Sir Stanley Spencer



Not on display

Sir Stanley Spencer 1891–1959
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 630 × 510 × 20 mm
frame: 818 × 699 × 86 mm
Bequeathed by Sir Edward Marsh through the Contemporary Art Society 1953

Display caption

This is Spencer’s first self-portrait in oil paint, made when he was around 23 years old. He painted it over the course of nearly a year in the front bedroom of his family home in Cookham. Its dark, rich colours and strong sense of three dimensionality reflect his interest in 16th-century European painting. Spencer recalled that he was inspired to paint it in this way after seeing a reproduction of a head of Christ by Italian Renaissance artist Bernardino Luini (c.1480/82–1532).

Gallery label, October 2020

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Technique and condition

The face of the portrait has been executed in broad brushstrokes, building up a substantial thickness of paint. Scumbled strokes have been used to define soft contours and natural voids in the paint left by this technique show up as dark areas on the X-radiograph. Stippling and wiping techniques have also been used. The position of the canvas was adjusted by the artist during painting to allow more space at the top of the portrait. The original tacking holes can be seen along the top and left edges of the painting. The X-radiograph shows this alteration clearly but shows no repositioning or alteration of the image. The right shadowed side of the face is now affected by a prominent age craquelure. The edges of these deep cracks are raised and the reverse of the canvas quilted accordingly, however, the paint appears stable. A cluster of brushstrokes on the throat of the portrait have discoloured to a pale greyish pink. These appear to be a later addition by the artist.

Spencer varnished the painting in 1914 but that original layer was removed during conservation treatment in 1961, when the painting was also lined with wax/resin adhesive and put onto a new stretcher. The present dammar/AW2 varnish is now discoloured but the dark toned areas of paint were found to be too soluble to allow it's removal.

Helen Brett
August 2000

Catalogue entry


Not inscribed.
Canvas, 24 3/4×20 (63×51); the stretcher is extended with a 3/4 (2) wide strip of wood along the top edge.
Bequeathed by Sir Edward Marsh through the Contemporary Art Society 1953.
Coll: Purchased by Sir Edward Marsh from the artist c. 1914.
Exh: C.A.S., Paintings and Drawings, Grosvenor House, June–July 1923 (1); British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, 1924 (Q.16); N.E.A.C., Retrospective Exhibition, January–February 1925 (214); Artistas Britanicas, Buenos Aires, 1928 (231); Contemporary British Art, Whitechapel Art Gallery, October–December 1929 (264); Venice Biennale, 1930 (British Pavilion, 137); Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, 1934 (197); Fifty Years of Portraits, Leicester Galleries, May–June 1935 (53); British Council, Empire Exhibition, Johannesburg, 1936 (697); Venice Biennale, 1938 (British Pavilion, 68); British Council, Contemporary British Art, Northern Capitals, 1939 (219); Leger Gallery, March–April 1939 (22); British Council, Contemporary British Art, New York World's Fair, 1939 (312), Canadian tour, Boston and Chicago, 1939–40 (132), and Toledo, 1942 (95); Temple Newsam, Leeds, July–September 1947 (2, repr.); British Council, Twelve Contemporary Painters, European tour, 1948–9 (47); I.C.A., Ten Decades, 1951 (183); The Collection of the late Sir Edward Marsh, Leicester Galleries, May 1953 (49); Tate Gallery, November–December 1955 (8).
Lit: E. Marsh, A Number of People, 1939, pp.359–60; John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters: Lewis to Moore, 1956, pp.165–6, repr. pl.16; Collis, 1962, pp.38, 40, 243.
Repr: Wilenski, 1924, as frontispiece; Sir John Rothenstein, British Art since 1900, 1962, pl.92; Rothenstein, 1963, pl.3 (in colour).

Painted in 1913 and purchased by Sir Edward Marsh on his first visit to the artist at Cookham. Several contemporary drawings exist, one belonging to the Williamson Art Gallery, Birkenhead, and two others belonging to Sir John Rothenstein and Mrs Dudley Tooth, but in these the head is not held so high. The painting took nearly a year to complete and is among the first of a number of self-portraits executed by the artist.

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


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