With the attention given the First World War a century later, a look back at one of its greatest if most unpredictable artists, Stanley Spencer, rewards renewed examination. Published in 1991 on the centenary of his birth, drawing on interviews with his two daughters, family and friends, and the Tate Gallery archived writings, Spencer in his first in-depth biography emerges not as the subject of dull critique, but of respect through a diligent effort by Kenneth Pople to let the artist's words speak for themselves. They channel Spencer's interior struggle, evoked and expressed by slow craft or long difficulty.
While very congenial towards Spencer, Pople provides a skilled interpretation of the rational and genesis for what can often be initially baffling or perplexing art. Painstaking in his observations, he charts Spencer's professional and personal growth in chronological chapters documenting his self-awareness which emerges on canvas, as he sketched and painted from an early age. Pople pauses to offer "suggestions as to their emotional origins" of his art, supported by Spencer's mostly unpublished writings, supplemented by testimony of those who knew him. The sympathy between biographer and subject proves powerful.
Although a readable five-hundred-plus-pages, detail may overwhelm those seeking a précis. Pople doggedly pursues his subject, but rarely distances himself from him. Duncan Robinson's overview rewards readers with enough illustrations and descriptions to begin. After Kitty Hauser's and Fiona MacCarthy's respective monographs, if preceding Pam Gems' pithy play, the still-curious may plunge into Pople for immersion into the steady or turbulent flow between the life and the works. Keith Bell catalogued a necessary survey of hundreds of Spencer's works, but inevitably despite the heft of Bell's contribution, individual paintings cannot all earn the scrutiny that this prolific artist merits.
Therefore, Pople's effort aligns the places and faces of Spencer's beloved village with their spiritual equivalents. As he put it, he walked around Cookham as if he saw heaven. Not that he strolled in heaven, but that he compared what he envisioned there with what he witnessed daily around him. A subtle but necessary distinction, for as Pople explains, Spencer's works attempted to record his own ecstasies, or terrors. "The places are not meant as symbolic or universal. They have no meaning outside of his experience of them. He presumes we all have such places in our memories which evoke similar feelings for us, and that we are able to recognize those that he shows in his painting are but signposts to personal feeling. It is that feeling which he is trying to capture and to universalize." (26)
He treasured sensory elements of those he knew and settings he passed. Minutes or years later, his prodigious memory, sharp ear, and photographic eye could reproduce the scene or moment he wanted on paper or as a painting. The results may or may not match Cookham, but they usually emanate from it. Pople distinguishes the "observed" landscapes (often considerably sharper in technical execution, if removed of people) or portraits, by which Spencer made a living, from the "visionary" paintings he claims to have preferred, those conflating preternatural events into Cookham's domain.
The process, Pople extrapolates from Spencer's accounts and art, depends on what that artist called "memory-feeling" as his imagined experiences became transfigured into the biblical inspirations he then interpreted. For instance, "The Centurion's Servant" (1913-14) halts in freeze-frame, as we see the before and the after of a miracle juxtaposed. Pople avers that Spencer sought to release his own delights or confusions (here he prepares that work as war and his call to duty looms) by setting down scenes which "redeem some bewilderments". (64) By shifting his own catharsis onto a biblical event or spiritual backdrop, he purged himself of confusion by a vivid creation as his, and our, memento.
"Christ Carrying the Cross" (1920) illustrates the maturation of his vision. Chastened by the Great War, back in Cookham he puts Christ on a village street, as workmen pass with their own ladders held aloft in a similar pose to that of the titular figure. All are doing their job, as Spencer observed. Villagers go about their duties, too, and few notice Christ's action. Neighbors who do stretch their necks out from the upper sills of an adjoining house. "The lace curtains blown out by the draught from the open windows on that sultry summer day have been transformed into wings. The onlookers in their silent commiseration have taken on the protectiveness of angels." (90) Neatly if suggestively, the painting's English residents pass by or peer out as if on sunny spring streets of ancient Jerusalem.
In many of Spencer's works, if ignorant of his title to alert, a spectator may puzzle over a canvas without understanding who the main figure is, as so often a bustling, oddly elongated, or foreshortened depiction of a crowd challenges a facile comprehension of the theme. Instead, a viewer roams about his visionary work by eye, and becomes swept along in the crowd or gathering. Thus, the viewer shares Spencer's perspective, however skewed or off-kilter. Through such an unsettling immersion, an early twentieth-century modernist obsession with meticulous detail mixes with earlier depictions, drawn from Giotto as much as Gauguin, suggesting how faith then or indifference now contend within a contemporary participant, who examines Spencer and encounters his ambiguity.
