Sir Stanley Spencer

The Centurion’s Servant


Not on display

Sir Stanley Spencer 1891–1959
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1143 × 1143 mm
frame: 1270 × 1270 × 100 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1960

Display caption

This strange 20th-century domestic scene represents one of Spencer’s favourite biblical stories. Jesus, impressed by a Roman centurion’s faith in his holy power, heals his sick servant without even entering his house. Bringing this into his own time and place, Spencer set the scene in the maid’s bedroom in the attic of his home. Spencer never set foot in the room, so this is both a real and imagined setting. The youth on the bed has Spencer’s own features. It is unclear whether the scene shows the moment of healing, or the illness that came before.

Gallery label, October 2020

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Catalogue entry


Inscr. ‘Stanley Spencer Sept. 1914’ on piece of canvas turned over edge of stretcher t.r.
Canvas, 45×45 (114·5×114·5).
Chantrey Purchase from Lady Pansy Lamb 1960.
Coll: Purchased from the artist by Henry Lamb 1915.
Exh: N.E.A.C., winter 1915 (80); Goupil Gallery, February–March 1927 (83); British Painting since Whistler, National Gallery, 1940 (188); Tate Gallery, November–December 1955 (12, dated 1914–15).
Lit: Connoisseur, XLIV, 1916, p. 52; Wilenski, 1924, pp.17–18, repr. pl.9; Johnson, 1932, p.330; Frank Rutter, Art in My Time, 1933, pp.174–6; James Thrall Soby, Contemporary Painters, New York, 1948, p.124; Collis, 1962, pp.22–3, 42, 46, 49, 191, 243.
Repr: Newton, 1947, pl.4.

Three closely-knit themes have gone into the make-up of this painting. First, there is the Biblical story (St Luke, vii. 1–10) in which the complete faith of the centurion was what chiefly impressed the artist. He planned a companion picture, which was never carried out, showing Christ with the messengers sent by the centurion; they were to have been framed together as a diptych and the composition with the figure on the bed was to have been echoed in the right-hand picture. Secondly, he was influenced by an event related by his mother: Cookham villagers praying round the bed of a dying man. In this connexion, Dudley Tooth wrote to the complier (14 June 1960) confirming this aspect and recalling a letter written to him by the artist in 1938. The sick person suddenly recovered, healed by Christ from a distance: ‘In this picture, one of the people praying half turns his head as if he felt the arrival of this happiness [i.e. healing power]’. Thirdly, these two themes were associated with the maid's bedroom at the artist's own home. As the children were never allowed to enter this room it had gained an aura of mystery in which a heavenly visitation could take place. The maid's bed is shown in the painting and the artist and members of his family were the models.

The painting has also been known as ‘The Bed Picture’. It bears no relation to the Great War, as suggested by Rutter, loc. cit.

A sketch for the composition is in the collection of David Bone.

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


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