Sir Stanley Spencer

The Centurion’s Servant

1914

Artist
Sir Stanley Spencer 1891–1959
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1143 x 1143 mm
frame: 1270 x 1270 x 100 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1960
Reference
T00359

Not on display

Display caption

Spencer liked the story in St Luke Chapter 7, in which after marvelling at the centurion's faith, Jesus heals his sick servant without entering the house. Bringing this into his own time and place, Spencer set the scene in the maid's bedroom in the attic of his home, a room which he too never entered. Sometimes he heard strange voices coming from the room which he later discovered was simply the maid talking through the wall to another servant. Thus, the biblical narrative reminded him of experiences in his own life. These also included kneeling in prayer at church, and Cookham villagers praying around the bed of a dying man, a custom his mother had told him about. The youth on the bed has Spencer's own features.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

T00359 THE CENTURION'S SERVANT 1914

Inscr. ‘Stanley Spencer Sept. 1914’ on piece of canvas turned over edge of stretcher t.r.
Canvas, 45×45 (114·5×114·5).
Chantrey Purchase from Lady Pansy Lamb 1960.
Coll: Purchased from the artist by Henry Lamb 1915.
Exh: N.E.A.C., winter 1915 (80); Goupil Gallery, February–March 1927 (83); British Painting since Whistler, National Gallery, 1940 (188); Tate Gallery, November–December 1955 (12, dated 1914–15).
Lit: Connoisseur, XLIV, 1916, p. 52; Wilenski, 1924, pp.17–18, repr. pl.9; Johnson, 1932, p.330; Frank Rutter, Art in My Time, 1933, pp.174–6; James Thrall Soby, Contemporary Painters, New York, 1948, p.124; Collis, 1962, pp.22–3, 42, 46, 49, 191, 243.
Repr: Newton, 1947, pl.4.

Three closely-knit themes have gone into the make-up of this painting. First, there is the Biblical story (St Luke, vii. 1–10) in which the complete faith of the centurion was what chiefly impressed the artist. He planned a companion picture, which was never carried out, showing Christ with the messengers sent by the centurion; they were to have been framed together as a diptych and the composition with the figure on the bed was to have been echoed in the right-hand picture. Secondly, he was influenced by an event related by his mother: Cookham villagers praying round the bed of a dying man. In this connexion, Dudley Tooth wrote to the complier (14 June 1960) confirming this aspect and recalling a letter written to him by the artist in 1938. The sick person suddenly recovered, healed by Christ from a distance: ‘In this picture, one of the people praying half turns his head as if he felt the arrival of this happiness [i.e. healing power]’. Thirdly, these two themes were associated with the maid's bedroom at the artist's own home. As the children were never allowed to enter this room it had gained an aura of mystery in which a heavenly visitation could take place. The maid's bed is shown in the painting and the artist and members of his family were the models.

The painting has also been known as ‘The Bed Picture’. It bears no relation to the Great War, as suggested by Rutter, loc. cit.

A sketch for the composition is in the collection of David Bone.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II

Features

Tate Etc

A visionary projection of the landscape of the soul Jean-Christophe Ammann on Stanley Spencer

‘A call reached me from somewhere across the fields (a call that disappeared almost imperceptibly, like a shooting star, so ...

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