Spencer, SIR Stanley (1891–1959), artist, was born at Cookham-on-Thames, Bekrshire, 30 June 1891, the seventh son in a family of eleven children of William Spencer, an organist and music teacher, and his wife, Anna Caroline Slack. His brother Gilbert was born in the following year. Spencer had no formal education, attending only a class which met in a corrugated iron building in the Spencer garden and was presided over by his sister Annie, who, he said, despaired of him.

In 1907 Lady Boston, who had been giving Spencer private drawing lessons, sent him to the Technical School at Maidenhead. A year later she sent her protégé to the Slade School with introductions to Professors Tonks and Brown [q.v.] . He was accepted but continued to live at home catching an evening train back—a routine which nourished his gifts: his already vivid imagination was rooted in Cookham and its surroundings and inhabitants. The subject-matter of his art was already clear and distinct in his mind; the Slade developed his powers to express the vision. In 1912 he gained the Melville Nettleship prize (a scholarship) and the composition prize for a painting ‘The Nativity’.

Spencer painted a series of memorable canvases while still a Slade student: ‘Two Girls and a Beehive’ (1910), ‘John Donne arriving in Heaven’ (1911), ‘Joachim among the Shepherds’ (1912), ‘Apple Gatherers’ (1912–13), the last of which was acquired by the Tate Gallery. In 1912, his last year at the Slade, he began one of his finest paintings, ‘Zacharias and Elizabeth’ (1912–13).

Spencer had attained both technical and imaginative maturity while still a student. In the introduction he contributed in 1955 to the catalogue of the Tate Gallery retrospective exhibition of his work, Spencer himself commented on what he considered the best period of his painterly life. He described the ‘state of sureness’ he was in before the war of 1914–18, a state which after the war continued to about 1922–3 ‘when I did the Betrayal. At this time I did the series of drawings for the Burghclere Memorial and also the drawing for the 1927 Resurrection. So that all the painting I was to do from 1922 to 1932 was settled in nearly every detail: ten years of solid bliss were ahead of me. But I knew in 1922–3 that I was changing or losing grip or something. I was, I feared, forsaking the vision and I was filled with consternation. All the ability I had was dependent on that vision.’

The vision he lived with was a vision of heaven in Cookham's streets and of the incidents of Christ's life, with which the family Bible-readings had enkindled his imagination, as enacted there; it was a vision in which Cookham scenes and biblical stories were simultaneously in focus and interpenetrated. This private and ecstatic way of seeing so engrossed him that even in so large (and so vivid) a family circle he lived much within himself, and when not painting his ‘vision’ was walking alone along the river or around the village seeing the everyday things in which he delighted all the more sharply for their irradiation in a light of heaven.

These were the seminal years of Spencer's career. This trance-like life was interrupted by the war. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915 and was sent to Macedonia in the summer of 1916. In 1917 he volunteered for the infantry (the 17th Royal Berkshires), also in the Macedonian theatre, and served there until demobilization.

While still in Macedonia he had been commissioned to do a war painting, and this he carried out on his return home—‘Travoys arriving with Wounded’ (Imperial War Museum). He also finished ‘Swan Upping’ (Tate Gallery), which he had left two-thirds completed four years earlier.

To the years 1919–23 belong either in execution or in conception most of his finest and also most mature works: paintings such as ‘The Robing of Christ’ and ‘The Disrobing of Christ’, of 1922 (Tate Gallery); the drawings for the great ‘Resurrection, Cookham’ which he painted in 1923–7—the completed picture was exhibited in Spencer's first one-man exhibition in 1927 and bought by Sir Joseph (later Lord) Duveen [q.v.] and presented to the Tate Gallery; and the drawings for one of his ‘chapels in the air’, which subsequently became the Burghclere murals. For in 1926–7 Mr. and Mrs. J. L. Behrend built a war memorial chapel at Burghclere in Berkshire, in commemoration of their relative Harry Willowby Sandham, in order to make it possible for Spencer to realize this cycle of drawings. The painting of these murals occupied him without interruption from 1927 to 1932 and they are his most impressive achievement.

