Progression of Art
The Apple Gatherers
With its vivid colors and tone of joie de vivre, the early influence of Post-Impressionism, and more specifically, of Gauguin is overriding in this early work. Although Spencer did not himself choose the subject - for it was specified that students of The Slade were to depict "Apple Gatherers" for their annual drawing competition - it does seem that, as is typical, the artist has infused an imagined scene with details from his own life. Spencer was one of nine children and here there are nine children and a monumental parental couple at the center. It seems clear then that this painting is a family portrait. Indeed, he did himself refer to the painting as "my first ambitious work and I have in it wished to say what life was". As is commonplace for the artist, he expressed within an everyday earthly scene, a pantheistic connection between man, woman, nature, and fertility. Picking fruits from the trees, the viewer is of course reminded of the literal Garden of Eden making thus Spencer's parents and the family that they create comparable to the first romantic union and the fruits that it bore, a metaphor for creation itself.
The central couple, with their arms entwined, metamorphose to become a stable and rooted tree. The image well professes the calm comfort of Spencer's childhood, anchored by the dual influence of his parents. Interestingly though, unity seems to give birth to division, for although the adult couple are bound together, the young girls and young boys turn their back upon one another, as though there is a lack of comprehension and involvement between the male and female characters of the next generation. This blindness in understanding between the sexes looks forward to Spencer's own failed love relationships, and also serves to make the painting seem more religious, recalling scenes of the righteous and unrighteous being divided before God in heaven. As an early work, the painting looks forward to themes that will recur throughout Spencer's career, and although loosely painted in the far ground, shows as well the tight and rigorous attention to detail of which he is capable in the foreground.
Oil on canvas - Tate Galleries, London
This was Spencer's first self-portrait in oils and it is most interesting when viewed in comparison with the very similar full frontal portrait painted 50 years later. Painted when the artist was still young, we can just about see here the marked difference between Spencer's left and right eye. The later portrait clearly shows that the artist has two very different eyes and in this sense makes the profound comment that personalities are multiple and indeed sometimes split. It is the same moody and unpredictable inner psychological drama that the likes of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud will go on to explore.
The portrait is testament both to the artist's skill and to his intense and determined character. As well as looking forward to art of the future, the influence of the Old Masters is incredibly clear in this work; the deep, dark background and the strongly modeled form is reminiscent of a work by Vermeer or Rembrandt. Indeed, Spencer was inspired to paint the portrait after seeing a reproduction of a head of Christ, by Luini, an Italian Renaissance artist. The portrait puts Spencer's face alongside the great and the good in the history of art, while by contrast, hung humbly for years in the front bedroom of Fernlea, the Spencer family home in Cookham-on-Thames.
Oil painting - Estate of Stanley Spencer
Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916
This muddy work, depicted in browns, blacks and ochres, shows men bringing wounded soldiers to a field hospital on stretchers. It was painted after Spencer returned from the war, and recalled his experience working with the field ambulances. Presented from an elevated position, we see four travoys brining in four casualties under blankets on stretchers. There is dynamism in the composition, in the medics' movement and in the way the wounded travel upwards, towards the light of the operating theatre in a clear spiritual reference. The hospital glows in hope of savior against the pessimism of the dark night. In the lower right corner of the frame a man walks away from the scene looking back at the hospital. His bandaged arm is lit up in positivity against the otherwise dark background.
The work came about after Spencer was approached by the British War Memorials Committee to produce an image of a religious service at the front. Accepting the commission, Spencer dismissed the suggested subject matter, opting instead to depict "'God in the bare real things, in a limber wagon, in ravines, in fouling mule lines." The scene shown was actually that of an old Greek church that had been converted into a temporary operating theater. Spencer wrote in a letter to his wife Hilda: "One would have thought that the scene was a sordid one... but I felt there was grandeur... all those wounded men were calm and at peace with everything, so the pain seemed a small thing with them."
Within the naive realism of this work, Spencer set a theme that would endure throughout his career, that of finding the spiritual in the everyday. He wanted this work to be a scene of redemption. As art historian Kitty Hauser said: "The world did not always please Spencer, or bend to his wishes, and in his art he sought to create a painted world that was not subject to the same laws as the real one. Here everything and everyone was redeemed."
Although this work owes something to European modernism, Spencer set himself apart at an early age. Hauser adds: "The simplified forms and bold use of color of his early work have something in common with Gauguin in particular. But Spencer's insistence on the importance of subject-matter separated him from those modernist painters who were his contemporaries in London and Paris."
