Stanley Spencer Exhibition at Tate Britannia

Anne Gardom visits the Spencer exhibition at Tate Britain

This exhibition of Stanley Spencer's is almost bewildering in the different aspects of his art on display. It is very exciting to see so much all gathered together, though necessarily some of his most important work is missing – notably the Sandham Memorial Chapel Murals and works from the Cookham Gallery.

Spencer was born in Cookham, educated in a school run by his sisters and barely spent a night away from home until he joined the Army Medical Corps in 1915. Yet, though Cookham was his reference point all his life, and he both painted it for its own sake and into the background of many of his pictures, he was an artist keenly alive to the stresses and pressures of the outside world. Many of his pictures present painful and often shocking tensions and frustrations. He trained at the Slade under Henry Tonks, and the skills he learnt there, both in drawing and painting are a joy to see in all the works on display

Stanley Spencer painted himself frequently as a subsidiary figure and he crops up again and again in his drawings and paintings. He also painted a number of very interesting self-portraits. There are two in pen and ink, done in 1913 and 1914, executed in a drawing style consciously derived from Michaelangelo, which are direct and touching in their serious youthfulness. He painted others, one in 1936 which is larger than life-size, an arresting and vivid image of a young man, another in 1939 shows a face full of weariness and self-doubt. In 1959, after he had cancer diagnosed, he painted his last portrait, almost defiant in its confrontation with old age, the stringy neck, the dry skin are portrayed with merciless and fierce courage.

His emotions, his frustrations and failures are painted into his pictures in a way that shocks and startles us. His relationships with the two women he married were frequently turbulent and painful and he spares neither himself nor them as he explores his responses and emotions. His nude picture of himself and Patricia Preece with the much-discussed leg of lamb in the foreground has become somewhat of an ikon and has been a great influence on other artists, especially Lucien Freud. But his other nudes, with or without himself in the picture, are a vivid and painful exploration of unhappy relationships. Even the beautifully executed drawings of Hilda, his first wife, have a quality of sadness and distance, despite the touchingly tender and beautiful drawing.

Spencer always insisted that his landscapes were mainly potboilers, and certainly his earlier paintings are very picturesque. His paintings of unconsidered corners of Cookham, however, are a constant surprise and delight. The Blacksmith's Yard, The Jubilee Tree, the rooftops seen from his studio – objects and their surroundings are shown in a new and entirely original way. The Scrapheap, painted at Port Glasgow in 1944 is an astonishing transformation of a pile of rusting rubbish into something of real beauty.

The tensions and frustrations he painted into his nudes and portraits of women are strangely and touchingly absent in a series called The Beatitudes, where oddly-assorted couples of ugly and deformed people gaze at each other, or embrace, with unaffected tenderness and love – it is not necessary to be beautiful in order to be able to give and receive love.

His wartime paintings are represented though his most famous work is the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere in Hampshire, which you can see on film. The wonderful “Burners” and “?Welders” were painted in 1940 at the request of the War Artists Advisory Committee, and show him relishing the challenge and diversity of his subject matter. The shapes, colours and crouching figures combine to make two majestic compositions.

The well-known and enormous Resurrection in Cookham is there, the violent Crucifixion painted for Aldenham School Chapel, Christ carrying the Cross – down Cookham High Street – Spencer saw Christ in everyday life, and especially everyday life in Cookham. There is a lovely series of three pictures of Christ in the Wilderness, with the foxes, and eagle and a scorpion. These have come from a gallery in Western Australia and are a joy.

So, variety and richness are here. Spencer was a man who faced his doubts and dreads on canvas, as well as his faith and his joy, his honesty makes his pictures full of interest, and often inspiration.

Anne Gardom reviews exhibitions for New Directions. See also her review entitled Treasures from the Ark in this current issue.

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