Sir Stanley Spencer’s Burning Bushes

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Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)

He was a visionary, a genius. Some said, a lunatic.

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Have a look at his ‘Biblical’ contemporary Zacharias and Elizabeth praying to conceive St. John the Forerunner:

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Or at his St Francis and the Birds:

St Francis and the Birds 1935 Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1967 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00961

“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.

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‘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.

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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.

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“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.

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Resurrection

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.

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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.

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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”.

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Resurrection–Reunion

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Resurrection–Waking Up

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.

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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]

Dinner on the Hotel Lawn 1956-7 Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1957 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00141

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.

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Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta

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«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.»

Artist : Sir Stanley Spencer (England, b.1891, d.1959) Title : Date : 1951-1952 Medium Description: oil on canvas Dimensions : Credit Line : Watson Bequest Fund 1952 Image Credit Line : Accession Number : 8702

Christ in Cookham (1951-1952)

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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.

DACS; (c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Resurrection with the Raising of Jarius’s Daughter

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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“I love to dwell on the thought that the artist is next in divinity to the saint. He, like the saint, performs miracles.”

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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.

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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  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. …”

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Canvas Bloodily Immolated on Calvary

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Time is Ripe for a David Jones Revival, the long neglected figure in the history of British Modernism. Poet and visual artist, draughtsman, printmaker, illustrator, painter, engraver, calligrapher and a genuine 20th-century visionary, David Jones’ (1895-1974) creative life was largely determined by two experiences. During World War I he served on the Western Front, an event that he regarded as epic and imbued with religious, moral and mythic overtones, in which Divine Grace manifested a continual presence. The second experience was his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1921.

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David Jones served in the trenches as a Private soldier from 1915 until 1918, was wounded at The Battle of The Somme, and spent more time on active service than any of the other First World War poets. He began writing poetry more than ten years after the 1918 Armstice, publishing his first major work in 1937. He continued painting, drawing and writing poetry throughout his comparatively long life in between episodes of depression caused by what would now be called post traumatic stress. He called his illness “Rosi”, referring almost fondly to the “rosi” in “neurosis”.

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David-Jones-Elephant-1928-National-Museum-of-Wales

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One of the most intense of his wartime recollections was of watching a Catholic mass for the first time. He was out alone in the Ypres sector scrounging for firewood in the woods when he became aware of a mass in progress in a ruined farmhouse. He watched the proceedings through a chink in the wall. He spotted the priest “in a gilt‑hued planeta, two points of flickering candlelight, white altar cloths and a few huddled figures in khaki”. The matter of factness of the scene impressed him. This almost businesslike routine had been going on for centuries. In 1921 Jones converted to Roman Catholicism. He said that “the mass makes sense of everything” and much of his poetry and paintings are religious, biblical and liturgical.

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After his conversion and for the rest of his life, Jones regarded his artistic and poetic vocation as a kind of priesthood, living and working very simply and alone. Despite all this acclaim, Jones was a humble man who never sought fame, which is probably just as well. For his last 20 years, until his death in 1974, he inhabited a single room in Harrow, welcoming visitors but otherwise pursuing his work in isolation. He called that room his “dug-out”, but in truth it was a monastic cell.

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David-Jones-The-Dove

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We need to view him as fundamentally a maker. He formed things with his hands as he shaped things in his mind, combining the visual and verbal with creative intensity not seen in Britain since the time of William Blake.

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Jones visualized his Art as sacramental, holding affinities to the sacrament of the Eucharist: “the insistence that painting must be a thing and not the impression of something has affinity with what the Church said of the mass, that what was oblated under the species of bread and wine at the supper was the same thing as what was bloodily immolated on Calvary”.

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trustees of the David Jones estate; (c) A. J. Hyne; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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When Igor Stravinsky made his last visit to England, he declared that it was largely a pilgrimage to visit David Jones. He visited him in the 1950s in the boarding house in Harrow, where he lived from 1947, after his second breakdown, until 1964. According to Stephen Spender, he remarked that it was ‘like visiting a holy man in his cell’. Recounting the same visit, Spender pictures Jones as a figure of saintly innocence, playing ‘a worn record of plain-song Gregorian chant […] with hands clasped across his knees and an expression of bliss on his face’.

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The Chapel in the Park, 1932

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The Chapel in the Park 1932 David Jones 1895-1974 Purchased 1940 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05054

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TS Eliot regarded In Parenthesis, Jones’s modernist poetry/prose epic, dramatising, distilling and mythologising his experiences on the Western Front during the First World War, as “a work of genius”. Auden similarly judged The Anathemata, published in 1957, as “very probably the finest long poem to be written in English this century”. Nonetheless, I personally find David Jones’ poetry highly rewarding, yet forbidding in its complexity, so, I’d rather dwell on some of this unworldly figure’s and visionary artist’s paintings which I find absolutely fascinating.

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Sanctus Christus de Capel-y-ffin, 1925

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Sanctus Christus de Capel-y-ffin 1925 David Jones 1895-1974 Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1983 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03677

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Capel-y-ffin was the former monastery in the Monmouthshire Black Mountains where Eric Gill and his family moved in August 1924. David Jones first visited them there the following December, and the building at the left of this drawing loosely resembles the monastery, in its winter landscape. Eric Rowan (loc.cit.) compares this drawing to a wall painting of the Crucifixion made by David Jones at Capel-y-ffin in the same winter.

