THE ARTS: The Miracle of Stanley Spencer's Cookham ; Some of the Greatest Art of the 20th Century Was Created in a Small Berkshire Village. as a Major Retrospective Opens at Tate Britain, Michael Glover Profiles the Eccentric Giant of British Painting
Glover, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
When Stanley Spencer died of cancer in 1959, his reputation was at its nadir. If you had trawled the Tate Gallery for his paintings in the Sixties you would have found them on the stairs which led down to the public lavatories. Can any worse fate befall a painter than that? Today, 40 years on, the hundred or so Spencers in this large retrospective at Tate Britain occupy six large galleries. Why such neglect then? Why such attention now?
Spencer has been dismissed for all sorts of reasons. To some, he seemed to epitomise the village eccentric. In this reading, he was nothing more than an under-educated, nostalgic ruralist, the quaint visual chronicler of Cookham, the village in Berkshire where he was born in 1891. Critics dismissed his art for slightly different reasons. Roger Fry, an early champion who later went on to loathe his work by calling it "muck", denigrated it for lacking "significant form" - so unlike those treasured and highly formally significant Bloomsbury people. In an age of Modernism, Spencer was a protocol in an age of acute religious scepticism; he seemed to be obsessed by religious imagery - think of the number of times he painted versions of the Resurrection. In the Sixties, art schools thought him unpainterly - and the painted surfaces of the late works can indeed seem thin and dry, almost illustrative. There is no evidence of any love of the sheer physicality of paint.
Furthermore, he lacked a sense of composition. And, what is more, he had little colour. In short, in the modern age he had never quite managed to be modern enough. Now the wheel of fortune has turned again. He's back in vogue. Why? And who exactly was he, anyway?
Spencer was born into a large, respectable, and somewhat inward- looking middle-class family with wide musical and literary interests. Taught by his sisters, he was well read. He could play Bach on the piano.His grandfather had built "Fernlea", the house he grew up in. His early years were undoubtedly a kind of rural idyll. In 1912 he went to the Slade, commuting back to Cookham each evening.
The first part of the show gives us the pre-Great War Spencer, his very own age of innocence. Biblical subjects are present in abundance - as is the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, Giotto, and late-Victorian medievalism. One of the best paintings in this section is John Donne arriving in Heaven (1911). A group of blockish figures, led by the great Jacobean poet and sermoniser Donne, wander across Widbrook Common (near Cookham, needless to say), palms squeezed together prayerfully. Perspectives are flattened, forms simplified, the colours bloodless. Shadows fall like doomed menhirs. Roger Fry included this picture in his 1910 show of Post- Impressionist art. Rigorous, if not austere, it lacks the exuberance of so much of Spencer's later canvases. Most striking of his earliest pictures is a self-portrait - one of many - of 1914, painted when he was just 23. Exactly twice life- size, the head looms dramatically out from the canvas. It's almost as arresting as a Caravaggio. Almost.
Spencer joined the war effort in 1915, serving in Macedonia. When he returned in 1918, he re-started work on a painting called Swan Upping. He found it extraordinarily difficult to paint the water, something that he had never experienced before. "Oh no," he said, "It is not proper or sensible to expect to paint after such experience." The war had simply changed everything.
The turbulence that began with the war was to continue, on and off, for the rest of his life. During the Twenties and Thirties he moved about a good deal - to Bourne End, to Hampstead, and back to Cookham. He married Hilda Carline in 1925 - some of the best works in this show are pencil drawings of Hilda executed in 1931. His largest single free-standing work - the massive Resurrection, Cookham (1924-7) - was painted in Henry Lamb's studio in Hampstead, on the largest canvas that the room could accommodate. …