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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Sir Stanley Spencer

Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta, (Unfinished), 1959, Stanley Spencer
In searching through the work of literally thousands of artist for which to write about, one of the factors which makes it simpler where British artists are concerned is finding one who bears the title "Sir" before his name. The fact that the Queen of England has seen fit to so honor a living artist takes the onus of evaluating his work and his place in art history off my shoulders, transferring it to the Royal Academy or whoever recommends such individuals to the monarchy. My research has shown approximately fifteen British painters having received such an honor. One of the most interesting and most deserving of these was a eccentric little man from the small town of Cookham, Berkshire, England. Cookham is located in south-central England, on the shores of the Thames some thirty-two miles west of London and roughly nine miles northwest of Windsor Castle. Cookham's major claim to fame seems to be that it was there, in 1891, that the painter, Stanley Spencer was born and where he lived most of his life. It was there, too, where Sir Stanley Spencer died in 1959 leaving behind a major, unfinished work, Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta (top). High Street in Cookham is also, where you will find the Stanley Spencer Gallery, located in a former Methodist Church (below). It features more than a hundred of Spencer's paintings and probably more than you'd ever want to know about this illustrious British artist.

Copyright Jim Lane
Stanley Spencer Gallery in the church where he once worshipped.
His unfinished painting is front and center in this 360-degree view.
Stanley Spencer's Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta is more than simply his "deathbed" work of art. It's just one of a series in which Spencer brought Christ to Cookham. That is to say, he depicted scenes from the life of Christ set in his hometown among the residents of the village. So far as I know, no other artist has ever taken that route in relating the stories of Christ to modern life. And beyond that, Spencer painted some simply stunning scenes and details of life in and around his hometown. It would seem Stanley Spencer spent most of his life putting Cookham "on the map."

Copyright, Jim Lane
Stanley Spencer as seen by Stanley Spencer.
The 1959 self-portrait was done just five months before his death.
As you might guess by he number of self-portraits (above) Spencer painted over the course of his fifty-year career, besides his hometown, he was also intent in putting himself on the map. There are at least a half-dozen others I've not included in the montage above, including perhaps the strangest, and in his case, the most famous of his self-portraits, Self-Portrait with Patricia Preece (below), dating from 1936. (He was still married to his first wife at the time). Just as famous, or perhaps more so, was Spencer's infamous "Leg of Mutton" nude double-portrait of himself and (by that time) his second wife. Unfortunately, it's too sexually explicit to display here. Spencer's marriage to Preece was never consummated. She turned out to be a lesbian. Spencer remained on friendly terms with his first wife, Hilda, despite the fact she had divorced him. Preece refused him a divorce.

Self-Portrait with Patricia Preece, 1936, Stanley Spencer
As fascinating as Spencer's self-portraits and his peculiar personal life may have been, there were several other equally interesting aspects of Spencer's life and the effect they had upon his work. With the outbreak of World War I hostilities in Europe, Spencer wanted to join the army, but because of his frail physique, his mother persuaded him to join the Royal Army Medical Corps as an orderly. After thirteen months serving at a homeland hospital, Spencer was transferred to Macedonia where he was assigned to an ambulance unit. There he spent two and a half years on the front lines facing both German and Bulgarian troops. Sometime during 1918, he was sent home, having contracted malaria. His survival of the torment that killed so many of his friends, including his elder brother Sydney, indelibly marked Spencer's attitude as to life and death. Such psychological pain came through time and again in his subsequent works.

Sandham Memorial Chapel, entrance, 1927-32, Stanley Spencer
Sandham Memorial Chapel altar,
Stanley Spencer
In 1923 Spencer spent the summer in Poole, Dorset, where he worked on sketch designs for a possible war memorial. These designs con-vinced two early patrons of Spencer's work, Louis and Mary Behrend, to commission a group of paintings as a memorial to Mary's brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham, who had died in the war. The Behrends planned to build a chapel in the village of Burghclere in Berkshire to house the paintings. The Sand-ham Memorial Chapel (above) was a colossal undertaking. Spencer's paintings cover a twenty-one foot high, seven-teen-foot wide end wall; eight seven-foot-high lunettes, each above a predella, with two twenty-eight feet long irregularly shaped strips between the lunettes and the ceiling.

Sandham Memorial Chapel, left side (in facing the altar), Stanley Spencer.
(Note: These are extremely high-resolution images which may take a while to load
but will allow you to zoom in to a great degree in studying each painting individually.)
Sandham Memorial Chapel Apse,
Resurrection of the Soldiers,
1929, Stanley Spencer
The Behrends were exceptionally generous patrons who not only paid for the chapel to be built to Spencer's specifications, but also paid the rent on the London studio, and built a house for Spencer and Hilda to live nearby while he was painting the chapel. This artistic freedom and financial support resulted in a spectacular work of art and an unusual and extremely moving war memorial. The sixteen paintings in the chapel begins with a lunette depicting shell-shocked troops arriving at the gates of Beaufort, then continues with a scene of kit inspection at the RAMC Training Depot in Hampshire, which is followed by scenes of Macedonia. Spencer did not depict heroism and sacrifice, but rather in panels such as Scrubbing the Floor, Bed Making, Filling Tea Urns and Sorting and Moving Kit Bags, the unremarkable everyday facts of daily hospital life. They convey a sense of human companionship rarely found in civilian life as he remembered events from Beaufort, Macedonia, and other locales Spencer encountered during his war years.

Sandham Memorial Chapel, right side (in facing the altar), Stanley Spencer.
(Zoom in to see details)
By 1932 Spencer was back in Cookham with his two daughters and Hilda living in a large house just off the High Street. 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. Spencer's Turk's Boatyard Cookham (below, left) from around 1931, and his The Blacksmith's Yard, Cookham (below, right), from 1932 are excellent examples of his work from this period. And while they are technically landscapes, they have all the exquisite attention to detail of an exceptional still-life as well.

Turk's Boatyard Cookham
ca.1931, Stanley Spencer
The Blacksmith's Yard,
Cookham, 1932, Stanley Spencer

Although these scenes from Cookham are just a few of the hundreds of paintings and murals Spencer produced during his exceptionally long and productive career, many of which are far more important in an overall appraisal of his life's work; I can't help but admire most his many local garden scenes so lovingly rendered during these years. Spencer's From the Artist's Studio (below), from 1938, is probably my favorite, though his Flowers in a Window, Cookham (bottom), also from 1938, would run it a very close second.

From the Artist's Studio, 1938. Stanley Spencer
Flowers in a Window, Cookham, 1938. Stanley Spencer

Christ Carrying the Cross, 1920, Stanley Spencer.
It's hard to believe the same artist painted this
as painted all the works seen above.

Click below for details on Spencer's Sandham Memorial Chapel--


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