Off to war, Spencer followed three of his brothers. He did his job. Small of stature and not allowed into the fighting ranks until mass slaughter had eased entry requirements, he labored as a hospital orderly and with the ambulance corps in Salonika and Macedonia, followed by parched months in the trenches in 1918, Spencer toughed it out, with detachment from the humiliation he suffered and commitment to outlast his tormenters, until malaria sent him home. Only then did he learn, about six weeks before armistice, one brother had died. Spencer's mystical beliefs appear to have altered given the shocks he encountered during his enlistment. Commissioned as a war artist but with little to show for it, Spencer recorded more memorably he routines he followed in a series of post-war murals at the privately endowed Sandham Memorial Chapel, built for his display. He chose not to commemorate the battles but the behind-the-lines chores. He chose in the vast Resurrection painting at Sandham to depict a dramatic scene. Christ is rising, from beneath a heap of plain white crosses, pulled off of Him by soldiers, from both sides, who all climb out from tombs and trenches. This spectacle stretches to the horizon, as crosses pile up and, nightmare over and heaven at hand, bodies shake graves free.
His other great painting of the 1920s shares the theme of resurrection. Placing its imminence in the Cookham churchyard, this also features repetition. But whereas the Sandham murals portray duties as a human necessity, the 1926 Cookham Resurrection duplicates figures of Spencer and his villagers, with a significant addition. Not until his thirties did he experience sexual fulfillment, and his delayed marriage in 1925 to Hilda Carline fueled his belated integration of the erotic and the ethereal which had hovered in his paintings recently and restlessly. The joy of a humanistic scene of revelation, where his early sketches as Pople includes of an austere God give way to the embraces of a triumphant Hilda cradling their firstborn daughter testify to the invigorated perspective of the roused and redeemed male artist. Pople notes, however, how the idealized Hilda in the many archetypes her husband rushed her into, in person and in paint, early on complicated the messier reality of marriage.
Pople draws deeply upon Spencer's writings, while he cautions that at times "a hurt overcoloured Stanley's reflections" (187). That is, he sharpened slights or smoothed out memories to fit his own recollections, which in turn filtered into his paintings. These grew in his mind into a whole, even if for practical reasons he had to sell of some of their renderings, while as with the Resurrection series he returned to themes again, or as in his larger murals spun off details as their own paintings to market. The totality of his work from the later 1920s on combines the real and the imaginary, the fabled and the factual, inextricably. In ink and by brush, Cookham, his friends, and his lovers recur.
When Patricia Preece entered his life, at first casually as a near-neighbor returned (in 1927 with her companion Dorothy Hepworth) to a place she had known in childhood, her erotic and emotional appeal for Stanley grew. Both she and her partner (Dorothy denied after Patricia's death any "physical relationship"; Patricia called her a "sister") painted; Patricia when seeking patronage or display of her art subsumed Dorothy's art under her own name. Placed as she was, Patricia manipulated a besotted Spencer to gain finery and dress herself in the manner she saw fit, as his reputation brought him a steady income, by requests for landscapes which kept him distracted from his visionary work. Eager for him to earn more, Patricia urged him to produce still lifes and landscapes steadily, instead. Pople estimates that Spencer spent about $60,000 in today's currency attending to her whims during this unstable period when, married to Hilda, he contemplated a ménage à trois. This led to complications.
Class tension between the humbly-born Spencer and genteel Preece has been exaggerated perhaps by some biographers, but the disparity of their perspectives arose early on. Pople cites her 1932 diary: "Now that he has decided to live here, I wish we had not chosen to come, for he is such a nuisance to us, and so jealous and quarrelsome unless one is continually praising his painting." (283) His compulsive energy increased. Pople propounds that for Spencer, Hilda remained his God-image while Patricia became his Cookham-image. He channeled these impulses into his art and his relationships, to join erotic with spiritual searches towards a fulfilled identity, his fundamental quest in the 1930s.
