Stanley Spencer: Looking To Heaven

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Stanley Spencer: Looking To Heaven


Fri, 27/01/2017 - 14:30


Self-portrait of a young Stanley Spencer
Self-portrait of a young Stanley Spencer
26 January, 2017

HE was a phenomenon, a shooting star, a painter who has been described as “a village simpleton, an eccentric, haunted by the erotic, a recluse, an egoist, a victim of circumstance – and also a visionary, a complete original, difficult and challenging, and one of the greatest British artists of the 20th century”.

So writes John Spencer, grandson of Sir Stanley Spencer, in his introduction to Looking To Heaven, the first part of a fascinating “autobiography” he has edited from the two million words in correspondence and notes deposited in the Tate following Spencer’s death in 1959, aged 68.

His grandson has courageously taken on the huge challenge of telling the Spencer saga of a complex genius whose own numerous attempts to write an autobiography forever failed. 

That, no doubt, was because, in his own words, Spencer said: “I wish to include anything that I’ve ever thought, felt or done – have it all – being myself gives me a feeling of need for it.

“I need all the ingredients that I know in myself. I hate to exclude anything.”

Indeed, an impossible task, which makes this beautifully produced volume a partly visual display of compelling and confusing stories about the son of a country organist and piano teacher. 

He was one of eight siblings born in the Thameside village of Cookham, where he remembered “the soft summer air, filled with the honeysuckle smell and how still all kept until, out of the deep quiet, came the song of the nightingale”.

On his memorial stone in Cookham is inscribed: “He that Loveth not Knoweth not God for God is Love.”

And when it comes to Love, that’s where Hampstead and his first wife Hilda Carline – he proposed to her six times before they married in 1925 – comes into this chronicle of Spencer and his maverick behaviour when it came to sex.

For apart from his art he was a voracious reader, writer and music lover – happy to sell for £3 or £50 to the art collector Edward Marsh.

For an artist with a particular fondness for religious subjects, Spencer’s Christianity is unconventional. He clearly had disdain for the Church of England. “What a hateful, injurious thing the church is,” he once wrote. “I must go if I can to RC church, see if I can stand that and if I can bear any of it.”

Spencer’s contradictions are many, as when he met the sculptor Jacob Epstein he wrote: “I do not like his work and he is a Jew and you could not say a worse thing about a man than that.”

Then there was his furious row with the East End-born artist Mark Gertler, creator of the 1916 anti-war masterpiece The Merry-go-Round at his Hampstead studio, one of the illustrious band of fellow students Spencer met at the Slade.

They just happened to include Sydney Carline, Paul Nash, Henry Lamb, Dora Carrington, David Bomberg, Christopher Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth and the painter-turned-poet Isaac Rosenberg.

Yet the Bible was vital to Spencer, who saw “parallels between his earthly surroundings and his vision of heaven,” Cookham being his own “holy suburb of heaven”.

They provide some explanation for his momentous First World War paintings, in particular his 19 canvases in the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, though his Royal Medical Corps war service in Salonica left him with malaria that eventually undermined his health.

His friendship with Carline resulted in him joining a family dinner at No 47 Downshire Hill, Hampstead, where he met Carline’s artist sister Hilda, a Christian Scientist, and his brother Richard, later one of the founders of the Hampstead Artists’ Council, which created the Camden Arts Centre.

There is a remarkable Richard Carline painting entitled Gathering on the Terrace at 47 Downshire Hill, which depicts both Spencer and Hilda Carline, who as a married couple lived in the Vale of Health Hotel, on the edge of the Heath, where they shared a studio with Henry Lamb. 

“Many people have tried to convert me to Hampstead Heath, but with all its fine trees, wonderful views etc., I always get horribly depressed whenever I go there,” Spencer observed despite his excellent painting of the Vale and his fairground pictures.

Hilda gave birth to two daughters, Shirin and Unity, who later lived in Richard Carline’s home in Pond Street, Hampstead.

It is known that Spencer, who was a virgin when he married aged 34, had an affair with the Slade student Daphne Charlton, who later lived in New End, Hampstead, and subsequently fell for and married Patricia Preece, who worked in a cafe in Cookham, had a lesbian lover, Dorothy Hepburn, and subsequently duped him.

He confessed himself that sex was an important to his art and wrote incomprehensively: “F*****g is often part of some work I am doing... This is not unusual: it is often regarded as a kind of thing separate – I don’t know what form, but separate.”

And he added: “I love the ungainly, clumsy or thought-to-be-ridiculous positions and happenings that occur in the bedroom and in bed. Anything that is part of what I am desiring is desirable... I could live a happy life if I had all the canvas, etc, with me in a bedroom and remained there with the woman all my life, taking an occasional walk.”

Such was the life of a genius whose work still haunts us.

• Stanley Spencer: Looking To Heaven. Edited by John Spencer, Unicorn, £30

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