Gilbert Spencer

The Crucifixion


Not on display

Gilbert Spencer 1892–1979
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 864 × 991 mm
frame: 1045 × 1164 × 85 mm
Purchased 1974

Display caption

Gilbert Spencer painted this for himself while he was a student at the Slade School of Art. There was no commission, but he was aware that he would soon be enrolled in the army,  which probably affected his choice of such a violent subject.

The style and subject resemble the paintings of Gilbert’s elder brother Stanley; it is set in Cookham Meadow, where they both lived. The activity shown also looks as though it might have been a study of how to lift a large wooden object on a farm.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry


Inscribed ‘G. Spencer’ on back
Oil on canvas, 34×39 (86.3×99)
Purchased from the Fine Art Society (Grant-in-Aid) 1974
Coll: The Rev. Desmond Chute; Lady McFadyean; Colin McFadyean; sold Christie's 20 March 1970, (27); bt. Fine Art Society
Exh: Gilbert Spencer, Reading Museum and Art Gallery, June–July 1964 (4); The Slade Tradition, The Fine Art Society, October–November 1971 (85); Fine Art Society, July 1974 (4, repr)
Lit: Gilbert Spencer, Stanley Spencer, 1961, Foreword and p.121; Maurice Collis, Stanley Spencer, 1962, pp.67–8

The following entry, based upon two conversations with the artist (2 October 1975 and 27 November 1975), has been approved by him.

This painting was made early in 1915, while Gilbert Spencer was still a student at the Slade and shortly before he enlisted for war service with the R.A.M.C. Together with the uncompleted ‘Sashes Meadow, Cookham’ (also in the collection of the Tate Gallery, N06021), it was left in Cookham during the war.

The artist regards ‘The Crucifixion’ as an immature work, influenced to some extent both in subject matter and composition by the contemporary work of his brother Stanley. He set ‘The Crucifixion’ in Cookham Meadow and adopted, (albeit unconsciously) his father's features for those of the artist. (He stresses that the resemblance was unintended and he only became aware of it when Stanley observed, seeing the work: ‘I don't know what it is, but when Gilbert paints Pa his pictures seem to be all right’ (Spencer, op. cit, in the foreword)).

He says that his interest here lay chiefly in achieving a satisfying design based on the square and that this design owed something to his brother's ‘Bed Picture’ (‘The Centurion's Servant’ 1914, T00359). He was also interested in the mechanics of raising the cross. (‘Spencers like to get things right; it had to work’) but in spite of experimenting with ropes and pulleys he was defeated in this. The canvas was cut down at each side by approximately 2 in. in order to reduce the length of the ropes, but it still would not ‘work’ without destroying the design. He feels therefore that this painting was not entirely successful.

The artist returned to the theme in at least three squared-up drawings made between 1919 and 1921. In one of these ‘The Crucifixion’ (private collection) the artist attempted to solve the ‘hoisting’ problem in T01903 by placing his Crucifixion on the brow of a steep hill. Below this two subsidiary groups of figures, in the left and right foreground, haul the ropes down into position. In another drawing ‘The Descent from the Cross’, (private collection) and subsequent painting, he explored the reverse procedure, showing the body being lowered onto a square binding sheet held by four figures.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978

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