An exhibition of work by Stanley Spencer, one of Britain’s most important and innovative artists, has opened at the Laing Art Gallery, as Tamzin Lewis writes.
INSTANTLY recognisable, Stanley Spencer’s figurative works were not particularly well received in his lifetime. Instead, it was Spencer’s landscapes, disliked by the artist, which brought him popularity and a much-needed income.
A selection of both are on display at the Laing Art gallery in a show which brings together 27 paintings and drawings by Spencer.
The majority are on tour from Tate Liverpool, but two works are in the Laing’s permanent collection: The Lovers, painted in 1934, depicting a dustman and his wife, and its preparatory study.
Assistant keeper of fine and decorative art, Marie-Therese Mayne says: “Stanley Spencer submitted The Lovers to the Royal Academy summer exhibition and it was rejected.
“He was so angry that he resigned from his position as an associate of the Royal Academy in protest. He tried to create figures with an otherworldly spiritual quality and for a while people just didn’t get it.”
Spencer was born in 1891 in the Berkshire village of Cookham, which he painted throughout his life. He served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in the First World War and was an official war artist, creating the magnificent Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere in Hampshire.
In 1940, Spencer was commissioned again as a war artist and was asked to paint shipbuilders on the Clyde in a series held at the Imperial War Museum.
Before his death in 1959, he was awarded the CBE, knighted and elected fully to the Royal Academy.
Marie-Therese says: “Spencer is one of the archetypal English artists, an English eccentric. During his lifetime he was more popular for his landscapes, which he hated painting. Audiences weren’t as receptive to his figurative paintings, but after his death he became influential to young up and coming artists such as Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon.”
She adds: “He also drew on a previous history and used sources as diverse as Renaissance art and Victorian book illustration, post-impressionists and the modernists. He was a bit like a sponge absorbing influences and reinventing them.”
The Bible, Nature and village life in Cookham are important themes in Spencer’s work, and also on show at the Laing are two self portraits. “He had an odd upbringing,” Marie-Therese says.
“His father was Church of England and his mother was Methodist, so from an early age he attended both Church and Chapel. He had two opposing ideas of religion and as he grew up he tried to parallel Biblical stories with modern life. This was one reason why he chose his home town as a setting for Biblical stories.
“For Spencer, the spiritual and physical were close, and he tried to invest many of his paintings with a larger than life quality. He melded the ordinary with the extraordinary.”
Stanley Spencer is at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, until January 11. Visit www.twmuseums.org.uk/laing for more information.