Sir Stanley Spencer



Not on display

Sir Stanley Spencer 1891–1959
Ink and chalk on paper
Frame: 606 × 456 × 45 mm
support: 358 × 230 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to Tate 2005


In this self-portrait drawing the artist’s features are densely defined with close, cross-hatched strokes and the face is strongly lit from the left. The light effects work to cast all but the edge of the left side in deep shadow. Spencer’s gaze is direct and penetrating. This self portrait was drawn onto a sheet of paper cut from a larger one, which had previously been used. Traces of life studies in red chalk are discernable across the sheet. The drawing has a dedication to John Rothenstein, and is signed and dated ‘Dec 1913’.

Spencer was a student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London during the years 1908–12, so had newly completed his studies when he executed T11974. In this work the artist has abandoned the light outlining and shading characteristic of his Slade sketches (Hyman and Wright, p.89). At this time Slade students were encouraged to study from Old Master drawings at the British Museum and from facsimiles. T11974 has distinctive Old Master qualities in its network of cross hatching, a characteristic reminiscent in particular of the drawings of Michelangelo (1475–1564), in whose technique Spencer was interested.

Spencer produced at least four self-portrait drawings in 1913, of which T11974 is one. They can be seen as preparation for his major painted Self-Portrait 1914 (N06188), which represents a breakthrough in the artist’s work. T11974 demonstrates the start of Spencer’s attention to the symmetrical features that he used to powerful effect in N06188. However, the artist has lengthened the neck in the painting and slightly raised the chin. An intense gaze characterises both the drawing and the painting, and imbues the images with a powerful psychological dimension. In this regard, the works are reminiscent of the ground-breaking self-portrait from 1500 of the Northern Renaissance painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Spencer’s interest in Renaissance art is suggested too by the strong contrasts of light and dark that he dramatically translates from T11974 to the painting. The chiaroscuro of N06188 and other works from 1913–5, such as Zacharias and Elizabeth 1913–4 (T07486), adds to the quality of strangeness that is characteristic of his work.

Sir John Rothenstein (1901–92), whose name is inscribed on the drawing, was Director of the Tate Gallery from 1938 to 1964. He recorded in his autobiography Summer’s Lease (London 1965) that Spencer made him a present of this drawing in autumn 1923, when he first visited the artist then living in Hampstead, London (pp.132–3).

Further reading:
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, reproduced p.89, fig.11.

Alice Sanger
June 2009

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Display caption

Here Spencer depicts his face strongly lit from the left, defining his features with close, cross-hatched strokes. As a student, Spencer was encouraged to study historical art closely. This work reflects his interest in the drawing technique of Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo (1475–1564). Spencer’s direct and penetrating gaze gives the work a powerful psychological dimension. In this regard it is also reminiscent of a 1500 self-portrait by Northern Renaissance painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). In it, Dürer confronts the viewer with a similarly direct gaze.

Gallery label, October 2020

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