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Born to Anna and William Spencer in a quaint Berkshire village called Cookham-On-Thames, Stanley Spencer was the 7th of their 9th children.
His birth village became an important subject that was regularly featured in his artwork. Learn more about that in this extensive biography.
The Spencer family had spent a long time in the area, with his grandfather having built several buildings in the village, including the villa where he was later born. This country house was connected to a separate residence where his cousins resided. His parents raised him per the teachings of the Methodist religion, which in turn came to have a huge impact on his future artwork.
Stanley’s father started as a builder before turning to music and teaching. Stanley was brought up in a homestead filled with creative and highly religious people, who took turns to read out aloud the bible each day. Spencer and Gilbert (his younger brother) didn't attend formal schooling and were instead homeschooled by their elder sisters in conjunction with their father.
This meant that they had enough time in their hands when growing up to draw and also focus on developing their artistic skills. In addition to sketching scenes inspired by the happenings in his village, he also copied illustrations obtained from the vast library owned by his father. Arthur Rackham, an illustrator dealing with children’s books was among his greatest inspirations.
Early Works and Training
Stanley Spencer’s biography wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Dorothy Bailey. Dorothy, a local artist taught Stanley and his younger brother how to utilize watercolors in their artwork. This was before his enrollment at the Technical Institute located in Maidenhead when he was only 15 years.
From here, Stanley then moved to the Slade School of Fine Art, a religious institution based in London a year later. He commuted from his home in Cookham to school every day using the train. The time spent studying at The Slade (1908—1912) helped him to become a master draughtsman.
This was as a result of the many hours that he had spent drawing from life models and studying statues. At the time, his contemporaries included the likes of David Bomberg, Paul Nash, and Dora Carrington, though he never created any long-lasting relationships with them. However, Spencer managed to showcase the 1911 painting, John Donne Arriving in Heaven, and a series of other drawings at a Roger Fry art exhibition.
The exhibition was known as the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition. Following his departure from The Slade, he spent the next 3 years focusing on paintings and drawings which came to be regarded as some of his most productive works.
When reflecting on the works done during this period, he came to term it as his "Golden Age." Spencer also noted that this was not only the period when he got to create his best work, but it was also when he had the most intense vision. He went on to state that "When I left Slade and went back to Cookham, I entered a kind of earthly paradise."
However, the paradise didn’t last long for Spenser as World War I began shortly after. This saw him become a part of the Royal Medical Corps, where he worked near Bristol as an orderly at the Beaufort War Hospital. Exactly a year later, he got transferred to Macedonia before later on becoming an infantry in 1917. He would go on to spend two years as an infantryman battling at the frontline with his peers.
His time at the battlefront would, however, come to an unexpected end when he contracted malaria. Even though he didn’t get a chance to paint during the first world war, he got to do a few paintings later on that was a representation of the time he spent in the military.
Young Spencer experienced numerous psychological changes during the early 1920s. The changes were credited to his new burgeoning romantic life as well as the traumatic experiences he had during his time at the frontline. Although his romantic life began to blossom at a much later age, it fast started to grow in its complexity and intensity.
The information recorded about him at the time indicates that he didn’t lose his virginity until he began his early thirties. He is on record stating that it felt like a miracle the very first time he got to touch a woman. Spencer met Hilda Carline in December of 1919 and then went on to propose to her during a painting holiday spent in Bosnia.
Hilda was from a family of artists. After their first engagement, it’s reported that Spencer broke it off on numerous occasions before finally tying the knot in February 1925 at a ceremony held in Suffolk. Shirin, their first child was born a few months after the wedding. After her birth, the family relocated to Hampshire in an area known as Burghclere.
In 1927, Spencer held an exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in London where he got to showcase The Resurrection, Cookham (1924—1927). This was regarded as some of his best work, which helped him to receive great critical acclaim. Unity, their second child was born in 1930, before the domestic bliss previously enjoyed by the couple came to an end.
It's believed that this was caused by a recurring case of painful kidney stones experienced by Spencer. Some reports have also indicated Hilda became depressed due to the emotional demands placed on her by Spencer. From this time onwards, he began to focus more and more on sex-themed portraits even as his many affairs begun to find their way into the limelight.
Many art critics didn’t appreciate the work produced by Spencer during this particular period. It’s what led to some of his artwork getting rejected by the Royal Academy, despite him being a renowned member. This caused him to tender his resignation from the academy on the premise that his work was being misunderstood.
The landscapes made by Spencer were a major hit with the public. But despite their immense popularity with the art buyers, he didn’t like creating them. He was often heard describing the landscapes as being dead but had no option but to continue making them due to their lucrative nature. He described experiencing a feeling of loneliness whenever he had to paint a landscape, as he would rather have preferred to produce pictures.
When the war ended, he had a hard time trying to get back to the contentment he experienced during his self-described "golden age." It was during this time when his eccentricities continued to become more pronounced. Lacking the domestic comfort, he had when young, he found it hard for him to access his artistic visions. As the days progressed, he became obsessed with creating accurate records of all his artwork. He would create lists of his paintings, making sure to catalog each painting according to its sequences or themes.
The period between the '40s and the '50s saw some of his work start to fall out of favor with some of his fans. Art critics and the public also started to criticize his technique and the form of his work. Despite all this, there are still those who held his work in high regard, which led to his reinstatement as a member of the Royal Academy in 1950.
1959 saw Spencer became knighted as a way of celebrating his rich career and numerous achievements in the art world. Apart from being a celebrated artist, he also spent several hours each day writing in his journals. He had earlier been diagnosed with cancer and died in 1959 while admitted at the Canadian War Memorial Hospital.
The work of Stanley Spencer can be both haunting and charming. Its charm is seen in its optimism while the haunting aspects are seen in his unattainable demands of relationships and attachments. Often, his work is seen to mirror a childlike idealism, which shouldn’t be seen to portray him as an unschooled fellow, having spent a huge chunk of his early days studying at distinguished art schools. Professor Henry Tonks, a famous teacher focusing on drawing once singled out Spencer as being the most original of all students who had studied at The Slade.