Earlier this year, Tate Britain organised a carefully considered retrospective of paintings by Stanley Spencer, which was laid out with admirable clarity by the architect Claudio Silvestrin and accompanied by a well-researched catalogue by the exhibition's two selectors, the artist Timothy Hyman and the cultural historian Patrick Wright. This exhibition and catalogue, together with the publication this year of a heavily edited selection of Spencer's largely unpublished writings, by Adrian Glew of the Tate Archive, presented a young public with their first opportunity to assess the work of this complex and prolific artist in the round. It was also a chance to take a cool look at the work of an artist who has been alternately reviled and extolled in this country for his fidelity to the notion of pictorial narrative.
Spencer's last retrospective, at the Royal Academy in 1980, coincided more or less with the emergence of the "International Trans-avantgarde". But his reputation abroad as an English eccentric has grown independently of this, from the time of his prominent inclusion in Jean Clair's exhibition "Les RŽalismes 1919-1939" at the Georges Pompidou Centre in 1981 to the success of a British Council touring exhibition for North America three years ago.
Is it possible, though, to see Spencer in the round? And can we take him whole? The Tate exhibition and catalogue offer different answers to the first of these questions. The principal difficulty is that after his initial successes, as an avant-gardist of the same generation as Wyndham Lewis, C. R. W. Nevinson, William Roberts and Edward Wadsworth, Spencer turned his back on formal experiment in favour of pursuing a vision that rooted in the poetry of the mystics, the illustrations of Samuel Palmer, William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites and what he came to see as the earthly paradise of his native village of Cookham, on the Thames. This early "return to order" led him back to the Italian "primitives" and painters of religious frescoes. Some of his most fruitful years were devoted to the cycle of fresco-like paintings dedicated to his wartime experiences, in the memorial chapel at Burghclere (19-32), which can be appreciated only within the context of the architectural setting for which they were conceived. Similarly, it is virtually impossible, within the span of a compact retrospective, to evoke the historical context for his Clydeside shipbuilding paintings in the second world war, or the scale of these "altarpieces" to communal labour, which together would make up an imposing frieze some 70ft in length. In contrast, Spencer's lifetime project for a purpose-built "Church-House" was successfully pieced together for the exhibition and is described in the catalogue as a computer-generated virtual reality. The building was to have accommodated a series of displays relating to the inhabitants and surroundings of Cookham, Spencer's relationships with women and his mystical experiences.
The catalogue essays and the notes accompanying the reproductions of individual works bring out many of the unresolved strands in Spencer's emotional make-up and go some way towards explaining the contradictory responses his work evokes. They address the Englishness of his art, with its literary character and rootedness in place, and its sometimes unexpected affinities, not only to the mainstream western tradition of painting, but to a north European descriptive tradition, from Cranach to Neue Sachlichkeit, and even to certain Oriental religions and the erotic temple carvings of Khajuraho.
Spencer was inspired by literary or religious themes, yet he was capable of producing some of the most uncompromisingly realistic images in 20th-century art, from the searching self-portraits to the startling nude portraits of the 1930s, culminating in the Tate's "Leg of Mutton" double-nude portrait of 1937. Small wonder that he evoked the criticism of progressive critics such as Roger Fry, who blocked his chances of winning a major public commission in 1932-33 on the grounds that he had "no sense of spatial values or composition or anything except oddness"; in 1950 the president of the Royal Academy, Sir Alfred Munnings, initiated a successful police prosecution against Spencer for obscenity. Even Spencer's supporters, such as the anti-modernist director of the Tate, Sir John Rothenstein, were guilty of focusing on certain aspects of his work in pursuit of a wider agenda.
The strong narrative element in much of Spencer's painting was reflected in his writing, which assumed an increasingly important role in his creative life and was an expression of his growing sense of human and artistic isolation. In the last three decades of his life, he might spend several hours a day working on his autobiography, though "autobiography" is a misnomer if, by that, we mean a structured account of the author's actions and affections. As Spencer put it: "It might be best for me, in order to write an autobiography, to write serial lives of myself; they would all be different because in each case a different aspect would be stressed, but I prefer my present methods of writing all my lives together, treated as one."
The Spencer archive at the Tate comprises several thousand manuscript and typescript pages of letters, memoirs, essays, lists and jottings, totalling some 2 million words that defied the artist's repeated attempts at categorisation and that have remained largely unpublished as a result. From this mountain of material, Glew has extracted and arranged a sampler of some 250 pages, which gives the reader a flavour of the riches to be explored. As we may see from this, Spencer, who had little formal education, was an avid and eclectic reader, who from an early age began to commit his thoughts and emotions to paper - though he never overcame a tendency to prolixity and a lack of discipline, which were the characteristics of a self-taught man. His spelling was poor, his punctuation erratic, but he wrote with vigour, and time and again the reader is pulled up short by an arresting image or phrase. There is plenty of studio talk, especially in the earlier years, combined with personal judgements ranging from his professed inability to understand Turner to his admiration for the "extraordinarily certain and true" drawing of Gaudier-Brzeska, whom he had personally detested. A much more personal tone creeps into his letters to Hilda Carline, whom he met and married in the early 1920s and who was to be the mother of his two daughters. Here, Spencer discovered the true meaning of spiritual and physical love, which he later recalled in an affecting passage, describing when "we were shiny-faced and glitter-eyed and unmindedly tossed the catch-ball of our love to each other. It went from us without a throw and came all over us without a catch... We just make empty handed armless snatches in the air and catch our love anywhere."
Later on, Spencer's writings take a more introspective and self-pitying tone, starting with the period of the breakdown of his marriage to Hilda in the mid-1930s and his disastrous unconsummated marriage to the blowsy impostor Patricia Preece, with whom he naively imagined he might set up a ménage à trois . Just as Freud became fashionable in London and surrealism was taking the English art world by storm, Spencer developed theories of the redemptive value of sex. In the isolation of the cheap lodgings to which he had been condemned by his debts and the fiasco of his second marriage, he set out to prove that "anything that is part of what I am desiring is desirable", and "I think I could live a
happy life if I had all the canvas etc. with me in a bedroom and remained there with a woman all my life, taking an occasional walk". He embarked on the strangely caricatural paintings of "The Beatitudes of Love", those "couple things" depicting, as his brother Gilbert put it, "the triumph of love over every physical disadvantage", of which the accompanying texts form an integral part.
The comradeship of working as a war artist on the Clyde and the initiation of a couple of new female relationships, together with a reconciliation with Hilda in the course of her final illness from cancer, brought Spencer a measure of peace, as did his growing success and public recognition. If the recent retrospective and accompanying publications make it no easier for us to reconcile the warring aspects of his artistic personality, they throw a good deal more light on the sources of his creative imagination. Ultimately, it is difficult not to sympathise with his democratic ideals, the inclusiveness of his art, his affirmation of life ("of angels and dirt"), his search for a metaphysical reality and his positively Whitmanesque pursuit of the unitary "Church of Me".
Henry Meyric Hughes was formerly director of exhibitions, South Bank Centre, and is now an independent curator and writer on art.
Stanley Spencer: Letters and Writings
Editor - Adrian Glew
ISBN - 1 85437 350 1
Publisher - Tate Gallery Publishing
Price - £14.99
Pages - 264