Oil on Canvas - The Imperial War Museum, London
The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard
This strange, haunting, and convoluted painting was the work that brought fame and critical acclaim to Spencer. The cinematic canvas, measuring 2.7 meters by 5.4 meters, showed the churchyard in his beloved hometown of Cookham-on-Thames in a scene of glorious reawakening. Tombs and coffins spring open as the dead stretch out, yawning from their slumber. The resurrected embrace one another; help each other up and converse in a happy (if only imagined) scene of rebirth. Sheltered by the church's porch is Jesus Christ, cradling three babies, while God stands behind. The artist can be spotted at the pinnacle, in the center middle ground, naked and relaxed, his modesty preserved by a tree as in Eden. In the foreground on a bed of ivy his soon-to-be wife Hilda lies asleep. To the far left, a boat transports the risen across the river to heaven against a golden sky. This is an idyllic scenario where Spencer asserts that even death can be re-imagined.
The work provides an interesting mix of styles - Cubism, Mannerism, and Realism - all worth a mention in a composition so complex that could have been devised by Giotto. Art critic, Keith Bell, writing in 1927, said: "What makes it so astonishing is the combination in it of careful detail with modern freedom in the treatment of form. It is as if a Pre-Raphaelite had shaken hands with a Cubist."
A deeply spiritual and optimistic man, Spencer wanted to make peace with all the contradictions of the world in his own way. As art historian Kitty Hauser said: "His aim was to fuse together in his work things that are everywhere separated: the sacred and the profane, religion and sex, the real and the imaginary, love and dirt, public and private, the young and the old, the self and others, the heavenly and the earthbound." For Spencer, everything is connected, everything holy, and everything one.
Oil on canvas - Tate Galleries, London
The Resurrection of the Soldiers
Known to some as Britain's Sistine Chapel, the Sandham Memorial Chapel contains a set of remarkable murals by Spencer produced in homage to Lieutenant Harry Sandham who was killed in the Battle of Salonika in World War I, at which Spencer himself had served as an orderly. Spencer carried out the work for the Behrends family, and Spencer, who was fascinated with the murals of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, reportedly exclaimed "What Ho, Giotto," when the commission came in. Spencer worked on the chapel for years as a way of processing and remedying the horrors of war, a sort of early version of art therapy. The murals show conflict and injury, as well as the more everyday aspects of warfare; soldiers eating, sleeping and having their injuries tended to.
The centerpiece in the chapel, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, brings together the sacred and the profane in Spencer's unique way. A dull gray and brown Macedonian battlefield landscape takes up the majority of the mural - Spencer would often omit sky or provide a high horizon to contain the work - which is strewn with the dead and dying. Animals lay stricken on the ground and strewn around are the bricks and panels of destruction. However, a closer look reveals that the infantrymen are in the process of being re-born; this is in fact another of Spencer's favored theme - that of resurrection. The soldiers meet, shake hands, and untangle themselves from barbed wire and bandages. The white crosses of Europe's mass cemeteries become crucifixes that the men can carry Christ-like in their salvation. In the middle a man is snuggled between two mules in the centre of the huge work, representing the artist's memory of being comforted by his parents in bed after being woken by a bad dream. Above him, dressed in white, is the figure of Jesus, handing out the crosses.
Spencer was a pacifist, and through this work he is offering love as redemption. As art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon said: "This is not so much a war memorial as an amelioration of war in art. The Resurrection of the Soldiers, showing a throng of bodies pressing up out of their graves, was Spencer's way of digging up the cemeteries of northern France, at least in his imagination, and bringing the young bodies of a dead generation back to life again." In art, he shows that anything is possible, time can be rewound and reality effaced. In the picture, Spencer could live in the imaginary perfect world that he so longed for.
Oil on canvas - Sandham Memorial Chapel, Hampshire, UK
The Dustman (or The Lovers)
This colorful and bustling composition shows Spencer creating a "sex heaven" out of his beloved Cookham. The picture presents characters from his hometown engaged in a bizarre bin collection day scene with deliberate sexual overtones. Heavy, stylized figures fill the canvas. In the centre is the dustman of the work's title looking heavenwards. He is being held in the arms of his wife, who is in a state of sexual ecstasy. To the right stands a white bearded man, representing the artist's father "Pa". All of the figures are surrounded by the trappings of English countryside; elaborate topiary, fruit and vegetables, a white picket fence, and the quaint latticed lead work of the cottage in the background.
