Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959


From the Artist's Studio Sale, Christie's, 1998

Private Collection, USA

Stanley Spencer was born in 1891 in Cookham, the idyllic Berkshire village in which he spent most of his life, and with which his work is intimately linked. Brought up in an erudite, highly talented and musical family, the penultimate of nine children and taught at home by his music teacher father and elder sisters, Spencer studied at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1908. Under the tutelage of the famed Henry Tonks and counting amongst his contemporaries and friends Paul Nash, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Christopher R. W. Nevinson, Spencer quickly rose to prominence and Roger Fry included his work in his seminal Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912. Spencer spent WWI working in the Royal Army Medical Corps, first in Bristol and then in Macedonia and the European Front Line. The horrors he saw during WWI had a profound effect upon Spencer's work, and precipitated some of the acknowledged masterpieces of his career including the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere. Spencer married Hilda Carline in 1925, with whom he had two daughters. Hilda, alongside his second wife, Patricia Preece whom he married in 1937, was of immense importance to Spencer's work, acting as both models and muses. During WWII, Spencer again worked as an Official War Artist, painting the shipbuilders on the Clyde in Glasgow. Spencer was made a Royal Academician in 1950, awarded a CBE in the same year and knighted in 1959. Major retrospective exhibitions were held during his lifetime at the Tate in 1955 and the Arts Council 1954-5. Spencer died in 1959, and the Stanley Spencer Gallery was opened at Cookham three years later.

Arguably the most important British artist of the twentieth-century, Stanley Spencer's unique, deeply original, visionary art combined the picturesque everyday of village life in rural Britain with poetic Biblical scenes and idiosyncratic, shockingly modern sexuality. Prolific in many genres, he is as much remembered for his devastatingly powerful war work as his depictions of bucolic English countryside, for his epic religious tableaux set in Cookham, his portraits of distinguished friends and patrons, the hyper-realistic, proto-Lucien Freud nude portraits of Hilda, Patricia and himself, and his monumental projects including Sandham Memorial Chapel and the Shipbuilding on the Clyde cycle at the IWM. Major retrospective exhibitions have been staged at the Courtauld Art Gallery (2013), Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (2013), Stanley Spencer Gallery (2013, 2014, 2015), York Art Gallery (2009), Laing Art Gallery (2008), Tate Britain (2001), Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. (which toured to Mexico and California) (1997), Arts Council touring exhibition (1981), and the Royal Academy (1980). His work is held by international museums and galleries including Tate, MoMA; New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art; New York, the National Gallery of Canada; Ottowa, the Stedelijk Museum; Amsterdam, and the National Gallery of Canada; Ottowa amongst many others.

Stanley Spencer’s early training at the Slade School of Art under Henry Tonks remained with him throughout his life. An emphasis on life-drawing, careful observation, precision, using the ‘point’ to create a delicate line: these teachings were at the core of Spencer’s practice. A supremely skilled draughtsman, Spencer consistently and constantly drew, observing life around him, and drawing was at the heart of his artistic process. Members of his family, friends and residents of Cookham were his constant models, as was probable with Miss Doreen Harter. The drawing does not seem to relate to any known painted portrait, but the intimacy of the portrayal suggests Spencer knew her well. Even with Spencer’s renown as a portraitist and his graphic skills, Miss Doreen Harter is an exquisite example of Spencer’s craft. She is a striking woman, with a long, oval face, heavy, rounded jaw-line, a short, curly bob, cupid’s bow lips and mismatched eyes. Her asymmetrical face serves to enliven her face, make her real and living. The upper lip of her mouth protrudes just a little more on her left than right; Spencer picks out the slightly drooping eyelid on her left, and the different shapes of the eyes. Spencer applies the pencil with great deftness, barely grazing the surface of the paper to create soft lines and gentle shading – exemplified in her nose and the waves of her hair. The understated simplicity of the drawing belies Spencer’s unsurpassable graphic talent. Arresting features are delicately realised, a quintessential and timeless Stanley Spencer drawing.