A Poet of Sexual Gloom

Stanley Spencer at the Hirshhorn.

“Stanley Spencer: An English Vision”
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Oct. 9, 1997-Jan. 11, 1998
Centro Cultural/Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City
Feb. 19, 1998-May 10, 1998
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
June 8, 1998-Sept. 6, 1998

Click on any image to see an enlargement.

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was the major British painter of the period between the two World Wars and one of the key British painters of the century, but his work is barely known in the United States. Few of his paintings have made their way into American permanent collections–I counted only two in the extensive exhibition now on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. Spencer’s work–figurative, regional, allegorical, religious, and just plain weird–fits uneasily into the isms of 20th-century art. To an American eye, Spencer’s paintings at first glance resemble those of Thomas Hart Benton (born two years before Spencer) in their often monumental and mural-like style, but they are richer, kinkier, and more idiosyncratic than anything Benton did.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, the time is right for Stanley Spencer. Within the space of a year came the successful New York run (last winter) of Pam Gems’ intense biographical play Stanley, the American publication of Kenneth Pople’s comprehensive biography, and an admiring profile by Simon Schama in The New Yorker. The recent attention showered on Spencer’s flesh-obsessed successors, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon (a movie about the latter is due out this winter), makes Spencer seem more mainstream.

I t is Spencer’s small-town Englishness, more remote and more visually unfamiliar than Degas’ Paris or Picasso’s Spain, that makes him difficult to grasp. Born in Cookham, some 30 miles west of London on the River Thames, Spencer had such an idyllic childhood that he spent the rest of his life re-imagining it in paint and seeking (often with disastrous results) to restore it. “I wish all my life I could have been tied to my mother’s apron strings,” he confided. His mother bore 11 children, whom his father tried to support by giving piano lessons and playing the church organ.

Spencer’s artistic talent was recognized early, and he joined an extraordinary generation of students at the Slade School of Art in London. A photograph of a Slade summer outing, circa 1912, shows Spencer surrounded by such gifted contemporaries as Dora Carrington and Mark Gertler (whose erotic snafus were chronicled in the recent film Carrington), as well as by the painter David Bomberg and the poet Isaac Rosenberg. Recognized by the Bloomsbury set, Spencer’s early work–heavily influenced by Gauguin’s neoprimitive paintings of Christs and angels in Breton costumes–was included in one of the critic Roger Fry’s influential group exhibitions, which introduced British audiences to Cézanne and Picasso. Spencer’s magnificent self-portrait of 1914, dark and mysterious as a Rembrandt, was snatched up by an important London collector.

But Spencer’s instincts remained insular and domestic. The better known he became, the more he burrowed into Cookham backyards and bedrooms. The Centurion’s Servant of 1914 evokes the attic of the house where Spencer grew up. It is based on a story of Jesus healing a sick man from afar; Spencer placed himself in the role of the convalescent–still recumbent but already striding from the sheets–and his brothers and sister as praying supplicants. The bed itself, with its red, patterned skirt and luminous china knobs, dominates the picture. “Mentally,” Spencer later observed, “I have been bedridden all my life.”

World War I interrupted this cozy idyll. The undersized Spencer, just 5 feet 2 inches, signed up for the army medical corps. Like Walt Whitman, he found deep satisfaction in nursing soldiers shipped back to England: It was “wonderful,” he said, “to dress nearly every wound in the ward.” Later he served in the same capacity on the Macedonian front and then, as Britain relaxed its standards in its need for cannon fodder, in an infantry battalion.

Unlike so many of his shell-shocked generation, Spencer had a good war, even–as Fiona McCarthy writes in her catalog essay–a “cozy war.” He made a triumphant return to painting, completing the dreamlike Swan Upping at Cookham (1915-1919). Ostensibly concerned with the yearly ritual of tagging the swans along the Thames, the painting is really a sort of Leda and the Swan in reverse. The artist, Spencer once claimed, commits “a kind of spiritual rape on every thing.” This time it’s the men who carry off the swans–or hold them in bondage in a boat–while awaiting the mattresslike bedding that two women dutifully convey. The erotic edge of this stylized composition is confirmed in a little scene on the iron bridge above, where two lovers look yearningly at each other.

Some of that same hallucinatory involvement with animals found its way into Spencer’s Travoys With Wounded Soldiers Arriving at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia (1919). Though Spencer’s famous mural sequence at the Sandham War Chapel near Cookham, bristling with resurrected soldiers, is often considered his masterpiece, Travoys is more moving in its simple and devastating design. Four “travoys” converge on a brightly lit window. The mules peek curiously at the surgical operation in progress, one of the strange and inexplicable rituals of humans at war.

S pencer came late to sexual maturity, and he tried, after his marriage to the painter Hilda Carline in 1925, to make up for lost time. “A man raises a woman’s dress with the same passionate admiration and love for the woman as the priest raises the host to the altar,” he wrote. But as Hilda cared for their two daughters and for a sick relative, Stanley looked elsewhere for those sacred apron strings. He fell in love with another Slade-trained painter called Patricia Preece, whose “high heels and straight walk” gave Stanley, as he cruelly confided to Hilda, “a sexual itch.” Preece lured him into marriage, then refused to consummate it, making clear that she expected to live instead with her female lover. Stanley spent his wedding night forlornly with Hilda and many years afterward longing for a reconciliation. Their eldest daughter, ironically named Unity (Stanley and Hilda were divorced on her seventh birthday), stares accusingly out of the wonderful portrait Hilda, Unity and Dolls (1937). Unity’s piercingly innocent gray eyes contrast with the nightmarish black holes that substitute for the dolls’.

Like many another would-be prophet of sexual glamour (D.H. Lawrence comes to mind), Spencer ended up as a poet of sexual gloom, especially in the two pitiless double portraits of naked Stanley and naked Patricia painted in 1936 and 1937. A raw leg of mutton in the foreground of one of the paintings matches the couple’s tired flesh while a stove burns brightly–Stanley’s repressed desire, perhaps–in the background.

A relief to turn from these pictures, which seem to prefigure our own sexually anxious age, to such comical dreams of resurrection as Spencer’s exuberant The Dustman (1934), in which the Cookham garbage man has returned from the dead and is cradled like a baby in his wife’s arms, while neighborhood children offer gifts of empty cans and other trash. In The Dustman, wrote Spencer, “I try to express something of this wish and need I feel for things to be restored. That is the feeling that makes the children take out the broken tea pot and empty jam tin.”