Saturday, September 22, 2012

Artist Spotlight: Stanley Spencer

Sir Stanley Spencer 

Note to followers:  With this post, I've departed from my usual style of publishing only a lot of a particular artist's works, links to biographical information, articles and exhibitions. I found Spencer's biography so fascinating, that I compiled a write-up based on pieces of his life I garnered from several sources. I'd like your honest feedback on whether you find this too cumbersome or if you enjoyed it and would like to see more biographical information in future Artist Spotlight features.


Stanley Spencer was born and spent much of his life in Cookham in Berkshire. When Spencer was seventeen, he enrolled in the Slade School of Fine Art. So profound was his attachment to his hometown that most days he traveled by train back home in time for tea.

" When I left the Slade and went back to Cookham, Stanley wrote, I entered a kind of earthly paradise. Everything seemed fresh and to belong to the morning. My ideas were beginning to unfold in fine order when along comes the war and smashes everything."
~Stanley Spencer

In 1915, Spencer volunteered with the Royal Army Medical Corps and worked as an orderly at the Beaufort War Hospital. In 1916, the 24 year old Spencer volunteered to serve with the RAMC in Macedonia and served with the 68th Field Ambulance Unit. He subsequently volunteered to be transferred to the Berkshire Regiment. His survival of the devastation and torment that killed so many of those around him greatly influenced his attitude toward life and death and imprinted itself in the work that was to come.

Further influencing his work was his experience toward the end of The Great War, when he was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee. One of the paintings resulting from that commission was Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916, the obvious influence of his work with the medical corps.

In a letter written in 1917, Spencer wrote:

"I do anything for these men. I cannot refuse them anything, and they love me to make drawings of photos of their wives and children or a brother who had been killed."

A private commission, The Resurrection of the Soldiers which was to become the alter piece of the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, as a memorial to a dead soldier by his family. It would also be the place that housed most of Spencer's war paintings. He  worked on this painting from between 1926-28.

The painting is the eccentric Spencer's view of what happened to the fallen when they reached the heavens, depicting virtually no religious imagery other than the many crosses and one small figure of Christ behind a soldier, submerged beneath the crosses. It may be difficult to see in the image to the right. 

Soldiers Washing, 1927

Stanley Spencer, one of the great visionary artists of the 20th century is considered by some art critics as possibly the most important modernist painter of the century. And yet, he is virtually unknown in North America. Almost all of his paintings are housed in museums in the United Kingdom or are in private collections.

Portrait of Hilda
As a person, Spencer was as eccentric as his work. After the wars, he was seen out and about in Cookham wearing pajamas under his coat in cold weather. Shaggy-haired and frumpy, he would push a pram containing his easel and art supplies through the village.  He was known as an outgoing and spirited man, with twinkling eyes and a vision for the unexpected within the ordinary.

In 1925, Spencer married Hilda Carline, a fellow artist at The Slade. They had two daughters. Hilda was the most important figure in Spencer's life. She embodied for him everything that was essential in life and love. Circumstances in Hilda's family took her away from her husband for long stretches of time and
in 1929, Spender met and became infatuated with artist Patricia Preece.  His wife divorced him in 1937 and four months after the divorce, Spencer married Patricia. The couple never lived together and the marriage was never consummated. Patricia continued to live with her partner and lover Dorothy Hepworth despite repeated requests from Spencer for a ménage à trois. Patricia was Spencer's muse and would often pose nude for him. Throughout their relationship, Spencer lavished Patricia with expensive gifts and money. Their relationship eventually fell apart, though Patricia refused to grant Spencer a divorce. The pain Spencer caused his first wife Hilda, was to be the source of great regret for Spencer, who continued to visit her until her death from cancer, as a way of making amends for how he had treated her.

From left to right:  Dorothy Hepworth, Patricia Peerce, Stanley Spencer on Preece and Spencer's wedding day.

Patricia Peerce

Self-portrait with Patricia


Portrait of Patricia Peerce

Stanley Spencer Gallery

Country Girl

Domestic Scenes

Hilda Welcomed

The Bathing Pool


The Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cockham, England


  1. What in the world is that in the middle of the picture with the crosses, the thing the guy is leaning against? It looks like a cross between a dolphin and an octopus. A octophin, perhaps?

  2. It doesn't look like anything aquatic at all. My intellect forced reason upon me: to my mind it looks like the buttocks of a human with the limbs of an odd-toed ungulate mammal belonging to the taxonomic family Equidae (ok, so I cheated and went to Wikipedia but that's what the logical brain tends to do when it wants to make sense of things that perhaps don't need to be rationalized). To my 'not thinking about it too much" side, it is whatever it is or was meant to be for the artist. If in my travels I come upon an explanation for it, I'll be sure to let you know. :-)

    1. Yes, it does look like an odd conglomeration of butts and limbs. I can see that.

    2. I appreciate that you followed the comment thread, Bryan. :-)

  3. I love this new way of putting a post together, Gina. There's nothing like giving yourself more options when you've found an artist whose work you love and particularly one like Spencer who isn't very well known here in North America.

    His work is really wonderful and I'm glad to have seen it this evening - a few of them for the very first time. Apologies for not leaving a longer comment but I'm more than usually tired for the time of evening. The move is done and all went well. I'll return for a closer look very soon.

    1. I will be in touch soon to catch up with you about the move. :-)

  4. A marvellous post about a wonderful artist, Gina!

    And I love your stated intention of giving us more information about the artists in your posts. Yes, I know there can be a good argument made for just showing their works and letting them speak for themselves. But I also know that, up to now, your posts have frequently sent me rabbiting off over the internet, trying to find out more about the artists whose work you have been sharing with us.

    1. I will certainly try then, to include more information. What I will continue to try to avoid is personal criticism, as I really value what readers themselves think of the art. I want people who are not necessarily heavily into art to feel comfortable expressing their opinions without feeling that they must know or understand something at the level of the critics. I myself often don't! When I do offer an opinion, it usually in comments. I hope people will click the 'follow' button to see others' responses.

  5. A wonderful selection of his work Gina

  6. Great tribute! Love his self portrait on the 2nd pic.

    1. Yes. Both Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon owe more than a casual nod to Spencer. I'm not a huge fan of Bacon's work but Freud is amazing.
      Thanks for stopping by, JM.

  7. That is a wonderful selection, to be sure. What a character this guy was. It seems he appreciated his love for who she was and shined the light on her as she was. A nice break from our steady diet of air-brushed perfection.

    1. He was relentlessly honest about people, including himself.
      Thanks, Sandy.


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