THE annual exhibition at the Stanley Spencer Gallery this year opened on Maundy Thursday. It centres on the surprisingly wide variety of patrons who befriended, pensioned and resourced the artist (1891-1959).
I visited the exhibition during Easter Week when the outdoor Stations of the Cross painted by local artists were still set up around the village. On The Causeway, across the flood meadow, the Seventh Station profoundly moved me, stopping me in my tracks.
For it, Nick Kennedy has appropriated an image from Picasso’s Guernica, connecting the figure lying prostrate in the painting in the bombed-out house with Christ’s suffering (Luke 23.33).
The setting is a modern parallel of entertainment staged at the Grand Prix, where the execution takes place “in the pits” of a racing track. Christ’s hands and feet are bolted to a cross formed of two interlocking RSJs. One of the technicians gives the thumbs up for a job well done. Spencer, who himself presented the life of Jesus in the mundane world of this Thameside village, has in Kennedy a rich inheritor.
Many of Spencer’s patrons were formidable in their own right: Gwen Raverat in Cambridge (1885-1957); Sir Edward Marsh, Churchill’s private secretary until 1929; the Slessers and the Behrends, for whom he painted the murals of Sandham Memorial Chapel in 1923; and Major Sir Edward Beddington-Behrens (d.1968), President for the European Movement for which he was later knighted.
© Stanley Spencer Estate/Bridgeman ImagesThe Last Supper, 1920, by Stanley Spencer
Others were locally generous and increasingly tolerant of the strange man in their midst; Michael Westropp, Vicar of Holy Trinity, Cookham, from 1952, who held an art exhibition in his vicarage and church the year before Spencer died; and the 3rd Viscount Astor, who bought Spencer’s childhood home and pensioned him so that he could work untroubled by an artist’s perennial worries about income.
The most striking painting is, as ever, Spencer’s monumental self-portrait at the age of 23 (Tate). It is startlingly more than one-and-a-half life-size, and is painted from below to conceal how diminutive the painter was in life. The pose, which may have been inspired by two works in the National Gallery (Bernardino Luini’s Christ among the Doctors and Botticelli’s Youth with a Red Cap), is confrontational, but beguiling.
In 1903, Marsh inherited compensation paid out by the government for the assassination of his great-grandfather, the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, shot 60 years before he had been born in 1872. How much money had the nation paid to the Prime Minister’s 12 children, and for how long? Maybe would-be assassins of more recent PMs have been visited by conscience and saved the taxpayer an additional burden.
Marsh used his “blood money” to begin collecting 18th- and 19th-century art, and then Modernists. He paid the artist £18 for the self-portrait as soon as it was finished. Years later, when he was on the advisory committee for the last Venice Biennale before the Second World War, he ensured that it was included in the British Pavilion. He bequeathed it to the Tate, where he was a Trustee from 1937.
Marsh had been introduced to Spencer by two other contemporary artists from the Slade, Mark Gertler and John Currie, and both artist and patron seemingly got on well from the outset. Waspishly, Spencer later told Gwen Raverat that Marsh was “a nice man even if he is a fool”.
Spencer came down to London to Marsh’s lodgings in Gray’s Inn. There, he was interrupted by a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. Rupert Brooke found Spencer standing over the bath in front of his self-portrait, apple in hand. Thinking that Spencer was another indigent artist whom Marsh had befriended, the poet immediately proffered the fruit bowl. All Spencer had been called in to do was to varnish the painted surface of the canvas. If Brooke had survived the Trenches, the two men had planned a play for which Spencer was to have designed the scenery.
© Stanley Spencer Estate/Bridgeman ImagesJohn Donne Arriving in Heaven by Stanley Spencer
Marsh was a considerable patron of the arts in the inter-war years but his friendship with Spencer faltered after Macedonia and the trauma that Spencer suffered there in 1917.
Others were only occasional patrons. Richard Martineau persuaded his father, the then Master of the Brewers’ Company, to sit in his “beautiful robes and fishplates bright” for an official portrait. The dull portrait suggests that neither artist nor sitter enjoyed the encounter. Later, Jack Martineau commissioned two religious scenes for the school chapel at Aldenham; The Crucifixion was sold off in 1993 for £1.3 million.
Osmund Frank was Mayor of Maidenhead for four years until 1950, when Spencer painted him as a grandee in fur and 18ct gold chain. “A Frank for Freedom” sounds more like a local councillor’s election campaign slogan than the motto on a family crest. In 1958, Spencer portrayed Mrs Marjorie Metz, who accompanied him the following year to the Palace to collect his knighthood, more generously than she appears in her photograph.
Far from this world of flummery are a couple of domestic pictures owned by Mrs Corble, a former student from the Slade and a knowledgeable collector of medieval sculpture, which “explain” Beryl Cook’s view of the world.
Some visitors may object to the inclusion of the 1935 Sunbathers at Odney, in which five naked men disport themselves in a caged area behind three other sun-worshippers. Spencer intended it as part of a baptismal series for his “Church House”; today the IICSA would be asking questions.
I walked back to the railway station along the High Street, passing Spencer’s childhood home where he died, a large semi opposite the garage. On the edge of the Moor stands the war memorial, where, among the 66 names of the Fallen, I found that of the artist’s brother Sydney, the only man to be decorated. (He had been awarded the MC.) Before he went to die at the Front, he commended his brother’s self-portrait, which “glows with warm, but reserved feeling”.
To misquote a former incumbent of Holy Trinity, Reading, “Slow trains from Paddington.” But the trip is worth it for the soul to go to heaven “by heaven”, as John Donne has it.
“Patron Saints: Collecting Stanley Spencer” is at the Stanley Spencer Gallery, High Street, Cookham, Berkshire, until 4 November, daily 10.30 a.m.-5.30 p.m. Phone 01628 531092.