Room 4: Those couple things

Stanley Spencer Contemplation circa 1909

Stanley Spencer
Contemplation circa 1909

Lent by the Stanley Spencer Gallery. © The Estate of Stanley Spencer. All rights reserved DACS 2001

‘It would be better and truer to say “Spencer likes degenerate and deformed-looking people” than to impute me with sniggering and laughing derisively…These people, every one of them, are the beloved of my imaginings.’

In the winter of 1937, with both his marriages now collapsed, Spencer gave himself up to a prolonged meditation and fantasy on the theme of ‘husbands and wives’. The figures in Spencer’s most intimate paintings, The Beatitudes of Love (nos 62–66), are conceived as grotesque and comic characters. These ‘ill-favoured’ figures come as a dramatic surprise. Indeed, the couple in Consciousness 1938 (no.64) seem so wilfully monstrous that one can hardly bear to look at them. The Beatitudes are given a prominent position here because they testify to one of Spencer’s most profound insights.

Figures so hideous as these have usually been confined to satire, as with the repulsive lovers painted by the German artist Otto Dix in the 1920s. Spencer himself used the word ‘degenerate’ of his Beatitude figures - a very loaded term in 1938, at the height of the Nazi campaign against so-called ‘Degenerate Art’ in Germany. Far from being satirical images, however, Spencer’s Beatitudes propose that human love, even of the highest and most transcendent kind, is best articulated not through beauty, but through the grotesque. This room also contains a selection of Spencer’s drawings of the 1940s.

In 1950 the painter Sir Alfred Munnings came across some of the paintings and drawings of the ‘couple’ period and initiated a police prosecution against Spencer for obscenity. On 4 October, the Daily Express reported that the unnamed owner had agreed to destroy these ‘saucy’ pictures and, a little later, that he had ‘put his foot’ through them. These lost works probably include at least one of the Beatitudes. As a result of this intimidating attack, Spencer is known to have hidden the Double Nude Portrait (no.58) under his bed and to have removed the two lavatory drawings (nos 72 and 73) from his scrapbooks. It may also account for the fact that Spencer did not continue to explore this vein of sexual radicalism in his final decade.