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The Garden Enclosed

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After he was received into the Roman Catholic church in 1921, Jones went to live with the artist Eric Gill and his family. The two figures in this picture represent Jones, and Gill’s daughter Petra. The picture was painted to mark their engagement in June 1924, when Petra was not quite eighteen. The title alludes to the Song of Solomon, chapter 4, v.12 ‘A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse’. An enclosed garden is also frequently used as a symbol for the virginity of the Virgin Mary. The geese, sacred to the classical goddess Juno and associated with young girls, flee from the embracing couple, alarmed by their passion. The doll on the ground may symbolise lost childhood.

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Aphrodite in Aulis 1940–1

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Aphrodite in Aulis 1940-1 David Jones 1895-1974 Purchased 1976 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02036

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After fighting in the First World War, Jones went to art school in 1918. Long enthusiastic about Blake, in 1943 Jones saw Blake’s Body of Abel, shown in this display, much enlarged at a lantern slide lecture. His awareness of Blake’s ‘overwhelmimg’ qualities grew. As a watercolourist, engraver and poet, Jones has obvious affinities with Blake. Aphrodite was drawn during the Second World War. Its Classical and Christian allusions are comparable with Blake’s use of art when commenting on contemporary events. Aphrodite in Aulis fuses Christian and pagan energies, combining redemptive sacrifice with sexual bounty. The Greek goddess of love and fertility, chained to an altar, is flanked by a British and German soldier.

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Illustration to the Arthurian Legend: Guenever, 1938–40

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Illustration to the Arthurian Legend: Guenever 1938-40 David Jones 1895-1974 Purchased 1941 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05315

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This drawing, which was done at Sidmouth, is an illustration to an episode in the ‘Book of Sir Launcelot and Queen Guenever’ in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Bk. XIX, Ch. 6. The artist has described the picture as follows (written statement of October 1958, in part based on a draft by Hugh Macandrew): ‘The traiterous Sir Meliagrance has captured Queen Guenever and her knights, and hearing of her abduction and the wounding and capture of her knights Sir Launcelot comes to her rescue. After being ambushed by the archers of Sir Meliagrance and enduring severe ordeal, shame and mischance Launcelot reaches the castle where the queen and her knights are captive. Meliagrance is in great fear and a kind of truce is arranged by the queen and Launcelot is admitted into the castle. When all are asleep Launcelot takes a ladder and, after breaking the window bars, climbs into the queen’s room.

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‘The marks on Launcelot’s feet, like stigmata, show that the knight has suffered greatly both in his journey to the castle and also in breaking down the bars. Chrétien de Troyes says that Launcelot “cared not for his wounds in his hands and feet” which inevitably suggests the wounds of the Passion, hence the attitude of the crucified Christ as seen on the Crucifix above the queen’s head is echoed in the movements of Launcelot.

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‘In this drawing and in “The Four Queens” there are fragments of a chapel and this chapel is in part associated with the ruined chapel of Capel-y-Ffin and in part with the church at Rock in Northumberland which appears in the Tate picture “The Chapel in the Park”. But in this Guenever picture it is seen as the, so to say, “garrison chapel” of the castle, the altar has been made ready for the next morning’s mass, with the mass-vestments laid out on it in the usual manner. In the Chrétien de Troyes version, when Launcelot approaches and leaves the queen’s bed he genuflects to her and the text says he does this “precisely as though he were before a shrine”. I think the association of these ideas may account, in part, for the inclusion of the altar. The St John’s Chapel in the Tower of London was also in mind.

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‘The men of the garrison of the castle are symbolised by the gun-team asleep with their halberds against the wall on the right, in a recess to the right of the chapel. The figures in the foreground are the queen’s wounded knights and her two maids; everybody is asleep except the little cat which is jumping off the queen’s bed as the wounded feet of Sir Launcelot come forward from the broken window-bars.

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llustration to the Arthurian Legend: The Four Queens Find Launcelot Sleeping, 1941

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Illustration to the Arthurian Legend: The Four Queens Find Launcelot Sleeping 1941 David Jones 1895-1974 Purchased 1941 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05316

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The stories of King Arthur and his knights had long been of interest to artists and writers as a remnant of a mysterious, lost national past. This drawing illustrates a passage in which Sir Launcelot is abducted by four queens. Launcelot, however, lies dreaming of his love, Queen Guinevere, who appears as a swan. The recumbent figure wears a German helmet and is deliberately reminiscent of the bodies of soldiers that Jones had seen on the battlefields of the 1914–18 war. Thus Medieval themes and styles are used to comment on more recent conflict.

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Chalice with Flowers and Pepperpot, c.1954–5

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Chalice with Flowers and Pepperpot circa 1954-5 David Jones 1895-1974 Purchased 1976 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02038

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‘Chalice with Flowers and Pepperpot’ is one of a group of closely related watercolour drawings dating from the latter part of David Jones’s career. All feature a glass goblet or ‘chalice’ of flowers placed centrally on a table with various domestic objects assembled around. Lord Clark (in Agenda, op cit.) has characterised these flower paintings as follows: ‘Some of the finest of David Jones’s recent paintings are not of literary subjects but represent simply a vase of flowers on a table. A pleasant subject, but we are not for long under the illusion that this is an ordinary still life. The vase, broad and capacious like a Byzantine chalice of the 8th century, stands facing us on a plain table. Although no exclusively Christian symbol is visible, we have at once the feeling that this is an altar and that the flowers in some way represent part of the Eucharist. There are wine coloured carnations and ears of corn, thorny stems of roses and blood red petals which drop onto the small white table cloth. Yet none of this is insisted on, and we are far from the closed world of symbolism. Every flower is there for a dozen reasons, visual, iconographical or even on account of its name …’

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For more David Jones, watch a slideshow of 21 paintings of his at  http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/artists/david-jones

and also visit Tate at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/david-jones-1370