Illustrated companion

There is no doubt that Stanley Spencer's marriage to Hilda Carline in 1925 aroused in him powerful sexual instincts, and that he very soon formed a view of sex that was both highly mystical and very down-to-earth: 'the first time I deliberately touched a woman, here was a miracle I could perform' he later wrote.

'Double Nude Portrait' belongs to a group of seven nude or semi-nude portraits done between 1933 and 1936 to which Spencer clearly attached considerable importance. They are listed as a group and discussed by the artist in a document now in the Tate Gallery Archive. One of the paintings is a half-length of the artist's first wife Hilda Carline, two are double portraits of the artist with his second wife Patricia Preece and the other four are of Patricia Preece alone. They are interesting not least because they were, according to the artist, painted from life rather than from imagination as was his normally invariable practice when painting figure subjects. His account of them begins; 'I wish my shows could include the nudes (oil) that I have done. I think to have them interspersed in a show would convey the range of my work ... The nudes are completely different from the figure pictures.' In a note dated September 1955 he writes 'I have now brought back home the big double nude ... a remarkable thing. There is in it male, female and animal flesh.

'The remarkable thing is that to me it is absorbing and restful to look at. There is none of my usual imagination in this thing: it is direct from nature ... It was done with zest and my direct painting capacity I had.'

The painting was done at Lindhurst, Spencer's house at Cookham where he lived from 1932-8. The stove in the background is a Valor oil heater and Spencer referred to the joint of meat in the foreground as 'the uncooked supper'.

The sexual frankness and unblinking realism of the work is carried by the intense seriousness of its mood, Spencer contemplating, almost as if at an altar, the body of his wife. It is also extremely beautifully painted, as an internal note on the picture, prepared for the Tate Gallery's Trustees at the time of its acquisition conveys: 'among other things it is a varied anthology of flesh textures showing skill, tenderness and objectivity. The vividness of Spencer's perception is accentuated by the contrast between the human flesh and the raw joint of mutton.' This note also points out the originality of the composition '... with the picture edge slicing off the figures in such a way as to heighten for the spectator the immediacy of their presence.' It is this device which contributes largely to the almost uncomfortable sensation of intimacy which can be experienced in front of this painting.

Towards the end of his life Spencer conceived the idea of a half-secular, half-sacred temple, which he called Church-House, for the exhibition of his paintings. In it he wrote '... There would be a room of nudes from life ... they balance a need in the whole cosmical conception'. He also wrote: 'I wanted in the nude section to show the analogy between the Church and the prescribed nature of worship, and human love'. This seems to reinforce the reading that in this painting he portrays himself in an act of worship.

Two other striking self-portraits by Spencer are in the Tate Gallery. One of 1914 shows him as a young man [N06188], the other was painted shortly before his death in 1959 [T03335].

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.138