Arts Essays - Stanley Spencer

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Was Spencer 'a quaint village innocent' or one of the great British artists of the 20th century?

The aim of this dissertation is to study the life and works of artist Stanley Spencer and answer the question: Was Spencer 'a quaint village innocent' or one of the great British artists of the 20th century?  I shall implement a combination of methodology (following his life and art in episodic order), case studies (a selection of his work throughout his career), socio-historical investigation of his life (comparing Spencer to his peers) and draw conclusions based on my findings.

Stanley Spencer was born in the village of Cookham, Berkshire on 30 June 1891.  His father William was an organist and music teacher. At an early age he developed an interest in art and was enrolled at the Maidenhead Technical Institute before attending Slade School (part of University College London) in 1908.  Four years later he exhibited his first painting John Donne Arriving in Heaven. 

The life that followed involved Spencer participating in the First World War, getting married twice (once to a lesbian), getting divorced, fathering two daughters, becoming an associate of the Royal Academy, being awarded the CBE and then receiving his knighthood.  Throughout his life there remained two constants; his love of the village of his birth, Cookham, and his love of painting.

Spencer’s love of the idyllic country life was evident from his days at Slade School as the other students mocked him by calling him ‘Cookham’ due to the frequent stories of his beloved village, and the fact that he returned home there every day.  This village label remained with him throughout his career and long after his death in 1959.  In the review of his 2001 show at the Tate Britain, art collector and writer Pernilla Holmes wrote that: “Spencer has frequently come across as a quaint village innocent, inextricably tied to small-town England.” Is this a true reflection of the artist’s life and his works?  In this dissertation I shall draw my own conclusions from my research.

The chapters in my dissertation shall mark different stages of Spencer’s life, but each one will include the canvases that he painted at the time:

Chapter One – Spencer at School
Having his early education in a shed at the bottom of his garden with two of his sisters as teachers, the young Spencer was taught traditional family values.  His father was a musician and this helped the young boy develop a love of the arts, something that blossomed with the help of artist Dorothy Bailey.  Attending Slade School was an achievement in itself, but this was then eclipsed by his acceptance into the Royal Academy.  In this chapter I shall look at the early influences on Spencer’s work and his social development.

Chapter Two – Spencer at War
During the First World War Spencer enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps working as an orderly at Beaufort Hospital, Bristol from July 1915.  In August 1916 he was posted to Macedonia before joining the Infantry in August 1917.  During the war his paintings of social realism brought home the consequences of battle.  When the Second World War began in 1939, the 47-year old painter was commissioned by the War Artists' advisory committee to paint scenes of shipbuilding at Lithgow's yard, Port Glasgow to boost the nation’s morale. 

Chapter Three – Spencer in Love
For a man that has been labelled a ‘village innocent’, his love life is almost surreal.  He was married twice, once to a lesbian who threw him out of his house to live with her lover.  During his second marriage he had an affair with artist Daphne Charlton while staying at her (and her husband’s) house.  Spencer’s relationships are certainly and interesting insight into his work: “His discovery of sex, his marriage to Hilda Carline, his polygamous desire for Patricia Preece, his divorce from Hilda, his feeling of terrible loss over Hilda, his estrangement from Patricia, his relative poverty and homelessness (houselessness) - all of these precipitated crises of consciousness of a kind." Spencer always painted portraits of the people who meant most to him and it is intriguing to see how his vision changed not only of his lovers, but also of himself.

Chapter Four – Spencer at the Palace
Sir Stanley Spencer CBE RA Hon. D. Litt. died in 1959 but not before his life was celebrated by various honours, the most significant being his knighthood.  This did not change his personality and it was reported that, like most visionaries: “...Spencer was also a great British eccentric: when he was knighted by the Queen Mother, he took a bottle of milk and some Tate & Lyle sugar cubes in a plastic bag with him for tea.” This chapter will look at the way Spencer was perceived by his public.

Chapter Five – Spencer: Village Innocent or Avant-Garde Genius?
By writing about each period of his life I hope that I have presented his work, his thoughts and his personality enough to answer the titular question; village innocent or avant-garde genius?

