Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

Provenance

The Artist, from whom acquired by
J.L. Behrend, circa 1920
Sale; Christie's, 4 December 1973, lot 165
With New Grafton Gallery, where acquired by 
Sir Andrew Carnwath, thence by descent

Exhibitions

Grosvenor House, 1921
Contemporary Art Society, Paintings and Drawings, 1923, cat.no.81 (as The Mills, Stourpaine)
London, The Goupil Gallery, The Resurrection and Other Works by Stanley Spencer, 1927, cat.no.46 (as The Mills, Stourpaine)
London, Leger Gallery, The Early Work of Stanley Spencer, March 1939, cat.no.14
London, Leicester Galleries, The J.L. Behrend Collection, 1962, cat.no.43
London, Arthur Tooth & Sons, British Painting 1900-50, 1967, cat.no.9
London, New Grafton Gallery, English Painting 1900-1940, 24 October 1974, cat.no.28 (ill.b&w)
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Stanley Spencer, R.A., 20 September-14 November 1980, cat.no.50 (ill.b&w)
Johannesburg, British Council (catalogue untraced)

Literature

R.H.W Wilenski, Stanley Spencer, Ernest Benn 1924, pl.12
E. Rothenstein, Stanley Spencer, Phaidon Press, Oxford and London, 1945, p.21, pl.11
Gilbert Spencer, Stanley Spencer, Gollancz, London, 1961, p.155-6
Kenneth Pople, Stanley Spencer; A Biography, Collins, London, 1991, p.203
Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, Phaidon Press Ltd., London, 1992, p.402, cat.no.62 (col.ill. p.244-245)

Stanley Spencer painted 'The Mill' in the summer of 1920 in Stourpaine, Dorset, whilst staying with his brother Gilbert Spencer and the artist Henry Lamb on a painting expedition. Henry Lamb was a significant figure in Spencer's life, introducing him to John Louis and Mary Behrend, the patrons of Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere and life-long supporters and benefactors of Spencer's work. During the summer of 1920, Spencer painted nine landscape oils of which the Behrends purchased three having seen them drying in Henry Lamb's cottage in Stourpaine, whilst Sir William Rothenstein and Mrs Harold Goring purchased one apiece. Spencer and Lamb, both Official War Artists, were in the midst of painting major war works, and the landscape works provided some relief and a different creative outlet. The nine oil paintings that Spencer completed this summer differed from one another in both subject and technique - this was a period of experimentation during which "Spencer was also forced to reconsider his attitude towards landscape work and its place in his career" (K. Bell, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings (London, 1992), p. 250).

‘The Mill, Durweston’ is accompanied by a well documented Spencer anecdote, recalled by Gilbert who writes 'An example of my brother's courage arose while he was painting Durweston Mill. Nearby, two of the "gentry" were shooting. We had grown to associate "gentry" with barbed wire, policemen, and charges of trespassing at Cookham, and at Durweston feudalism seemed even more powerful. Stan saw these sportsmen shoot a moorhen in the water, and this roused him. He introduced himself disarmingly enough with "That was a good shot" or something of the kind, and before they could extricate themselves from this disguised pleasantry, he demanded to know why they had done it, and vigorously abused their manliness. His manner when annoyed could be quite fierce..." (G. Spencer, Stanley Spencer (London, 1961), p.155-6).

An antidote towards the gravity of his Biblical war paintings, these landscape paintings were to form a significant part of Spencer's output and the most financially successful genre. ‘The Mill, Durweston’ is a particularly delicate and subtle painting from this group created in 1920. An exquisite palette of pastels, perhaps softer than Spencer’s usual choice, suggests a certain summer or early autumn light, the freshness of balmy early mornings in the countryside. Spencer principally uses duck-egg greens, lavender purples, rosey pinks and dusty browns, understated warm, gentle tones. Spencer’s meticulous approach to landscape painting is palpable in the treatment of the surface. Across the canvas, each individual element is realised with immense detail and through a huge variety of brushstrokes ranging from minute touches to looser areas. This sensitively textured, accomplished paintwork combined with the beautiful tonal palette makes ‘The Mill, Durweston’ amongst Spencer’s most successful early landscapes.

Although ostensibly falling within Spencer’s landscape paintings, ‘The Mill, Durweston’ is far from a traditional landscape painting as with the other works of the rolling Dorset countryside he produced during the summer of 1920. Instead, Spencer depicts a working mill, with the sluice gates across the river foregrounded into prominence. In his biography on his brother, Gilbert Spencer described how Stanley “vented his irritation” at his slowness painting landscapes by “deliberately choosing a nasty unhomely view” (G. Spencer, p. 155). Spencer’s all-encompassing view of the countryside, depicting labour and industry amidst the bucolic idyll, reveals an artist deeply rooted in rural life with all its facets rather than a curious outsider charmed by a rural retreat. Spencer’s grandfather, Julius Spencer, was the master builder of Cookham, and built homes for his sons, and in which his grandchildren including Stanley spent their childhoods. In later life Spencer reminisced about how he often played in the builder’s yard (S. Parissien, ‘Stanley Spencer’s Architecture’ in ‘Stanley Spencer and the English Garden’ (London, 2011), p. 87). Moreover, Spencer himself began his training at the Maidenhead Technical Institute, and, from there, moved on to the Slade School of Fine Art.

It is evident in ‘The Mill, Durweston’ that Spencer is fascinated by construction – construction of the mill and construction of the painting’s composition. The close-cropped angle of the painting focuses the picture entirely on the mill, with just a glimpse of blue sky behind. Spencer picks out delicate details of brickwork, drain pipes, the open door and the rusted metal work of the sluice gates. The strongly directional fall of the light casts angular shadows across the mill, augmenting the geometrical interplay of diagonal vistas. Motifs are repeated across the canvas in the two levels of the roof, the cluster of windows and most obviously in the machinery of the sluice gate stretching across the bottom of the painting. The viewpoint has a subtle yet certain modernity, a snapshot-like quality, particularly as the viewer appears to be positioned in the river. Speaking of his landscapes, Spencer explained: “In all of those landscapes I have more or less only been a camera: a camera that had some inkling of what I liked, and which arranged everything in about the point of view and angle I should want..” (J. Nesbitt, p. 10). The delicacy of the colour palette and the highly detailed brushwork is tempered by the striking and unusual composition.

‘The Mill, Durweston’ has a curious emptiness to it – supposedly a site of human industry, the work is heavy with absence. Writing about Spencer’s landscapes, Judith Nesbitt has argued that “Places to Spencer were ‘uninhabited heavens’ and the loneliness he describes in standing like a post, painting landscapes, is communicated in the best of them, which have a chilling air of abandon” (J. Nesbitt, p. 10). As with the work of his contemporary Paul Nash, Spencer suggests human presence – the door left ajar, the darkened windows – and through this method instead underscores the palpable absence. The atmosphere is one of quiet contemplation, despite the industrial scene; Spencer creates a landscape of evocative stillness and delight in the English countryside.