thank you Marla, noted and corrected.
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