In 1925 Spencer had married Hilda Anne Carline. Two daughters were born: in 1925 and 1930. The marriage was a failure (his wife showed progressive symptoms of mental ill health) and by the time Spencer returned to Cookham in 1932 it had broken. But he continued to see Hilda frequently until her death in 1950 and his love for her remained the one enduring bond of his life. In the early thirties he grew acquainted with Patricia Preece, whom he married in 1937 after divorce from Hilda.

This new emotional relationship in his life was largely responsible for a radical change in his painting. He now had two women to provide for, in addition to two daughters (one of whom was cared for by relatives). Until this period in his life he had been virtually maintained by friends and patrons (from 1919 to 1923, for example, he had lived in the houses of friends), but now, back in Cookham, he had to stand on his own feet and to earn all the money he could: ‘I was making big demands on life at the time’, he subsequently wrote, ‘and had to paint far more than I would have wished.’ He turned out what he called his ‘pot-boilers’, landscapes and flower-pieces, at the rate of one a week or every ten days. These pictures, rendered in pre-Raphaelite exactitude, are often beautiful, sometimes mechanical, but they afforded no joy of creation to their maker.

Moreover, since (according to Spencer) the relationship with Patricia had no physical fulfilment, his sexuality sought expression in erotic paintings and in erotic writings in the form of a diary-letter to Hilda. The paintings had little appeal and were largely unsaleable.

The thirties were years of artistic frustration for Spencer, although he painted some figure-pieces which brought him further acclaim and were bought by many art galleries both in the provinces and in London. Among his best paintings of these years are ‘Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors’ (1933); ‘Separating Fighting Swans’ (1933) and ‘Hilda, Unity and Dolls’ (1937), both at the City Art Gallery, Leeds; ‘St. Francis and the Birds’ (1935); and ‘The Cedar Tree, Cookham’ (1934–5). Among the erotic paintings were a number of nudes of Patricia Preece, some of which were bought by W. A. Evill. ‘Promenade of Women’ (1937) and a series entitled ‘The Beatitudes of Love’ (1937–8) were among Spencer's own favourites of the period.

In 1935 he resigned from the Royal Academy, to which he had been elected as an associate member three years before, on its rejection of two of his pictures for the summer exhibition. He rejoined as a full R.A. in 1950. In 1938 twenty-two of his paintings were exhibited at the Venice Biennale, at which he had also been represented six years earlier.

Although he was prolific of landscapes and flower-pieces and also of portraits, and although they sold well, Spencer was sued by Hilda on a number of occasions during the thirties for arrears of maintenance. Even the tiny sum of fifty shillings a week for herself and their daughter Unity was not forthcoming. Spencer himself lived on about forty shillings a week or less. The shock of appearing in court together with years of over-work on his pot-boilers brought on, in 1938, a breakdown of several months' duration, during which he was quite unable to paint at all. At this time his dealer and friend, Dudley Tooth, however, agreed to take over the management of his finances, paying a weekly allowance to each of the dependants as well as a small sum to Spencer himself. He also paid off the many debts contracted in the thirties and the arrears of income-tax.

The tribulations of these years, when Spencer was also without a home and (as he said) felt himself a vagrant, were the inspiration for a series of small paintings of ‘Christ in the Wilderness’; four of the series belong to 1939, two to 1940, one to 1942, while the eighth and last was painted in 1953. The first of them was made in lodgings in London, for in the autumn of 1938 Spencer left Cookham on account of personal unhappiness. He had never lived with his second wife.

In 1940 Spencer was commissioned by the war artists advisory committee to paint pictures of shipyards. He began work at Port Glasgow, making visits to the shipyards for studies for larger paintings until the end of the war. While in Port Glasgow the sight of a cemetery—cemeteries were always powerful imaginative stimulants for him—inspired him to another series of resurrection canvases; he painted eight in all. It had been his earnest wish that the complete cycle might hang together, but the pictures were bought separately: ‘Resurrection: Tidying’ (1945) by the City Art Gallery, Birmingham; ‘Resurrection: Reunion’ (1945) by the Aberdeen Art Gallery; ‘Resurrection with Raising of Jairus's Daughter’ (1947) by the Southampton Art Gallery; ‘Resurrection: the Hill of Sion’ (1946) by the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston; ‘Resurrection: Port Glasgow’ (1947–50) by the Tate Gallery.

