Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959


Dorothy Hepworth and Patricia Preece
Private Collection (1984) 
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, and 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 and his second wife, Patricia Preece whom he married in 1937, were 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, and the Stedelijk Museum; Amsterdam, 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 ‘Young Man in a Cap’. This accomplished drawing was produced during the immediate post-war period that saw Spencer focus predominantly on religious scenes, particularly of the doomed final days of the Passion of Christ – tinged with the tragedy of WWI - set in his beloved Cookham, alongside landscapes of Dorset and, whilst on a trip in 1922, of Yugoslavia. The Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere was already at the forefront of Spencer’s mind, with the trip to Yugoslavia designed to refresh Spencer’s understanding of fresco techniques in preparation. ‘Young Man in a Cap’ could feasibly have been produced in anticipation of any of these substantial religious scenes though a specific correlation is unknown, but could equally have been a stand-alone portrait of an acquaintance.

We see the young man from below, looking up past his chin along the sweep of the three-quarter profile and to the underside of the upturned peak of his cap. Even with Spencer’s renown as a portraitist and for his graphic skills, this work is a superb example of Spencer’s craft and his much sought-after early drawings. Spencer describes distinctive features primarily through gentle shading with some delicate lines, the pencil just grazing the surface of the paper. A soft chin and plump cheeks give way to a small, cupid’s bow mouth and a refined nose. The eyes of the young man are particularly beguiling, almost melancholic, looking down with a soft gaze and framed by exactingly depicted eyelashes. Areas of pentimenti – as Spencer experiments with the ear and the positioning of the cap – indicate the considered process behind such accomplishment. Arresting yet subtle, ‘Young Man in a Cap’ showcases Spencer’s gift for revealing beauty and splendor within the everyday world around him.