This painting by Stanley Spencer was inspired by a visit made by the artist to a wool shop with his friend Daphne Charlton while staying in rural Gloucestershire at the end of the 1930s. The composition of The Woolshop is sharply divided between the foreground and the background. In the foreground, a female figure with long and loose blonde hair is turning her head; she hugs a skein of wool to her jumper to compare the colours. The woman is accompanied by a male figure, who, with his head bowed, holds up looping skeins toward his companion, which could be seen as creating a kind of halo above her head. The texture of the wool echoes the texture of the woman’s jumper and hair, and the crooked stripes on the man’s jacket. Details of the shop, including shelves laden with wares, dominate the background.
Spencer produced this work following an unsettled period in his life in the wake of the break-up of his turbulent relationship with Patricia Preece, the woman he depicted in Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife 1937 (T01863). In July 1939 Spencer joined the artist and lecturer George Charlton (1899–1979) and his wife Daphne, on a painting holiday. He set up his studio at the White Horse Inn in the remote village of Leonard Stanley, Gloucestershire, which afforded him the first chance to paint large-scale works since leaving his home in Cookham, Berkshire, in 1938.
The Woolshop has its origins in a series of drawings that Spencer made during this period that depict Daphne and the artist on their rambles around the locality. Spencer recalled in notes written in the 1940s: ‘Stonehouse had several of these small local shops such as I remembered years ago in Cookham. The Cookham ones must have emigrated there. The girl [in The Woolshop] is matching some wool against her jumper. To the left one can see some sort of structure on which small rugs or carpets are hung. This stood at the entrance to the shop and one had to turn left or right to enter.’ (Tate Gallery Archive 733.8.79.)
Because it is reminiscent of Cookham the scene is nostalgic but also tinged with sexual tension. The artist explained that when he drew Daphne: ‘I drew ... anticipating a sexual affair ... that is the state I like to draw in’ (quoted in Bell, p.147). Spencer places himself in a subservient role in the painting. His drab, dark-haired and downward-looking figure acts as a foil to the swirling, contrapposto pose of his golden-haired and more brightly dressed companion.
The following year, Spencer produced the landscape Farm Pond, Leonard Stanley 1940 (T05762) and the portrait of Daphne Charlton, Daphne 1940 (N05148). Both of these are naturalistic studies, but with The Woolshop, Spencer weaves his life and friendships into a complex and imaginative composition, a feature of much of his earlier work, albeit here imbued with emotions that are calmer and less charged than before.
Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, London, 1992, reproduced p.161.
Stanley Spencer: A Sort of Heaven, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 1992.
Timothy Hyman and Patrick Wright (eds.), Stanley Spencer, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2001.