Hilda and he both painted Patricia; Spencer's wife (who "had heard it all before" as Preece recorded at the onset of finding herself the recipient of Spencer's conversation, evidently a constant chatter) found herself playing uneasy go-between. The going deepened, or detoured as Preece maneuvered it, by Preece's ambiguous-or-not relationship with Hepworth. Enticed, Spencer let his fancies loose.
Pople explains that Spencer longed to break free of what he phrased as the "prison-wall-tapping" keeping people apart. His visionary series (e.g., "Love on the Moor," "Love Among the Nations," "Adoration of Old Men," "Sunflower and Dog Worship") reveled in unbounded lovemaking. His biographer explains the tumult. "He was in the strict sense of the adjective a 'pure' artist--one who in wonder interpreted the mystery of his own experience." Instead of asking our empathy or sympathy, Spencer forces us in the roiling and rotund depictions of freed bodies caught up in passion to accept the awesome miracle of life. In nudes, he painted Patricia unflinchingly as he would along her dimpled, mottled flesh the perspective, in his simile, as if an ant crawled over it. He stared down skin.
For good reason, Pople titles part six of this biography "The Marital Disasters: 1936-1939". Spencer acted boldly under Patricia's spell. He signed over his home to her, to fund her lifestyle. Unable to cope, Hilda and their two daughters left that home, and she filed for divorce. During the aftermath, Patricia continued to influence Stanley. Pople phrases this muddle as clearly as anyone might: "By an astute balancing act, she could arrange affairs to benefit her materially while freeing her from the sexual obligations of marriage, for which Hilda would be available." (361) Assuming marriage to Patricia would be but a "legal formality", Spencer married Patricia as soon as the law permitted.
The triple arrangement proved stillborn. He importuned his patrons; neither wife wanted him. Doubling his feminine inspirations for art, he included Elsie, his Cookham maid, and Daphne, a generous friend. Another war drafted Spencer as a commissioned artist. He illustrated Port Glasgow shipyard. He envisioned typically a larger platform for his murals than even that war's duration could fulfill. Meanwhile, he tried to woo faltering Hilda. A devout Christian Scientist, her views never jibed with Stanley's eclecticism. As Patricia pithily put it when Hilda was institutionalized: "God talked to her. It is just that he talked a little more inconveniently than usual." (432)
He painted two more resurrections, as the end of the war found here a touching depiction in joyful reunions, and in one, a portrayal of Hilda as needing support getting up after her own return from the dead, it seems. In Glasgow, he had met what Pople calls the "last of his major handholders", Charlotte. A married psychiatrist, a German émigré who had studied with Jung, she found Stanley a congenial sort given his mystical bent. After the war, he tried to keep all of his women content, as they came and went in his bachelor life then. He divorced Patricia on grounds of non-consummation, and while he continued to pine for female companionship, unstinting devotion to his art took precedence over his desires. He pursued Hilda, but slowly he convinced himself at last of the futility.
After her death in 1950, the last nine years of Spencer's life found him feted. For a measure of how far he had progressed, yet how closely he had kept his focus, compare his 1914 self-portrait that graces the cover with the one near its closing pages, painted a few months before he died in 1959. He fixes his eyes upon himself, and he records his features in a direct, composed, and confident manner.
He continued to work on enormous canvases, leaving as with his last giant epic, "Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta" some of the best unfinished. While Pople regards the posture of Jesus as encouraging His listeners, on seeing this depiction for myself recently at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in the converted Methodist chapel in Cookham, I regarded the pose as frightening, as if the Redeemer cowed the little ones, unable to resist His imposing posture or power. Ambiguity accompanies any interpretation of Spencer. Pople, despite his patience, attests to the difficulty of reconciling the underlying philosophy the artist formulated in his heap of largely unexamined and verbose letters and journals with the art itself to full satisfaction. "So personal are the associations that is impossible to follow him with his own degree of excitement into such territories of the imagination." (485)
All the same, this biography stands as the best introduction so far to these territories. Like Dante, Spencer fused a visionary element illuminated by a startling faith, a political critique, a disgust with contemporary cant, and a daring use of analogy. He made it all recognizable by fresh analogies and surprising juxtapositions of people at their best and worst. Spencer tolerated little opposition and his prickly ethics, and his own long battles with conformity, led to his insistence upon integrity. Pople interviewed many who were still alive and their memories of Spencer, along with careful archival research from him and many of his colleagues and teachers and friends, establishes this as essential.
(Amazon US 2-1-14; Author's website)