Room 5: The church of me

Stanley Spencer The Foxes Have Holes 1939

Stanley Spencer
The Foxes Have Holes 1939

Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia
© Estate of Stanley Spencer. All rights resrved DACS 2001

‘During the war, when I contemplated the horror of my life and the lives of those around me, I felt that the only way to end the ghastly experience would be if everyone suddenly decided to indulge in every degree and form of sexual love, carnal love, bestiality, anything you like to call it.’

While painting his murals for the Oratory of All Souls at Burghclere, Spencer imagined another ‘Chapel of Peace’ in which he would bring together his most visionary and personal works. In this ‘Church-House’ or ‘Chapel of Me’, he would achieve a fusion of domestic and sacred, home and place of worship, spirit and desiring body. Its design would mirror the topography of Cookham. It would include bedroom-chapels and even bathrooms and lavatories, and the fireplace would become an altar, complete with painted altarpiece.

The Church-House was never built. Yet in the paintings he dreamed of hanging there, Spencer attempted to embody a recovered vision, in which Cookham and its lumpy-faced inhabitants are brought together with his emergent sexual gospel. It is significant that the scenes of redemptive love-making are centred on Cookham war memorial, for example in A Village in Heaven 1937 (no.86). An additional inspiration came from seeing photographs of the temples of Khajuraho in India, encrusted with hundreds of figures making love - or, in Spencer’s phrase, ‘assembled in sexuality’.

In these, the strangest collisions that Spencer contrived between Cookham and the scriptures, the Biblical story reappears almost as a local folk tale, while the villagers become monstrous grotesques, whose orgies may seem to fall far short of the Divine. At their most extreme, for example Adoration of Old Men 1937 (no.80), these pictures seem close to insanity.

Spencer embarked on the Christ in the Wilderness series (nos 94–96) in the winter of 1938–9, while himself displaced and living in Swiss Cottage (and reading Walden, by the American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau). This area of London was a haven to many refugees from Nazi Germany, and here Christ is depicted as a dispossessed person. Spencer’s essential subject here is solitude and man’s kinship to animals – even to a scorpion. In the hybrid structure of the Church-House, the Wilderness series would have been set in the roof of the main chapel or on a ‘mantel piece shrine’.