Jean Spencer

[no title]


Not on display

Jean Spencer 1942–1998
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1127 × 1501 × 22 mm
Presented by the artist's family 2000


Jean Spencer was born in 1942 in Hampshire. She studied at Bath Academy of Art between 1960 and 1963 and began to produce work of a Constructivist nature. After leaving college Spencer became associated with a group of artists whose work was emphatically abstract, rational in its procedures and conceptual basis, and who frequently employed mathematical and systematic means to produce works of art. Spencer's earliest works included constructed abstract reliefs which employed mathematics as a means of generating formal relations and structures. Between 1966 and 1969, the mathematical basis of Spencer's work became more pronounced, so that her work frequently involved systematic variations around a simple geometric configuration. This led Spencer to work in series, a procedure which became a prominent characteristic of her subsequent work.

During the 1970s she became a member of the Systems Group which she co founded with her husband, the artist Malcolm Hughes (1929-1997) in 1969. The recognition of the importance of systematic process was the core ethos of this association of artists and, in this collaborative context Spencer exhibited widely in Britain and abroad. In later years, Spencer's work gradually freed itself from its earlier adherence to mathematical principles and, instead, drew increasingly on her research into the properties and relations of colour, acquiring a more intuitive basis as it did so. Even so, her work remained rooted in the central principle of clarity - both visual and conceptual.

The six works in this series are among the last Spencer worked on before her death in 1998. The series consists of six identically sized panels arranged in sequence. Each panel is divided into horizontal bands or blocks of colour of differing size, no one colour being repeated in the same image. Spencer places stripes of different hue, tone and intensity next to one another, exploring the affect one colour has in its neighbours. In the internal formal relations operating within each work, and also in the compositional breadth established within the group as a whole, the central tenets of Spencer's work - clarity and rational authority - achieve an expression which is at once grand and understated. The paintings were produced during a residency at Churchill College, Cambridge. However, illness made working difficult and the final painting was completed by an assistant working to her instructions, in the week she died.

Further Reading:
Michael Tooby, Countervail, exhibition catalogue, Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield 1992, pp.22-3
Michael Harrison, Testing the System, exhibition catalogue, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge 1996
Norbert Lynton, Systems, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, London 1972, p.48

Paul Moorhouse
March 2000
Revised by Imogen Cornwall-Jones
December 2001

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Technique and condition

The painting was executed on a single piece of medium-weight, plain weave linen canvas, which was stretched around a seven-membered softwood expandable stretcher and attached with wire staples at the rear. The linen canvas has an appreciable number of slubs on it, i.e. thicker areas of thread that appear as lumps. A white acrylic emulsion gesso was applied as a primer by the artist over the stretched face of the canvas and around all four edges. The emulsion gesso was applied by brush, probably straight from the pot, although it may have been diluted slightly with water. The overall priming layer is reasonably thin and the canvas texture (and in particular the slubs) remain very apparent through it.

The paint is oil and was only applied over the stretched face of canvas, so the white acrylic gesso is still visible around all four edges. The paint was also applied by brush and in an extremely precise manner, without any overlap between adjacent bands of colour visible. The assistance of either a ruling pen or masking tape would have been necessary to ensure the tidiness of each edge. Each colour area has a fairly uniform thickness, colour and gloss, without any obvious brush marks being apparent. To achieve this uniform surface, the oil paint would have been thinned slightly and applied in a number of thin layers. The painting is not varnished.

The painting is in excellent condition, apart from the occasional finger mark on the acrylic gesso around the edges. Providing some basic precautionary conservation measures are taken to reduce handling (such as its display behind a barrier), the painting should remain in this near pristine state.

Tom Learner
July 2000

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