Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)
He was a visionary, a genius. Some said, a lunatic.
Have a look at his ‘Biblical’ contemporary Zacharias and Elizabeth praying to conceive St. John the Forerunner:
Or at his St Francis and the Birds:
“St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscans, is popularly remembered for being able to talk to birds, and pray with them. Here he is shown as an old man, dressed in a Franciscan robe, talking to birds on a farm.” [Tate] Stanley Spencer intended to display this painting in his ideal gallery, which he called ‘Church House’, though it was never built. Admittedly, there is a certain “strangeness” in the painting, particularly in the way the saint separates the boy and girl. This painting was in fact rejected by the Royal Academy in 1935, interpreted as an offensive caricature. Spencer was eventually reconciled with the Royal Academy and was elected a full member in 1950; he was knighted in 1959.
‘Understand. Spencer is not a fool. He is a damned good man’ one of his officers said. Spencer had just bandaged him and called for stretcher bearers because the officer was grievously wounded. Stanley Spencer had no idea that many people thought of him as an idiot.
Spencer was other worldly. He was not run-of –the –mill. His genius as a painter imbued him with love for all of creation. He saw the redemptive force of love in everything, in everyday life, in hospitals ,on the battlefield, in the human body. His innocence and love of beauty could sometimes make him a victim. He thought he loved Patricia Preece, an artist of voluptuous proportions, whom he painted and who tricked him with many wiles into divorcing his wife and marrying her. Yet his childlike soul made him beloved of many. His daughters loved him and remembered his beautiful character and his redeeming love for all of nature.
“Everything I do for anyone is as ointment poured forth and it is an exercise creating joy, which is eternal; and it is the army has caused me to learn that by being happy in the present state I am satisfied. But what is wonderful is that by praying for the power to love purely or absolutely you get that power. I feel ashamed of what I would do when I first came out here, compared with what I would do now. The army ought to make any man an artist, because it ought to give any man these feelings.”
Stanley Spencer wrote these words in a letter to friends when he was a soldier on the Salonika front during the First World War. He had been a hospital orderly but was then in active service fighting against the Bulgarians and the Germans. He was finally sent home in 1918 as a result of his frequent and debilitating bouts of malaria.
His extraordinarily moving painting of Smol in Macedonia, Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, showing an illuminated operating theatre with the wounded on stretchers outside drawn by mules, resonates with biblical undertones: the dressing station was an old Greek church which Spencer drew such that, with the animal and human onlookers surrounding it, it would recall depictions of the birth of Christ. Rather than showing the horror of war, the painting gives hope of continuing life.
In the 1920s Spencer was asked by the Behrends family to do the murals for a memorial chapel for their brother Harry, who had died of malaria on the Salonika front. Spencer had always wanted to express his memories of the war and he spent six years on what are regarded by many to be his finest paintings, at the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere in England. Paul Mitchell says: “Perhaps one would expect scenes of death and destruction. But there is not a gun… and only one officer in sight. Entering the chapel you see ahead vivid white crosses tumbling from the sky and piling up around the altar. Soldiers are emerging from their graves in a Resurrection scene.
The other walls depict the everyday life that Spencer himself experienced. Even with titles such as Sorting and Moving the Kit-Bags Spencer imbues the paintings with such beauty and meaning that as he himself says, “they don’t look like war pictures, they rather look like heaven”.The everyday activities of the soldiers are transformed from banality. Saint Augustine, whom the artist had read, believed that even menial work could be a way of glorifying God. He continues, “the picture is supposed to be a reflection of the general attitude and behaviour of men during the war”, when a soldier would fondly remember the “caress of a sweetheart” or “sitting in his doorway chatting to his neighbours”. For Spencer himself the five years it took to complete the works was a means to “recover my lost self”.
They are highly personal paintings that go beyond the mundane, treating the great themes of death and redemption in an extraordinary vision of grandeur. Spencer went on to paint an amazing Resurrection painting with his home village of Cookham, and the local churchyard as its background.