Time Plan
I shall be planning to complete this dissertation over three periods.  Period one will be the time I spend sourcing the subject matter.  This will take place in libraries, galleries, on the internet and a trip to Spencer’s home village of Cookham (to the Stanley Spencer Museum).  After collation of the data I shall move onto period two; this will involve reading as much as information as possible and sorting the notes into the corresponding chapters.  The final period will be actually writing the dissertation until I am happy that I can answer the question.

For my research I shall be sourcing various books that deal with Stanley Spencer, his works, his life and his relationships.  The bibliography below lists some of the books I shall need to complete this dissertation:


Alison, Jane [ed.] (1991) Stanley Spencer: The Apotheosis of Love Art Books International
Bell, Keith (1993) Stanley Spencer: A Complete Catalogue of the Works Harry N. Abrams
Carline, Richard (1978) Stanley Spencer at War Faber and Faber
Cawthorne, Nigel (2004) Sex Lives of the Great Artists Prion Books Ltd
Christian, John [ed.] (1998) The Last Romantics: Romantic Tradition in British Art - Burne-Jones to Stanley Spencer Lund Humphries
Collis, Louise (1972) A Private View of Stanley Spencer Heinemann
Collis, Maurice (1962) Stanley Spencer: A Biography Harvill
Cooper, Emmanuelle (1994) The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West Routledge
Glew, Adrian, (2001)Stanley Spencer, Letters and Writings,
Gogarty, Paul (2003) The Water Road: An Odyssey by Narrowboat Through England's Waterways Robson Books Ltd
Gough, Paul (2006) Stanley Spencer: Journey to Burghclere Sansom & Company
Hauser, Kitty (2001) Stanley Spencer Princeton University Press
Hyman, Timothy & Wright, Patrick [eds.] (2001) Stanley Spencer Tate Publishing
Hayes, Colin (1964) The Scrapbook drawings of Stanley Spencer Lion & Unicorn
Little, Frank & Patrizio A., (1994) Canvassing the Clyde; Stanley Spencer & the Shipyards Glasgow Museums
Lofthouse, Richard A. (2005) Vitalism in Modern Art C 1900-1950: Otto Dix, Stanley Spencer, Max Beckmann and Jacob Epstein Edwin Mellen Press
MacCarthy, Fiona Stanley (1998) Spencer: An English Vision Yale University Press
Neale, Hannah (2002) Stanley Spencer: Love, Desire, Faith Abbot Hall Art Gallery
Nesbitt, Judith (1992) Stanley Spencer: A Sort of Heaven Tate Publishing
Pople, Kenneth (1996) Stanley Spencer: A Life HarperCollins
Pryor, William [ed.] (2006) Cookham and Gwen: The Complete Correspondence Between Sir Stanley Spencer and Gwen Raverat Clear Press Ltd
Rapport, Nigel (2003) I Am Dynamite: An Andean Anthropology of Power Routledge
Roberts, Miquette (2001) Stanley Spencer – Notes for Teachers Tate Publishing
Robinson, Duncan (1990) Stanley Spencer Phaidon Press
Rothenstein, Elizabeth (1962) Stanley Spencer Beaverbrook Newspapers
Rothenstein, Sir John [ed.] (1979) Stanley Spencer the Man: Correspondence and Reminiscences Elek
Spencer, Gilbert (1991) Stanley Spencer by his Brother Gilbert Redcliffe Press
Spencer, Stanley (2001) Stanley Spencer: Letters and Writings Tate Publishing
Spencer, Stanley (2002) Men of the Clyde: Stanley Spencer's Vision at Port Glasgow National Galleries of Scotland
Spencer, Stanley (1983) A Chatto & Windus Almanack Chatto & Windus
Thomas, Alison & Wilcox, Timothy [eds.] (1999) Hilda Carline: The Real Mrs. StanleySpencer Lund Humphries
Wilenski, Reginald Howard (1951) Stanley Spencer: Resurrection Pictures Fabe