The Tate Gallery and Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust announced today the joint acquisition of Zacharias and Elizabeth 1913-14, by Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). This major acquisition has been supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Art Collections Fund, the Friends of the Tate Gallery, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson and private benefactors. The work has been acquired by private treaty sale through Sothebys, and was the most important early painting by Spencer still remaining in private hands.
A joint purchase such as this increases access to the national collections, enabling the work to be seen by a wider audience. Zacharias and Elizabeth will be on show at the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, from 3 February 1999. This is the first major acquisition for the Sheffield City Collections for over ten years and the first significant purchase for the newly formed Sheffield Galleries & Museums Trust. Zacharias and Elizabeth had been on long term loan at the Graves Art Gallery since 1989, and has been shown extensively both in historical contexts and in focused displays. The painting will provide a key focus for the redisplay of the Gallery’s important collection of modern British art planned for early summer 1999. The Gallery already has excellent examples of works by many of Spencer’s contemporaries.
The Tate Gallery is the world centre for the study of Stanley Spencer. The Gallery owns twenty-two of his paintings, and has in its Archive all his writings about his work (about three million words). The Tate already owns another work of this early period, The Centurion’s Servant 1914, which like Zacharias and Elizabeth is inspired by text from the Gospel of St Luke. The paintings hung side by side in the Spencer retrospective exhibition held in Washington in 1997 and confirmed the view that these are the two most outstanding works of his early career. The acquisition of Zacharias and Elizabeth thus greatly enhances the national collection’s representation of Spencer’s early work.
The work is one of the small number of major paintings done by Stanley Spencer between leaving the Slade School of Art in 1912, and his enlistment in the army in July 1915. At this time his vision of his native village of Cookham on Thames as a paradise in which Biblical events could take place, was at its purest and most intense. Here, Spencer has taken from St Luke the story of the old priest Zacharias to whom the angel Gabriel appears in the temple and announces that his wife Elizabeth will bear a son who will be John the Baptist. Spencer has set the scene in a garden in Cookham, painting it with hallucinatory force and an intense sense of mystery.
Stanley Spencer is one of the most important English painters of the twentieth century, pursuing through a long career his vision of the sacred in the everyday, in paintings of sometimes epic grandeur and complexity, and covering every aspect of human experience. He is one of a handful of artists always on display in the Tate Gallery, and in the future his work will be shown at the Tate Gallery of British Art at Millbank, as well as at the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art at Bankside where it will be seen in an international context, and from time to time at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool.