Stanley Spencer

Sir Stanley Spencer, ‘The Resurrection, Cookham’ 1924–7
Sir Stanley Spencer
The Resurrection, Cookham 1924–7
© Tate

Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) became an important figure in British art during the first half of the twentieth century. Though he painted a variety of subjects he is best known, and loved, for his paintings that fuse everyday life with religious themes. His works concentrate on descriptive detail, incident and anecdote, which combined with his visionary and imaginative spiritualism make manifest the sacred in the everyday.

Devoutly Christian, Spencer’s faith defined both the subjects of his paintings and their stylistic treatment. In large-scale paintings intended to recall religious frescos or altarpieces, Spencer depicted incidents inspired by the Bible. The scenes and events were however transferred to the familiar setting of Cookham, the Berkshire village on the banks of the River Thames in which he had lived since a child, and other close-knit communities such as the Clyde shipbuilders of Glasgow. Through his art he sought to discover the sacred in the daily lives of ordinary working British people and to show that all parts of life are touched by spirituality.

Spencer’s greatest works are large-scale narrative tableaux that treat British village life in the manner of Renaissance frescoes. Two such works, The Resurrection, Cookham 1923–7 and Resurrection: Port Glasgow 1945–50, on display here, are considered among his masterpieces. These two great resurrection scenes stand as exemplars of his earlier and late styles, as do the two self-portraits from 1914 and 1959.

Spencer’s work recalls that of the painter, engraver and poet William Blake (1757–1827) through its use of the British landscape and people as a vehicle for his spiritualism. Yet Spencer’s vision of England was not nearly as radically political as Blake’s. Spencer depicts a deeply personal, benign and nurturing environment, a halcyon view influenced by memories of youth and a profound spiritual faith.