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Stanley Spencer

English Painter

Stanley Spencer Photo

Born: June 30, 1891 - Cookham-on-Thames, Berkshire

Died: December 14, 1959 - Cliveden, Berkshire

"During the war, when I contemplated the horror of my life and the lives of those around me, I felt that the only way to end the ghastly experience would be if everyone suddenly decided to indulge in every degree and form of sexual love, carnal love, bestiality, anything you like to call it."

Summary of Stanley Spencer

A highly eccentric and isolated figure, writers and art historians often brush quickly over Spencer's awkward and difficult work. He had two principle interests; sex and biblical narrative and the two sit quite jarringly and unsettlingly - sometimes even creating a perverse or sinister tone - when married explicitly together. Spencer's intention, like that of many artists, was to unite opposites - to align the body and spirit and the scared and profane in order to see the whole picture of life. However, in Spencer's case, personally obsessed with sex due to unsatisfactory relationships, and with religion etched on the mind having had daily Christian stories recited at home as a child, his depiction of such subjects come with added intensity.

Although Spencer studied at the Slade School of Art, he traveled home every evening to have dinner with his family and remained estranged from other influential artists of his day. He was profoundly affected by the experience of WWI, which shattered his insularity having previously only known the life of an idyllic childhood. As such, his story overlaps, at least in part, with that of the Polish-French painter, Balthus', who also uprooted from stability by the war, made particularly erotically charged pictures. Although Spencer himself often stated that he was trying to create peace and redemption in his paintings, the affect on the viewer can often, paradoxically, be one of writhing dystopia.

Key Ideas

Spencer took the microcosm of his childhood village, Cookham in Berkshire, and explored it's land and people in order to understand the macrocosm that is life, and the world, even to the extent of the heavens as well as the earth. The village residents became the characters in his painting and the landscape the stage setting for his mysterious scenes; he therefore successfully deals with universal themes coming from a local starting point.
He was a master at creating large, heroic, and sprawling multi-figure compositions. Spencer's canvases are so complex and detailed that they resemble historical High Renaissance paintings, even early Renaissance frescos. His anatomical distortions and unusual perspective recall Mannerist paintings by the likes of Rosso and Jacopo Pontormo. Whilst his piercing color palette looks back to the Post-Impressionists and Pre-Raphaelites, and his exquisite attention to detail, forward to the portraits of Lucian Freud.
Spencer's originality lay in his merging of the descriptively literal with the visionary and imaginative. During WWI he was given a copy of Saint Augustine's Confessions from which he took the idea that God is glorified by even the smallest and most menial tasks. As such, in one work, dustbin men become lovers, and in others laborers carrying ladders mimic Christ burdened by the crucifix.
Revealing himself as a romantic (he admired the poetry of John Donne and William Blake), and with a specific active interest in the relations between men and women, Spencer openly investigates the physical as well as the spiritual side of love. He had various relationships and perhaps the most intense was with Patricia Preece, his second wife, a lesbian who denied Spencer sex and as such created irresolvable tensions and conflict between the desires of mind and body.
As an ongoing project, the painter designed and worked towards "Church House", intended (although never built) as an enclosed sacred space made up of various chapel dedicated to his lovers, Preece, Hilda Carline (his first wife), Elise Munday, Daphne Charlton, and Charlotte Murray all included. This ongoing project further highlights the artist's pioneering interest in uniting explicit sex and religion, something quite common in Eastern devotion (for example, sacred temples in India decorated by the female yoni, symbol of the vagina), but considered shocking as relatively unheard of in Christianity.
Stanley Spencer Life and Legacy

Stanley Spencer was the second youngest of nine children born to William and Anna Spencer. He was born in Cookham-on-Thames, a quaint village in Berkshire that was to become an integral subject throughout his work. His family had a long history in the area; his grandfather had built a number of buildings in Cookham, including the villa in which Stanley was born. It was attached to an identical house, in which the artist's cousins lived. He was brought up a Methodist, and his spirituality would always have heavy bearing on his artistic output.

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