Stanley Spencer is best known for his huge paintings that treat British village life in the manner of Renaissance frescoes, such as his masterpiece The Resurrection, Cookham, in which the lives (and deaths) of ordinary folk are tenderly offered up to our gaze.
Author and Spencer fan Sîan Pattendon visited the 2008 Spencer exhibition at Tate Liverpool.
Hello, I’m Siân Pattenden and I’m at Tate Liverpool where there is a Stanley Spencer exhibition, and Stanley is one of my favourite painters: Stanley Spencer was an English painter who operated in the 1920s to 1959 when he died. He was a visionary, someone who just stuck to his own path. He was not influenced by his contemporaries, he painted what he wanted to, and he was prolific. He painted all day and all night if he could. He survived on jam sandwiches in his studio and had barely time for anything else. As a result, we get these epic pictures, where there are lots of people in, influenced by the Renaissance, a lot of it Giotto. He was a big fan of Masaccio. And you can really sense a spirit and a vision and a love in Stanley Spencer which I don’t think that you find in a lot of other painters. Some people call it a naivety, and some people would say there’s a lack of cynicism there, which we modern people like – but I think if you go and look there and find it, you will see so much of human life and death that there is a depth to it that many other painters do lack. This is The Resurrection, Cookham, by Stanley Spencer, which was finished in 1927. What you’ve got, basically, is a churchyard and loads of graves. Something that someone else might have done something very Gothic with, and scary, becomes this joyous place, and you have people coming out of the earth quite literally, being reborn again. One of my favourite bits is that Stanley Spencer will always put himself in the picture. He’s over there, I believe, in a sort of tweedy suit with the trousers, and he’s looking at what probably is Hilda, his first wife. It’s a fantastic image, and it’s very beautiful that – also that Spencer’s not even facing us, he doesn’t want to see us. In the background you have the couples, and very much what Spencer was interested in is the minutiae, and this kind of love of the wife dusting the coat so it didn’t have any horrible cat hairs on it or something before they went out, and making sure that the husband was presentable. And then we have the gravestones and people looking at their own gravestones and the inscriptions. And not with any sort of faint horror that you might find nowadays, but this absolute sort of rapture, that here they are back again. This is also a sort of resurrection of Stanley’s hopes and dreams. He was married, as I say. He had also survived the First World War, which was quite a feat. And there is something about the joy and discovery and constant discovery that he wants to put in his painting. It’s also done in a wonderful V-shape, if you see, that’s very pleasing to the eye – which sort of holds you in and keeps you there. There is also Stanley, very obviously, at the corner here. He said of this tomb, the way that it’s broken is like a book, and that it’s his favourite place to be, because he loved reading so much – as much as he loved writing, as much as he loved painting. There’s also the women talking to each other. They have love letters that they were going to give to their partners, and that’s coming up, and love letters is something that Stanley wrote all his life. Although it’s got lots and lots of figures in it, and lots of stories and lots of narratives, it’s not saying ‘this is a thing about joy, so we’re going to have everyone in yellow, and they’re going to be going “Hurray!”’ It’s something that’s also contemplative. I mean, even Stanley is not looking at the action. He’s contemplating. It’s about everyone working together. I also think that naked person there is Stanley, and I think that’s about the First World War and sort of being stripped of everything and coming back. It could be a soldier coming back and having a look around. But I think as a whole, I think you just don’t find painting like this now. You don’t walk into a gallery and see these epics. You know, you get the idea that he was guided. He wasn’t very happy with this top left corner there, apparently, and went to go and see a Constable exhibition and then came back inspired. But I rather like it, because you don’t know whether those people are leaving, or coming in to watch. I think they’re coming in to watch.