In 1945 Spencer returned to his native Cookham and remained there until his death, devoting his time principally to an enormous cycle of about sixty drawings of ‘Christ preaching at Cookham Regatta’ and later to the painting of it. He worked on these canvases until too weak to continue. Another huge painting of his last years, an altar-piece in praise of Hilda, was also not completed by the time of his death.

A retrospective exhibition of Spencer's work (68 paintings and 27 drawings) was held at Temple Newsam House, Leeds, in 1947, and another (83 paintings) at the Tate Gallery in 1955. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1950 and knighted in 1959. In 1958 the vicar of Cookham organized an exhibition of Spencer's paintings in Cookham church and vicarage; it drew large crowds and, set in his own beloved Cookham, gave particular gratification to Spencer himself. The following winter he fell ill and he died in hospital at Cliveden 14 December 1959 and is buried in Cookham churchyard.

Stanley Spencer was the outstanding—the most potent and fertile—imaginative painter of the English-speaking people in the first half of the twentieth century. As he himself often said and wrote, the quality of his imaginative work deteriorated after the twenties; after the completion of the Burghclere murals both the intensity and the focused and integrated unity of inspiration which animated his early works and fused into one his dual vision of the commonplace and of the divine consistently evaded him. How this came about has been suggested above, but it may be added that Spencer was in no sense strongly rooted in a religious faith nor had he any clear or reasoned convictions, so that in the pressures of life his early poetic empathy with the New Testament faltered and waned and the dual vision was no longer possible. Cookham became no longer the suburbs of heaven but suburbs; the later Resurrections are just vast conversation-pieces crammed with anecdote. His figure painting, including much which was in intention religious, came to be an expression of grotesquerie and whimsy. The ordinary things and objects and events of life he loved with passion, and in his painting he wanted to show them as being, in what they are, heavenly and somehow divine—this is why his Resurrections are insistently filled with incidents of trivial daily life—but it was an aim which in the second half of his life he could no longer successfully achieve.

Spencer's early paintings were not only strong in their draughtsmanship and composition; they were distinguished by painterly qualities as well. Later on, however, he came to take delight only in the drawing and in the composition of his pictures. With the painting of them he was, he admitted, bored. His paintings, therefore, came to be coloured drawings, conceived as drawings, rather than paintings conceived in terms of paint. It was another element in the fragmentation of his imagination in consequence of which, in place of a dominant and unifying intensity, there is an evenly distributed intensity over his themes, so that everything is illumined but nothing is picked out and the whole is but the sum of its parts.

It was Spencer's proud claim to be an ordinary Cookham villager. ‘My mother was just a little village biddy.’ In appearance, even to the end of his life, he was like a village urchin. So tiny was he that his clothes were always too large, but as he quite often wore his suit over his pyjamas, which, even so, peered out at ankle and wrist, this was an advantage.

His hair, unparted, hung in an unkempt fringe over his eyes. His glasses he usually bought at Woolworths. They did not fit and slid to the end of his nose, so that, to keep them in balance, Spencer had a habit of tilting his head slightly backwards.

In repose his features were without distinction; his eyes looked tired and sleepy. When he was aroused, however, by enthusiasm (over his own work or imaginings) or by anger, the eyes widened and glittered. His speech, which was ordinarily a village diction uttered in a squeaky nasal voice, would then become resonant with language cast in biblical words and phrases. On such occasions—and they were very numerous—he was a fierce, prophet-like presence, and a compelling speaker.

Spencer drew and painted innumerable self-portraits. The first, painted in 1913, hangs in the Tate Gallery. The central, nude, figure in ‘The Resurrection, Cookham’, also in the Tate, is the painter himself. The last self-portrait, and the finest, was painted in 1959 and became the property of Mrs. Dennis Smith.


Stanley Spencer, a Retrospective Exhibition, Tate Gallery, 1955; Stanley Spencer: Resurrection Pictures (1945–1950), 1951; Gilbert Spencer, Stanley Spencer, 1961; John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters, vol. ii, 1956; Elizabeth Rothenstein, Stanley Spencer, 1962; private information; personal knowledge.


Original date of publication: 1971