Known for his eccentricity and convention-defying style, Stanley Spencer’s majestic work is beyond definition. The upcoming exhibition, Counterpoint – Stanley Spencer and his Contemporaries, layers the work of the renowned artist with his contemporaries, exposing a historical texture often overlooked amidst aesthetic classifications. Thirty-nine works, seventeen artists, two world wars. Maria Mendes caught up with the exhibition curator Amanda Bradley ahead of the opening.
Marking the 60th anniversary of the artist’s death, this is the first group presentation at Stanley Spencer Gallery in many years. How is this unique context going to challenge the viewer’s experience of Spencer’s body of work?
Spencer was a particularly idiosyncratic artist, with a strong artistic identity. In geopolitical terms his lifetime was one of the most difficult periods in modern history – two world wars and huge political, economic and social change. These were events shared with other artists and the aim of the exhibition is to assess how this group reacted to and expressed their shared experiences. We have some spectacular loans from the Ingram Collection of Modern British art, including works by Gertler, Bomberg, Nevinson and Roberts. Some powerful similarities between them shine through, but all of them have a unique vision.
The seven thematic strands that map the display seem to create an axis of time, a sense of chronology. If you were to add an eight strand, ‘The Now’, which artists do you believe would better complement Spencer’s collection?
Spencer’s vision and self-expression were and are unique. He was way ahead of his time with many of the themes he explored in his work. He has been cast as an eccentric in some accounts, immortalised by photographs of him pushing his pram around Cookham, but he was so much more than that. He was an intellectual, widely read, and also a knowledgeable and able musician. I think the one living artist who bears comparison is Grayson Perry, who works in a figurative tradition, and who addresses complex and often personal themes in a naïve idiom, which belies the complexity of thought being expressed.
There is no doubt that the time as a medical orderly and then as a combatant left a deep imprint on the artist’s conscience and therefore on all of his subsequent work. How do you imagine he would approach the current conflict where war is not so much of the flesh as it is of the mind?
Spencer’s work is all about the mind. He cared deeply about human connections and the human condition. A lot of his work is autobiographical, expressing his often complex life. He famously married twice; he remained devoted to his first wife, Hilda throughout his life, continuing to write to her after her death. His second marriage was doomed from the start and ultimately the cause of great financial constraint. So yes, I believe Spencer would be particularly well qualified to paint psychological warfare.
Some of Spencer’s extraordinary pieces have been finding their way into public view after decades spent hidden in private collections. What else is there to (re)discover?
There are always opportunities to rediscover works of art – just look at the Caravaggio recently found in an attic in Toulouse. Quite often works of art are put away by later generations who find them not to their taste, or who have no space. More often than not, in the case of Spencer, owners simply can’t bear to part with them. Spencer often forged close friendships with his patrons so ownership of works of art went beyond the usual commercial contract. I can think of a number of gems tucked away that may one day see the light of day.
If you were to introduce Stanley Spencer to the world for the very first time, which of his works would you choose to begin with?
If allowed (as even though it’s one entity it contains more than one canvas) I’d choose Sandham Memorial Chapel. It is decorated with Spencer’s murals describing his wartime experience. The space is intimate and yet overwhelming. I must confess I shed a tear when I first visited. Otherwise I’d choose his 1914 Self Portrait (Tate), a powerful, confrontational piece of self-representation, which is incredibly moving in its confident promise. Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors (Stanley Spencer Gallery) was painted mid-career and is a wonderful example of one of his favourite themes – religion in Cookham. ‘Granny Tubb’ is shown on her knees in Cookham High Street, convinced that the apocalypse is nigh. She is accompanied by celestial beings and also figures who lived in the village. Cookham was heaven on earth for Spencer and I find this picture to be the ultimate expression of that sentiment.
The title of the exhibition is Counterpoint – Stanley Spencer and his Contemporaries. Counterpoint is known in the music world as the art of combining melodies, creating an harmonious whole that has none of them losing their own individual character. How did the thought of orchestrating this particular composition first come to be?
I had always thought that the Ingram Collection would be an ideal partner for the Spencer Gallery. They have an exceptional collection of Modern British art, and so it was very easy to choose works that complement the Spencer Gallery’s own collection. It has been very exciting to create an exhibition with works of art that are exceptional in their own right, but which also chime with each other historically and aesthetically.
CCounterpoint – Stanley Spencer and his Contemporaries will take place from 28 March – 3 November 2019 at Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham. For more information, please visit: https://stanleyspencer.org.uk/
Words by Maria Mendes.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and app editions, subscribe here to receive 6 journals a year from The London Magazine, as well as full access to our extensive digital archive.