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Resurrection to redemption

19 June 2015

Unity Spencer, an artist like her father, Stanley, describes a life in search of redemption

IT WAS while D. [her father, Stanley; "M." was her mother, Hilda] was a soldier in Macedonia during the First World War that he suddenly thought of the idea for a resurrection scene. This theme was to be important to him throughout his life, and often helped him recover from loss and difficulty later on.

He didn't talk much about the war, apart from two stories. In the first, he remembered standing on sentry duty one night on the Macedonian Hills. He was small and slim - he was only five foot two, like me - and was standing motionless in the darkness, when some soldiers came up, thinking that they had arrived at a latrine, and began to undo their trousers. It was only when he shouted "Hey!" that they realised their mistake.

D. was very good company, and often told amusing stories: he was a good mimic, and could see humour and the ridiculous in everyday life.

His other war story involved losing his water bottle. It was terribly important to have your water bottle with you at all times in Macedonia, because you might not survive without it. When he dropped his, and it rolled down the hillside, he left his position and scrambled after it. The next thing he knew was a soldier pointing a bayonet at him, shouting: "I have orders to shoot you!" This was always a very vivid memory for him; it must have been terrifying.


MY FATHER fell in love with my mother when he was invited to dinner at my grandmother's home in Hampstead, in about 1922. She was remarkable-looking: beautiful and striking to look at, but not in the Greek-goddess type of way, more interesting than that. D. wrote that he "felt a longing for her", and immediately "saw a life with her".

It was around the time that he was painting The Resurrection, Cookham, which captures the feeling of the new day and sunlight, and M. features in it in several places.

The painting is full of flowers, which are a feminine symbol with suggestions of opening up and giving birth. At one point, someone said of it: "Aren't you rather overdoing the flowers, Stanley?" To which he laughingly replied: "Not all Suttons seeds, or Carters seed-packets would be enough!"

In the middle of The Cookham Resurrection is the arch of the church porch, with M. sitting beneath it, in the dark hollow of the doorway. Behind her, emerging from the darkness, is the face of God, rather indistinct and looking like a newly opened flower - a symbol of femininity.

The fact that he should give God a face as mysterious as an unfurling rose somehow brings together the whole subject of sexuality and love of creation, religious feeling and human love, and the creation of new life. The arch, festooned with flowers, which echoes the shape of the woman's leg to the left, is a mother shape that protects the face of God beneath it. Thus, femaleness is shown to be integral to the connection with God: "God is Love", but Stanley takes this a step further by linking love and sex together.


AS A Christian Scientist, M. needed a Christian Scientist practitioner to attend my birth. So I was born in Downshire Hill, Hampstead, on 24 May 1930. It was only in 1961 that I discovered, in conversation with Mrs Behrend, that I was supposed to be - in fact, should have been - born at Burghclere. Because M. was taken ill ten days before I was due to arrive, however, Mrs Behrend had her driven up to Hampstead to see her practitioner. Back at Burghclere, D. would wrap me in a shawl as a small baby, and take me to the chapel with him, laying me on a chair while he painted. . .


MY EARLIEST memories are of Chapel View, with rooms leading from one into the next. I can remember M. singing me to sleep in a small room with a sash window: I looked out at the evening sky, while she sang "Now the day is over". At the foot of my bed was a door leading into my parents' room, and I could see their bed, which was the brass-bedstead type with a white cover.

I would often remember this scene when I was about ten or 11 years old; and always do, even now, when I hear "Now the day is over". As a child, I would visualise a deep-blue sea and sky, and sailors rising and falling on the waves. There was a glow of sunlight of indefinable day- or night-time, like sunshine in the middle of the night, as well as sunset.

And the figure of my mother was dark against the window, but she was by my bed, and I looked past her to the window. She was a warm, dark colour against a blue evening sky.


M. USED used to give me a bath in a tin tub in front of the fire, in a corner of the cosy dining-room, when it was chilly outside. I had some beautiful little toys in those days: my little metal black-and-white pigs, and a doll in a tiny wicker cradle.

Many years later, in 1955, my father resurrected this scene in his painting Hilda and I at Burghclere. M. is holding me - a baby - and D. is bringing the bath in, a great round tub; my sister, Shirin, is hauling in the rolled-up bath mat.

At first glance, it seems like an idyllic scene of cosy family life, but, to me, it's a sad picture: the symbolic shapes of the big, round, womb-like tub carried in by D., and the long, cylindrical, rolled mat dragged in by my sister, together convey a feeling of loss. The pattern in the carpet is anything but a dream of domestic bliss.

Many of D.'s later paintings were similarly retrospective, and conjure up scenes from his memory. They were like wishful thinking, recreating an imagined past. These could be intensely personal, such as Hilda Welcomed, with M. at its centre, or scenes from the Bible set in Cookham High Street.


DIARY, 1944

Sun. 5th Feb.