The Resurrection, Cookham 1924–7
“Spencer believed that the divine rested in all creation. He saw his home town of Cookham as a paradise in which everything is invested with mystical significance. The local churchyard here becomes the setting for the resurrection of the dead. Christ is enthroned in the church porch, cradling three babies, with God the Father standing behind. Spencer himself appears near the centre, naked, leaning against a grave stone; his fiancée Hilda lies sleeping in a bed of ivy. At the top left, risen souls are transported to Heaven in the pleasure steamers that then ploughed the Thames.” [Tate]
Not that Stanley Spencer saw himself as a prophet. On the contrary, he believed that the divine was present everywhere, in everything in the world, that the transforming power of love could express the suffering of people and their desire for a better world. Tiny details of life and the human condition were the driving force behind his work. … Spencer’s works often express his fervent if unconventional Christian faith. This is especially evident in the scenes that he based in Cookham which show the compassion that he felt for his fellow residents.
Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta
«When I lived in Cookham I was disturbed by a feeling of everything being meaningless. Quite suddenly I became aware that everything was full of special meaning, and this made everything holy. The instinct of Moses to take his shoes off when he saw the burning bush was very similar to my feelings. I saw many burning bushes in Cookham. I observed the sacred quality in the most unexpected quarters.»
Christ in Cookham (1951-1952)
Christ Carrying the Cross 1920
Carpenters walking down Cookham High Street form a link with Christ’s carrying the cross through Jerusalem. The Tate Gallery originally mistitled this picture “Christ Bearing his Cross” which intensely irritated Stanley Spencer. As he said, the false title implied:
A sense of suffering which was not my intention. I particularly wished to convey the relationship between the carpenters behind him carrying the ladders and Christ in front carrying the cross. Each doing their job of work and doing it just like workmen . . . Christ was not doing a job or his job, but the job.
The Resurrection with the Raising of Jarius’s Daughter
Again, when Stanley Spencer’s dealer thought of cataloguing the painting as “Christ Carrying His Cross” Stanley was furious. The cross was for him universal. We all have to carry the cross.
The moving series of paintings Christ in the Wilderness, were a product of a very difficult time for Spencer. He had been betrayed by Patricia Preece and left pretty much destitute. His wife Hilda and children were not with him. He worked in a bare studio in London. The depiction of Christ protecting the hen is incredibly moving.
Spencer’s genius was his vision. For him all that was material was divine, imbued with “the grandeur of God.” Like Saint Paisios he could love the whole world. Saint Nectarios of Aegina said: “Our heart should be so filled with love that it should overflow to our neighbor.” “The impulse for his creativity came out of his own idealistic efforts to articulate suffering humanity’s craving for a better world.” Paul Mitchell said.
Spencer said: “Love is the essential power in the creation of art and love is not a talent. Love reveals and more accurately describes the nature and meaning of things than any mere lecture on technique can do. And it establishes once and for all time the final and perfect identity of every created thing.”
“I love to dwell on the thought that the artist is next in divinity to the saint. He, like the saint, performs miracles.”
Spencer’s art is fascinating, bizarre, unworldly and yet too wordly. His life was more eccentric and not always so praiseworthy. In fact, he lived a pretty messy and imperfect life, and did not always live out his convictions very well. But this does not necessarily mean that he is to be judged and condemned together with his ‘art’. Isn’t he in a sense a fellow struggler rather than a role model, and doesn’t his honesty about his own personal battles make him that much more accessible to us today? Spencer felt compelled to record the truth of Christianity as he saw and felt it, and such art as his can reach places in the human heart that reasoned argument can never penetrate. “Where William Blake was aware of heavenly voices in the next room, Stanley Spencer was susceptible to visions of holiness along the Cookham lanes, … turning its streets into visions of holiness.” May he teach us to discover burning bushes all over the world.
For more, please watch a brilliant lecture by Richard Harries, The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Gresham Professor of Divinity, “Distinctive Individual Visions”, part of Religion Christian Faith and Modern Art Series @ http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/distinctive-individual-visions “As at the end of the 18th century William Blake developed a highly individual style that did not fit easily into the categories of the age, so in our time artists like Marc Chagall, Stanley Spencer and Cecil Collins, in their very different ways, have sought to express an intense, highly personal religious vision of the world. …”