The Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham is exploring the world of Stanley Spencer through the prism of his many saintly patrons
Stanley Spencer is one of the most enigmatic figures of twentieth century British painting. To many of us he is the quintessential self-contained, bespectacled eccentric, wandering the leafy streets of Cookham with his easel loaded into a pram.
But Spencer was not an island. A group of people supported him and enabled his existence financially, emotionally and artistically. A figure as interesting as Spencer, unsurprisingly, had friends and figures behind him that were just as intriguing.
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These are the patron saints of Stanley Spencer and a new exhibition at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham explores the often complex relationships he forged with them, what drove them to collect his work and how he was not the distant figure some may believe him to be.
“This is really about how people influenced Spencer,” says curator Amanda Bradley, “Spencer appears idiosyncratic and insular, but he was so susceptible to other people. More than we think.”
One of those people was Gwen Raverat, a fellow painter and friend during Spencer’s early artistic life at the Slade School of Fine Art, and the patron of his 1912 work John Donne Arriving In Heaven.
Their relationship ran through most of his adult life and was typical of the complicated associations he had with women, many of whom became central to his paintings. For her part Gwen became something of a maternal figure.
“he appeals to so many, because you can see the humanity in his work and in his vision”
“Mentally, I have been bedridden all my life,” admitted Spencer in his 40s, “I wish all my life I could have been tied to my mother’s apron strings. It would have suited me.”
“Spencer has always been a visionary talent,” says Bradley. “His ability to find the spiritual in everyday life shines throughout his works depicting Cookham as the backdrop for biblical scenes. It was perhaps this ability, which made his appeal so broad and that allowed him to attract a new type of patron.”
At the turn of the century, collecting art was no longer the preserve of lofty lords and wealthy socialites. A new culture of art was developing that allowed the everyman, the amateur art lover, the local politician and the parish priest to become patrons.
“Spencer is the case in point of this modern shift,” adds Bradley, “he appeals to so many. I think that’s because you can see the humanity in his work and in his vision.”
Another key patron was fellow painter and former soldier Henry Lamb. Lamb, who shares stylistic similarities with Spencer, drew his portrait and provided him with inspiration and a place to live. It was in Lamb’s house that Spencer drew one of his most famous works, The Resurrection, Cookham. Both men had served in the First World War and Lamb had already commissioned The Centurion’s Servant in 1914.
It is through his patrons that Spencer’s own personality emerges. Bradley tells the story of Spencer was visiting his patron Sir Edward Marsh and his friend Rupert Brooke:
“He came across one of his own paintings in the lounge. It was his famous 1914 self-portrait,” she says, “he noticed an issue that began to bother him and he started frantically searching for something to scrub the painting with to improve it. The only suitable thing he could find was a potato in the nearby kitchen, so he began scrubbing away when Rupert Brooke walked in.
“He became quite shy and tried to hide the potato but Brooke mistook Spencer’s actions. He ran in yelling “you poor starving artist!” and tried to offer him the whole fruit bowl.”
Marsh, whose potato Spencer was borrowing at the time, was another pivotal figure. The private secretary of Winston Churchill throughout his career, he spent a great deal of time and effort promoting Spencer’s works and exposing him to the international art community.
Another patron was the former soldier, businessman was Edward Beddington-Behrens, whose Spencer paintings are represented in the exhibition by both Neighbours and Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors.
But among the lords, ladies and less well-born people who supported him, there was one who gave him more than inspiration and exposure; his lawyer and long-time patron, Wilfrid Evill, to whom Spencer gave paintings in lieu of payment.
Such gifts were expedient – during his divorce to his first wife Hilda Carline and the following disastrous marriage to Patricia Preece, Spencer became bankrupt, lost his home and the control of his finances.
He had become obsessed with the openly lesbian Preece while still married to Carline, and Preece convinced him they could marry if he divorced his current wife. For his part Spencer believed he could divorce Carline and persuade her to engage in a three-way relationship. He was wrong.
Spencer signed over his home and all his finances to Preece and he swiftly found himself forced to live with his patrons and use their resources to survive. It was during this tumultuous period that he created his most sexually-charged images reflecting how Preece never reciprocated his affections.
“to understand any picture of mine, it means taking a seat and preparing to hear my life story”
During his darkest moments, when bankrupt and without a home, Evill helped maintain both his artistic drive and hope, and it was a combined effort from his patrons that allowed Spencer to purchase a home and return to Cookham.
Evill’s collection became one of the largest private collections in the country, and comprised many of Spencer’s deeply personal paintings. Seeing the collection, which is full of depictions of intimacy, sexuality, family, home and religious faith, it’s tempting to unravel the identities of both patron and artist.
Love on the Moor, painted sometime between 1949 and 1954, is filled with symbols of Spencer’s life. His first wife Hilda, from whom he had been divorced for over a decade, is represented as a statue of Venus flanked by cows and surrounded by dozens of joyous Cookhamites. It is a painting both monumental and personal.
Spencer said, “to understand any picture of mine, it means taking a seat and preparing to hear my life story.” Ever keen to give the outward impression that his greatest inspiration was himself and that he looked inwardly to find inspiration, he always failed to mention the extent to which his patrons played a part in that identity and in his artistic inspiration.
Patron Saints is at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham from the March 29 to November 4 2018.
Stanley Spencer Gallery
- Named by ArtFund in 2014 as one of the five most 'umissable' small Art Galleries in the UK. - Awarded a Michelin star in the Great Britain Michelin Green Guide. - Named in the FlipKey.com list of '2014 Top Museums Worth Travelling For'. - Awarded Trip Advisor Certificate of…