There has been a fuss about us not singing in church, so I tried very hard but one does not get any inspiration from that church. We have to go for a walk this evening, why aren't we allowed to have the whole evening free? I'm going to try and read my Bible every evening, it is a nice one, plain black with gold lettering, the cover overlaps a little and the edge of the leaves shine red and gold. Oh bother we have got to get ready.


Tues. 7th

Senior choir sang a lovely thing by Mendlessohn, about the strength of the hills, and praising the Lord. I was looking out of the window and watching the sea on the rocks, and the sun was shining very much. Last night I made up a poem about the sea, here it is:


The Sea

I heard a minotinouse sushing sound

of the sea as it beat on the shore

the waves rode up and fell down again

and seeced to be seen anymore.

Hurrah, I am going to do extra art the same as Jill, I am so pleased.


After Christmas (no date)

On the Sunday we had a discussion on punishment for young children, it was very interesting. I went red because Shirin spoke and I always feel funny for her when she speaks. Mrs Payne, she's a psychologist, said never punish a child when you are angry. Be great friends with your husband for some time before you marry him. When the baby comes you have to sacrifice a lot to it, and you must give it everything it wants until it comes to discretion. E.g. You must feed it regularly.


Sunday Aug. 12th

Mr Payne [the curate a lovely man] gave us a marvellous sermon which he would have liked to have shouted from the rooftops of Epsom. I wish he could. It was all about the atom bomb. For the lesson he read the story of Adam and Eve, how they ate from the tree of knowledge. Then he said that we were to use this atom bomb for good not for evil. He was more forceful than that and you could tell that he felt it very much. I felt very worried because I thought that he meant that the whole invention was wrong. Outside the church Mr Payne came along and Gwen said "Unity is thinking very deeply about your sermon." "Oh is that how she looks when she's thinking deeply?" he looked at me quirkily.


Wednesday Aug. 15th

Today is a marvellous day. This morning at eight we turned on the wireless and THE WAR IS OVER!!!!!!!! Isn't it wonderful. Japan has been a long time in accepting. . . We listened in to the description of the great victory procession, good old English weather, but everyone's spirits were as high as they could go and the King and Queen were in an open carriage. They went to Westminster Abbey to thank God. We went to the parish church, we had a lovely service, I felt like smiling an awful lot but then during one of the hymns I said to myself "I'll never forget this day, God, and I do so mean it" and then I felt my eyes getting red so I looked down for the rest of the hymn, although I felt like looking up. We listened to the King's speech in church. He spoke extremely well and didn't stammer at all.


THE idea of redemption means more to me than resurrection, because I know that I will resurrect at some time; if not fully at the end of this life, then at the end of some other life. But the idea of redemption is about being redeemed now. I can be lifted out of the scene now, if I am willing.

I need to recognise that I am somehow acceptable, warts and all. As I learned, among many other things, in the Marlborough Day Hospital, I needed - as we all do - to learn to love myself, which means accepting myself. Accept myself first, before I can be redeemed. Without acceptance of myself, and how I am, or was, without feelings of forgiveness of myself and others, I cannot be fully redeemed. I love the sound of the word: it's so expressive of its meaning, the "ee" sound seems to rise up out of the mire.

Forgiveness was difficult for me. I have always found it difficult to forgive, not realising that, if I don't, quite apart from the damage I cause others, I'm damaging myself, by falling into the trap of being a victim in the situation. If I can realise, without pointing the finger, or blaming others (and I have to be very careful here that I'm really not holding anything against them), then I free myself up, and I free them up.

But this has taken years and years to realise fully, and be able to take on board and act on. A waste, maybe; but, as they say, nothing is wasted, because all our experiences, especially the painful ones, if we can turn them around, only enrich our lives for ourselves and others, and give us even more compassion and understanding.


MY ANGER and my subsequent depression were a lot to do with the way I felt about myself, because much of the time - most of the time - I really did think I was a bad person. My anger was on account of the injustice I felt around my perception of myself; my perception of how my remaining family seemed to view me; and my uncertainty about how others saw me.

Often, I had no anxiety on that score, but they only had to make a chance remark, and a sharp knife would twist in my gut somewhere. But redemption is a "lifting up out of", and is for everyone with the willingness to be lifted up in this way - not from willpower, but by relinquishing that part of the will that really needs to let go, from the heart.

Somehow, inside myself, over a period of nearly 40 years, I have been endeavouring to redeem myself, with help from the MDH, therapists of various kinds, and so on. It might seem a strange occupation; some may think it self-indulgent, but there is nothing, absolutely nothing self-indulgent about really facing up to yourself. Sometimes, it is literally a matter of life and death; or it is a matter of not just surviving, but actually learning how to live, and understanding what the word living actually means.

How many of us really know, feel, realise, how to live in the present?


Edited extracts from Lucky to be an Artist by Unity Spencer (Unicorn Press, £30 (CT Bookshop £27)).

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