Anyone who saw Pam Gems's play Stanley, and recalls Anthony Sher's virtuoso performance, will know that Stanley Spencer was a cross between an archetypal English eccentric and a holy fool - with a definite touch of the idiot savant about him. It is doubtful whether an admittedly compelling stage play would ever begin to put across Spencer's artistic qualities since, while in life oddness was all, in paint he was more than odd. Obsessive, personal, mystical, childish, child-like, and yet undoubtedly touched with genius, a kind of 20th-century Blake, whose innocence combined with his experiences to produce some of the most original English painting of the modern era.
"Art is 90 per cent living," said Spencer to his brother Gilbert, also a successful, although much more conventional, artist. Gilbert's memoir of life with Stanley and of the whole family's existence in the Berkshire village of Cookham is a useful verbal counterpoint to the visual extravagance which Stanley brought to that unsuspecting part of rural England.
Spencer was, with his small stature (barely five feet), workhouse pudding-basin haircut, wheeling his painting gear around in a pram, an endearing man-child or child-man, according to one's view of him. He could often let his naivety slide into sheer silliness, particularly in sexual matters but, no matter how over the top it could sound, it was always a clearly worded expression of an original if quirky mind. Even before the age of herpes and Aids his view that "If you kiss a whore with love you won't get the pox" was manifestly dotty. Yet it perfectly combines his perennial sexual obsessiveness with his oddly lovable, puppyish innocence.
Throughout his life, MacCarthy makes clear, he combined this apparent lack of sophistication with the utmost professional skill and, indeed, courage. In the first world war, from which came his earliest major works, based on his experiences as a medical orderly in Macedonia, he saw and experienced all the traditional horrors of that time. He transmuted them into pictures like Travoys with Wounded Soldiers Arriving at a Dressing Station which still dominates the permanent collection at the Imperial War Museum. Gilbert's memoir describes how Stanley, on reconnaissance with an officer, advised him not to shoot at a nearby Bulgar machine-gun post. Ignoring this wise counsel the officer opened fire and was badly wounded in return, whereupon Stanley dragged him back to cover. When he recounted this episode to the renowned patron and collector, the senior civil servant Sir Edward Marsh, Marsh asked him "Well, Stanley, would you like an MM?" When Spencer was a student at the Slade, his peers, including Edward Wadsworth and C.R.W. Nevinson called him "Cookham" because he eschewed their Bohemian habits and came up to Paddington every morning on the 8.50 train and returned every day on the 5.08. Because of his tiny frame they shamefully bullied him and once hung him upside down in a sack.
Yet that fearsomely influential teacher at the Slade, Professor Tonks, got him a scholarship, which was then denied him on the grounds of his general academic incompetence. Made to sit an exam at University College he proclaimed that Wycliffe "instigated Bibles into England" and that Madras was a watering place in southern Italy. Nonetheless Tonks did battle with the provost and, eventually, the scholarship was reinstated.
The mocking "Cookham" nickname was bestowed by Spencer's peers at the Slade to indicate his being such an apparently backward and unsophisticated home body. Yet, as they discovered, it turned out to be prophetic. Some painters, like Lowry in Salford or Cezanne in Provence, obsessively paint their home ground because it nurtures and inspires them. For Spencer this was also true, but not enough. For him Cookham became the background also for his religious paintings. Pictures like Christ's Entry into Jerusalem, The Betrayal, even The Resurrection are firmly located, partly and sometimes wholly, in his beloved Cookham. It sounds as if Spencer, so naive in life, is actually a naive painter but he is no more naive an artist than any old master setting a saint down on a Tuscan hillside or in an Umbrian forest. He is simply, in his own inimitable way, following the tradition of the centuries. When he went to war he took with him small volumes of reproductions of Fra Angelico, Giotto and Masaccio.
Their inspiration never left him and the Macedonian landscape joined that of Cookham in his transformation of old themes. It is an irony that Spencer, who, for all his originality, was in so many ways a traditional and in terms of sheer technical skill, a natural academician in the best sense, should have been so badly treated by the Royal Academy. In 1935, one of his finest pictures, St Francis and the Birds, was rejected by the hanging committee. Spencer, understandably, promptly resigned.
He rejoined only in 1950 when the then president, Sir Gerald Kelly, persuaded him back. This displeased that malign, Picasso-hating, past president, the awful Sir Alfred Munnings, who got hold of one of Spencer's erotic paintings and several of his explicit erotic drawings by masquerading as a potential purchaser. Munnings then, like some Stalinist secret policeman, had the works photographed, showed the photographs to the police and did his best to get the director of public prosecutions to take action against Spencer for obscenity. Happily Sir Gerald rushed to see the DPP and scotched Munnings's plan. To those who have followed the recent internal fuss at the RA involving the "Sensation" exhibition, it is worth quoting the measured words of the RA's minute of October 31 1950: "The president read extracts from newspapers dated between 1st and 21st October showing that Sir Alfred Munnings had sought to defame the character and art of Mr Stanley Spencer by showing certain unexhibited paintings to members of a London club and the police. It was agreed that it was highly reprehensible that a Member of the Academy should attack another in this way, and that the President would personally assure Mr Spencer of the Council's regret for the occurrence and their readiness to assist him if further attacks of the kind were made on him."
