Lucky to be an Artist, Unity Spencer, Unicorn Press, 2015, 256 pp. £24 (hardcover)

The title Unity Spencer has chosen for her autobiography is ironic, although not intentionally. She may have been lucky to be an artist, but she had the supreme misfortune to be the daughter of a great one. The children of great artists are on a hiding to nothing. They have the creative genes, often, and may be talented, as is Stanley Spencer’s daughter, but are doomed always to be compared, and negatively.

Self Portrait, oil on canvas, 1954 © Unity Spencer

For Unity it was many degrees worse. Born in 1930, she was effectively abandoned by her parents, her mother to mental illness when she was eight, and her father when she was three to the disastrous and short-lived relationship with the artist Patricia Preece. Unity’s life as related in her book has been cursed by self-doubt, depression, frustration, exploitation, misplaced trust and the mental cruelty of people who should have loved her.

Not least damaging was the careless insensitivity of Stanley. As a teenager she was desperate to be part of his lonely artist’s world and when he was painting his complex allegorical piece Christ delivered to the People she offered to help with the boring bits, painting some of the pebbles. ‘He was very sweet and considered for a moment, and then with a little heave said, ‘I think I’d better do them myself’’. What a devastating dismissal for a vulnerable and lost young woman.

Stanley and Unity Spencer 1959 © Spencer family

Yet through it all she paints, not with conspicuous market success – she would always be compared to Stanley – but because that is what she does. She is an artist. This was a valiant project for her to take on, confronting all those demons and making her struggle so public. Both her parents – Stanley (‘D’) and Hilda (‘M’) – were artists and she adored them unconditionally, but the saddest line in her memoir, almost a throw-away, is that D ‘loved art more than me’.

Stanley and Hilda both came from families of artists. Hilda was the daughter of George Carline, the British painter and illustrator, and she met Stanley at the Slade (where Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Paul Nash and David Bomberg were all fellow students). They were married in 1925 and their first child, Shirin, was born a year later. By the time Hilda arrived in 1930 Spencer was famous – in 1927 his enormous The Resurrection, Cookham was described in The Times as ‘the most important picture painted by any English artist in the present century’, and he was engaged in his gargantuan opus, Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, his homage to the First World War dead of which he had first-hand knowledge.  Unity recalls crawling around at his feet while he was finishing what would be his greatest monument.

But Stanley was in many ways a child, often wise and penetrating but also wilful and selfish. Born in the village of Cookham in Berkshire, he was miserable whenever he was away from it, though Hilda had no love for the place, and Unity had a love-hate relationship with it for most of her life. He had what ought to have been an idyllic family life, a loving wife, two adorable daughters, a home in his beloved birthplace and a successful career (in 1932 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy). Yet he fractured it irreparably by going off with the predatory Preece and marrying her, though she soon returned to her lesbian lover leaving the marriage unconsummated. Yet to Unity, her sister and their mother, ‘he was pure and true, without an atom of falseness’.

Portrait of Stanley Spenser, oil on canvas, c 1957 © Unity Spenser

The truth is probably that the Preece affair damaged Cookham for Unity forever, and what love she had for the village was because that was where Stanley was, even after his death in 1959, and was not grateful when the Cookham house subsequently fell to her. For Stanley had no sense of responsibility other than to his art, so that his daughters were farmed out to different areas of the extended family, to people that in her chronicle seem to be caricatures of the idiotically straight-laced adults from Enid Blyton’s William books. When a year or two after Stanley’s death (the poor muddled M had died of cancer in 1950), scared, alone and confused about love and sex, Unity shacked up with a paranoid egomaniac twenty years her senior, Leslie Lambert, and at thirty-one had a baby, many of those in loco parentis never forgave her.

Through it all she painted. Sometimes it was hard when she found ‘the business of drawing and painting a distressing experience’ and she felt anger which ‘rose like sap as I thought of the cruel irony that my father… could have contributed to such a loss in me. I knew I had talent, and a gift to be an artist…’ So she kept drawing, painting, making prints, her son John keeping her feet on the ground. Her pictures are not her father’s meticulous forms, they are more post-impressionistic, more passionate, and her metaphors are of her own troubled mind rather than his religiosity. Her sense of colour is subtle, her forms are sure but fluid, her depth palpable, and her composition seductive.

A pencil drawing of Stanley, or as he would have called it a ‘kopf’, done two years before his death is sensitive, accurate but full of concentration and life, while the oil for which this was a sketch is a contemplative and touching account; and thirty-five years later another drawing of Clapham High Street is a neat and busy streetscape that tells its story simply. ‘People say to me, “Oh Unity, it must be so relaxing to be an artist”’. Absolute rubbish. Art is hard work. I am lucky to be an artist’.

She taught, mostly boys, which she found at times frustrating but at others fulfilling, but now she continues to look, to admire and to experiment with lithography and etching. In 2001, aged seventy, she went to a weekend organised by the Landmark Forum, a self-help programme, at which she was encouraged to stand up and say what she was giving up: ‘I was giving up being a victim. As I said those words, the depression that dogged me for most of my adult life left me in a flash and I never suffered it again’.

By Simon Tait

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