Spencer said of the painting that it was like "watching the inside of a sexual experience". As indicated by the work's alternative name, The Lovers, the work intentionally "treads a thin line between spiritual transportation and sexual ecstasy", according to art historian Kitty Hauser. She said: "Spencer came to imagine the 'Last Day' as a day on which all differences would be erased, social, sexual boundaries would be crossed, as we would all dissolve into each other in orgies of sensual bliss." This would be a recurrent motif in the artist's work, explored in other works such as Love on the Moor and Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors (1933).
The legacy of the Renaissance is also clear in this work. As art writer Skye Sherwin said: "Although Spencer is often compared to another English visionary, William Blake, his artistic touchstone was Giotto. His figures have both the volume and stagey otherworldliness of the master's." The painting was intended for the artist's ongoing project, the "Church House", whereby he would unite scenes of sex and devotion. There is however also a real sense of the grotesque to this picture, which aligns it in both style and subject matter to the German Expressionist painters active in Berlin between the wars.
Oil on canvas - Tyne and Wear Museums, Northumbria, UK
Self-portrait with Patricia Preece
This double nude portrait shows Spencer apparently on his knees in front of his lover Patricia Preece, who is lying down in bed. In his pose he submits to her, bringing himself to her eye line, but she does not look at him, instead staring indifferently into the middle distance. The composition is nearly entirely full of the two bodies, a move that was characteristic of Spencer as he tried to evoke a sense of containment within his works - which here comes across as claustrophobic. The technique is one further explored by both Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville. There is also a sense of the domestic present here, an important theme throughout Spencer's work, shown in the soft, silvery sheets, the curlicues of the bed frame, and the decorative floral wallpaper. Preece is rendered in warm fleshy tones, almost foreshadowing photorealism, which do not match her cold expression. The artist's body meanwhile, matches the cool tones of the sheets. His skin is greenish, white and cadaverous, with the only blood flow depicted in his face, perhaps suggesting sexual excitement, or that only his mind (and not his body) is satisfied by this relationship.
The work is autobiographical; Spencer was infatuated with Preece, a woman who it seems was more interested in his financial value than anything else. They spent one night together after their wedding, when he signed over the deeds to his house, before Preece returned to her lover. Their marriage was never consummated. Nevertheless, Spencer said he suffered from a sort of 'religious fervour' for her, and this is one of two double nude portraits that he painted of the two of them. The other, Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife (1937), also known as the Leg of Mutton, was considered too explicit to be exhibited in the artist's lifetime.
Spencer was often referred to as a visionary and a man whose work was deeply psychological. A reading of this work suggests that through his painting, the artist was expressing things he was not aware of at a cognitive level; Spencer's love for Preece was unrequited. As art historian Sister Wendy Beckett, said: "This is an interesting instance of an artist painting what he subliminally knows well, but intellectually doesn't. At some level he knows they can never be mates. His art understands, but he doesn't understand." Or perhaps, as art is Spencer's canvas for making fantasies real, the only place that he can in fact be with Preece, is in his paintings.
Oil on canvas - The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK
Shipbuilding on the Clyde, Bending the Keel Plate
This enormous work measures nearly six meters across and illustrates the process of building a ship. On the far left, four men steer a sheet of steel hanging from chains attached to a crane, while a man hammers a steel sheet in the foreground. As the eye moves across the canvas, other scenes of industry are shown; men work on a red-hot shoe plate which has just emerged from the furnace; two men lever up sheet steel from a pile; a group of men carry a steel girder; a man seated on a bench works on angled pieces of steel. An unpleasant and noisy environment in reality, Spencer creates harmony through the repeated shapes, the smooth surfaces and the carefully choreographed figures.
The work was ambitious; it was nearly abandoned and Spencer was unhappy with the final painting. It was commissioned during the outbreak of WWII by the War Artists Advisory Committee and raises shipyard workers to heroic status as they go about their everyday labor. In this way, the picture is in some ways reminiscent of the Socialist Realism of Russia, which under the Stalinist Government's watchful eye, produced propagandist works deifying the ordinary in a bid to increase national production. Unlike the Social Realists however, Spencer said the work was intended to be liberating, and reportedly found the busy industry of the Glasgow shipyards "homely". In his own irreproducible tone and style, he bestowed an almost religious aspect onto the men as they worked tirelessly at the furnace. The work further shows Spencer's skill at navigating large multi-figure compositions, as well as his love of combining so-called opposites -- dirt and glory, the earthly and the profound, and the everyday and the spiritual.
Oil on Canvas - The Imperial War Museum, London