Fiona MacCarthy's book is published to coincide with the British Council's sponsored exhibition of some 64 Spencer paintings in Washington, Mexico City and San Francisco. As usual with Yale the quality of the colour reproduction is high and the captions essential reading. They make frequent and often copious use of Spencer's own writings, edited and selected by Judith Collins. The book is, however, no mere catalogue of the exhibition. MacCarthy's text is well illustrated with ancillary works and colour reproductions of paintings which, for obvious reasons, could not travel, such as the Sandham Memorial Chapel murals. These were commissioned by the sister and brother-in-law of an army officer who had also served in Macedonia and had died there. They were executed for a purpose-built chapel in Burghclere in Hampshire some 36 miles from Cookham and constitute not only a unique monument to a single war casualty but also an essential and majestic part of Spencer's oeuvre, without which one cannot understand his art. The sympathetic feeling for men at war; the minutiae of military equipment; the handling of huge numbers of people combined with the fresh characterisations of individual men and women; the epic sense of scale and the ultra-sophisticated feeling for perspective - all these coalesce into a virtuoso performance which would not have discredited his idol Giotto. They foreshadow and pave the way for the equally epic construction of the massive shipbuilding on the Clyde paintings which he was commissioned to do during the second world war by Kenneth Clark's War Artists Committee and which still, more than half a century later, overwhelm visitors to the Imperial War Museum in London.
Both his visual and his verbal talents - he was a compulsive, almost graphomaniacal writer - are stream of consciousness. As MacCarthy shrewdly observes: "Event crowds in upon event, unconnected yet related. These mouvemente panoramas are touchingly human yet unnervingly peculiar. They have a grand mysterious inner logic of their own." She goes on to point out that "His spiritual and personal struggles were in some ways as painful as Van Gogh's", and that he was a near contemporary of Eric Gill (whose exemplary biographer MacCarthy is) and D.H. Lawrence. Spencer too "was committed to exploring the relationship between the personal and cosmic, the spiritual and the erotic, crossing permitted boundaries of sexual explicitness".
Certainly the erotic and the religious are as closely intertwined in Spencer as they were in Gill, although Spencer was more ambitious and liked to operate on a much grander scale. He wanted to create "the Church House", a larger version of the chapel at Burghclere, devoted to the erotic and the divine. His beloved Cookham was to figure in this unrealised and sumptuously ambitious scheme as "a village in heaven, in which the villagers, reborn as uninhibited and sexually desirable, would make love in the street".
Sometimes Spencer's sexual feelings were what Norman Douglas once called Paneros. For Stanley practically everything had its erotic undertones, overtones and, indeed, components. Equally often his eroticism was highly specific. While living with his first wife, Hilda Carline, and their two daughters Stanley became sexually obsessed by Patricia Preece, a lesbian who lived with her partner Dorothy Hepworth. This did not prevent her bewitching Stanley into a state of painfully abject sexual subjugation. He and Hilda divorced and Stanley married Preece who took Hepworth on the honeymoon and, when Stanley claimed his conjugal rights, retreated into Hepworth's bedroom. Understandably there are few more enigmatic or painful nude pictures than the two Spencer painted of himself and Preece. Their detached physical proximity is poignantly sad and the later version of 1937 is as far from the lineaments of gratified desire as can be imagined. This is the so-called "Leg of Mutton" painting, whose piece of cold, very dead sheep in the foreground and burning oil stove in the background point to the arctic, hopeless wastes of human flesh in between. Spencer, ever the artist, wrote: "There is in it male, female and animal flesh. The remarkable thing is that to me it is absorbing and restful to look at."
These and other nude paintings by Spencer show not merely his erotic obsessions but his extraordinary feeling for flesh in non-erotic terms. There is the same simultaneous, ferociously avid feeling for it, and the clinically detached observation and rendering of it, that we find later in the work of Lucian Freud. Certainly there is nothing to choose between those two artists when it comes to technical mastery.
One suspects that for Spencer all his amatory experiences were as deep, as spontaneous and as highly verbalised and explained as any long-term psychoanalysis, whose free association and stream of consciousness is so well suited to his self-revelatory and still almost magically appealing oeuvre. While Keith Bell's 1992 catalogue of the paintings remains the essential companion to Spencer, MacCarthy's book is a scholarly, beautifully illustrated and admirably succinct introductory survey of the life and work of this great English painter and a model of its kind.
Tom Rosenthal is chairman, Institute of Contemporary Arts, and author of The Art of Jack B. Yeats.
Stanley Spencer: An English Vision
Author - Fiona MacCarthy
ISBN - 0 300 07337 2
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 194