Sir Stanley Spencer

St Francis and the Birds


Not on display

Sir Stanley Spencer 1891–1959
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 713 × 612 mm
frame: 870 × 770 × 55 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1967

Display caption

Francis of Assisi is a Christian saint associated with animals and the natural world. Accounts of his life include his ability to speak – even preach – to birds. Spencer based this depiction of the saint on drawings of his father feeding the ducks on a farm. The distortions of scale in this painting are part of Spencer’s personal visual style. His non-naturalistic approach was unpopular with some critics. The Royal Academy of Arts rejected this and another of his paintings from its 1935 summer exhibition. Spencer resigned his Academy membership in response.

Gallery label, October 2020

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Catalogue entry

Sir Stanley Spencer 1891–1959

T00961 St. Francis and the Birds 1935

Not inscribed.
Canvas, 28 x 24 (71 x 70).
Chantrey Purchase from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, 1967.
Coll: Bought by Miss Lucy Silcox from the artist through Arthur Tooth & Sons 1935; Miss Silcox’s sisters; given by the Misses Silcox to Dr Lynda Grier; bequeathed by Dr Grier to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, with the wish that it be offered for sale to the Tate Gallery at a special price.
Exh: Temple Newsam, Leeds, July–September 1947 (28); Tate Gallery, November–December 1955 (32); Arts Council Welsh Committee, Stanley Spencer, Religious Paintings, tour of Llandaff, Bangor, Haverfordwest and Swansea, June–September 1965 (14, repr.); R.A., 1968 (471).
Lit: D S MacColl, ‘Super- and Sub-Realism. Mr Stanley Spencer and the Academy’ in The Nineteenth Century and After, CXVII, June 1935, pp. 703-711; Gilbert Spencer, Stanley Spencer, 1961, pp. 180–1; Maurice Collis, Stanley Spencer. A Biography, 1962, pp. 25, 100, 114–17, repr. on dust jacket (in colour).
Repr: Elizabeth Rothenstein, Stanley Spencer, 1945, pls. 46 and 47 (detail); R.A. Illustrated, 1968, p. 21.

The artist wrote (17 August 1955) in the catalogue of his Tate Gallery retrospective: ‘I wanted when I had finished the Burghclere work to do not a chapel to do with war but to do with the more vital meaning of peace... The next “chapel” (built... in the air... that is to say not commissioned) was to be planned somewhat thus: The Village Street of Cookham was to be the Nave and the river which runs behind the street was a side aisle. The “Promenade of Women” and the “Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors” and the “St Francis and the Birds” and “Villagers and Saints” are fragments of the street scenes.’

The artist told the compilers of the catalogue for his Tate Gallery exhibition in 1955 that the composition was developed from a drawing made in 1924 (present whereabouts unknown but reproduced in A Chatto & Windus Almanack, 1927, as the title page for August), showing Hilda Carline reading in a haystack with a flock of ducks and poultry at the foot of the stack. The flock of birds at St Francis’s feet follow those in the drawing fairly closely. The outline of the saint’s corpulent figure in a dressing gown is a close transposition of the outline shape of the haystack. The artist added that ‘the figure of St Francis is large and spreading to signify that the teaching of St Francis spread far and wide’. He told Collis (reported p. 114) that ‘St Francis and the Birds’ ‘was inspired... by the memory of his father in a dressing-gown going to the larder in the passage between “Fernlea” and “The Nest” to get food for the hens and ducks. His father’s trousers were at one time stolen and he went about the village for a bit in his dressing-gown.’ Gilbert Spencer told the compiler (conversation of 19 July 1968) that his reference (op. cit.) to the dressing-gown being one he had bought at Whiteley’s and given his brother exemplified the artist’s methods of transposing objects around him, and should not be seen as contradicting the version by Collis.

‘Fernlea’ was the Spencer family home at Cookham and ‘The Nest’ the adjacent ivy-covered cottage. Collis states (p. 25) that ‘St Francis and the Birds’ shows the passage between ‘Fernlea’ and ‘The Nest’ shown in N04117 ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’, and again (p. 100) that the site of T00961 relates to that of The Meeting’ 1934. Gilbert Spencer feels (conversation 19 July 1968) that topographically T00961 is not sufficiently accurate to relate to an exact viewpoint, though it clearly refers to that place.

T00961 was one of six paintings submitted by Spencer for inclusion in the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1935. With another of the six it was rejected by the hanging committee, supported by the President and Council, whereupon Spencer resigned as an A.R.A. until his re-election in 1950.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1967–1968, London 1968.


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