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Art review: Everywhere is Heaven: Stanley Spencer and Roger Wagner at the Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham

09 February 2024

Jonathan Evens sees Roger Wagner’s work in a Cookham context

© Roger Wagner

Roger Wagner, The Burning Fiery Furnace (1989), mixed media on blue paper, 53.4 x 38cm. Private collection. See gallery for more images

Roger Wagner, The Burning Fiery Furnace (1989), mixed media on blue paper, 53.4 x 38cm. Private collection. See gallery for more images

HOW do you prefer your visions, refined or eccentric? Cool, calm, and collected, or full of movement? These are just some of the contrasts posed by the decision to exhibit the work of Roger Wagner alongside that of Stanley Spencer.

Wagner first saw Spencer’s work in the great 1980 retrospective at the Royal Academy, where he was then a student. He writes that from the moment when he went into the exhibition, his feelings “were deeply conflicted” as, to his student self, here “was an artist who seemed to be doing exactly what I wanted to do, yet who appeared . . . to be going about it in exactly the wrong way”.

Wagner doesn’t explain what it is that he then thought Spencer had been doing wrong. Some of the contrasts noted above suggest some differences in their approaches, but Wagner today wants to emphasise commonalities rather than differences, and the hanging of his works alongside those of Spencer helps to reveal some of these connections.

Both set biblical scenes within contemporary settings as part of their attempt to depict “heaven in ordinarie”, in the famous phrase of George Herbert. Both have their own loci amoeni (idealised places); for Spencer, Cookham was a suburb of heaven, while, for Wagner, a stretch of the Alde in Suffolk, where he had holidays as a child, or Oxford, where he now lives, take on similar significance.

Both have an interest in industry: Spencer, in working people, as in his Shipbuilding on the Clyde series; Wagner, in power stations, as the Babylon in which Christ is crucified. Where they perhaps come closest in particular images is in Spencer’s Christ in the Wilderness series (not included here), and Wagner’s illustrations for the flight of Elijah from Queen Jezebel (which are included here). In Wagner’s image of Elijah Under the Juniper Tree, he has the posture of Elijah echo the branches of the tree and its shadow on the ground. This has resonances with the ways in which, through posture, Spencer integrates his Christ into nature.

The power of human gesture in Spencer’s work — in which an uncomfortable naïvety often highlights the significance of his symbolism — is particularly apparent in Saint Veronica Unmasking Christ and Christ Overturning the Money Changer’s Table (parts of a triptych, of which the third image could not be included here). In these, the upraised arms of Veronica and Christ mirror one another.

This feature also serves to highlight the extent to which Spencer’s biblical scenes are primarily located among human dwellings and often feature crowds, while Wagner’s scenes tend to be landscapes with relatively few characters often distanced from one another. Spencer’s focus is primarily relational, while Wagner’s is more theological. Spencer’s focus is on love and reconciliation; Wagner’s is on transcendence and judgement.

The metaphysical poets are a further point of connection between both poets. Spencer identifies most closely with John Donne (see, for example, his John Donne arriving in Heaven, about which he wrote that the figures included were facing in every direction because “everywhere is heaven”), whose blend of eroticism and spirituality fits well with Spencer’s principal interests.

Wagner connects more with the careful constructs of George Herbert’s verse and with the nature focus of Thomas Traherne. William Blake is also regularly cited in relation to both, and they certainly stand in the visionary tradition for which Blake forms a foundation. Spencer is perhaps closer to Blake than Wagner in the eccentricity of his symbolism and faith, while Wagner is both more measured and more orthodox.

© Roger WagnerRoger Wagner, Abraham and the Angels (1986), oil on canvas, 40.6 x 50.9cm.

The latter point is illustrated by Wagner’s early painting The Harvest is the End of the World and the Reapers are Angels, and the most recent included in this show, Sacred Allegory: Apocalypse (Study). The former is a beautiful and peaceful Pre-Raphaelitesque scene of 19th-century-style reapers with wings in an Oxfordshire cornfield. When first exhibited, the image generated references to Traherne’s fields of corn that “was orient and immortal wheat”, although Traherne’s corn “never should be reaped, nor was ever sown”. In Traherne’s vision, “the dirty devices of this world” can be unlearned in order that all things find their proper places and abide eternally.

In Wagner’s vision and related poem, “A dawn of sifting had that day begun For some would not endure love’s second birth Preferring their own darkness to that sun.” Judgement, release, and binary contrasts also feature in the latter image, in which humanity is shown shackled on one side of a river while standing silhouetted in front of an industrial Babylon. Christ, as a lamb, confronts them, while, on the other side of the river, in which the towers of the New Jerusalem are reflected, he leads the redeemed as a lion. The parallels and contrasts with which Wagner works in this image encompass the theology that he understands the Revelation of St John to reveal.

Ultimately, in terms of look and feel, I think that Wagner is closer to his peers, such as Mark Cazalet and Thomas Denny, with whom and others he is part of a loose grouping, than to either Spencer or Blake, although being part of a clear lineage that includes both. Transcendent trees are a significant feature of the work of Cazalet, Denny, and Wagner, particularly in church contexts; and Wagner’s The Flowering Tree is a particularly wonderful example. These are Edenic trees of life, which often, as here, include reference to the tree on which Christ was crucified.

Such reference and focus may place this group of artists closer to the visions of artists such as Samuel Palmer and David Jones than to those of Spencer and Blake. The synergies and contrasts generated by this fascinating exhibition point, perhaps, towards a further and broader exhibition to document the legacy and lineage of British visionary art from Blake onwards, and encompass those mentioned in this review, among others, including Spencer and Wagner in particular.

“Everywhere is Heaven: Stanley Spencer and Roger Wagner” is at the Stanley Spencer Gallery, 16 High Street, Cookham, Berkshire, until 24 March. Phone 01628 531092. stanleyspencer.org.uk

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