Wednesday, 12 October 2011



The leaflet accompanying this exhibition at Compton Verney describes Stanley Spencer as 'the quintessential English genius' and the works on display were, it is said, 'Spencer's personal vision of the gardens he knew as private heavens'.


Yes, true.  The extensive exhibition, in several rooms, comprised paintings of gardens and the exterior of buildings exclusively, except for the very last room which included the painting called The Dustman and several others which are more familiar.
No photographs were allowed, so I cannot add any here, neither were there any postcards of the paintings in the shop, they had sold out, apparently.


The rooms, each one not large, were quite crowded and very noisy.  The noise was of people talking, their voices magnified somehow, and the main problem, extremely squeaky floorboards.  The wooden floors appeared new but an attendant said they had been in place for a few years and the noise was a recognised problem, worse this year.  They are going to be 'fixed'.


A few of the paintings were familiar to me, one from the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, for instance, of Cottages at Burghclere.  There were no watercolours or sketches but black and white photos of Spencer working, which showed that he sketched out on his canvas in line, in a pale colour, and worked systematically filling in, from a central point.  Photos also showed him with his well-known pram which carried painting materials and easel;  in particular I liked the three photos of him painting in Hampstead being watched by a small boy in grey flannel shorts, which is what boys wore in those days.  The battered black pram was on display too here, with an equally battered black umbrella.

There were printed comments on the walls of each room, some being of more interest than others.  It was pointed out that Spencer painted a lot of fences and hedges, as enclosures, but I did not see any explanation or suggestion as to why these were so important to him.

A guide with a group explained the background to his strange second marriage to Patricia Preece - a painting of him with her, both nude, is in the Tate Modern.  I was half-listening, it sounded such a sad story and made Spencer seem strangely demented at this time, in his obsession with the women, who obviously cared nothing for him.


I noticed in some paintings that the cottages and houses in Cookham were painted with almost obsessive accuracy, each brick delineated as if he counted them.  Brick accuracy is not something which I consider to be important, personally, but obviously these accurate depictions were something that Spencer decided added an important dimension to his images.


Paintings I looked at longest included one of a newish (in the 1920s) council house with corn stooks behind, called The Red House, Wangford, 1926, which had a dreamlike, eerie quality.

Greenhouse and Garden, of 1937, with very large onions in a rope on the left, with an open greenhouse door.  This was Spencer's house.   (I heard the guide suggest the open door was very significant, at the time when Spencer had made the deeds of this house over to Patricia Preece).

Also a painting of three red poppies of 1938, attracted my attention. A difficult subject and this one almost did not work.  It could have been, and has been, painted by anybody, I think, but it worked admirably.  As far as I know, Spencer did not paint a lot of flowers in vases, but flowers appear in his gardens everywhere.

There was a painting of a city council nursery garden in Plymouth, and a photo of him painting it in 1954, which showed the strange accuracy of Spencer's finished work, almost a photographic depiction again.  This painting was not popular with Plymouth Council but they kept it anyway.  It was commissioned by them.  It shows the war memorial to the Boer War.


Some of his earlier work appeared in the last room. The paintings were not arranged in date order.  In the last room was The Dustman painted in 1934, from the Laing Gallery, Newcastle on Tyne.  It was rejected by the Royal Academy for the Summer Exhibition and Spencer resigned from the RA because of this.  This painting also has the enclosing fence, a white picket fence in the foreground.


Apparently Spencer did not like the newly introduced dustbin collections which were then introduced in Cookham, he was a man who disliked change of this sort.  However, Spencer is said to have had a very happy childhood in Cookham.  He was the second youngest in a family of eleven children.  His older sister ran a school in a little building in the next garden to his parent's house. which he attended with his brother, Gilbert.  He painted a jam jar in The Dustman - I heard that favourite food was jam sandwiches, which his mother made for him when he got home from attending the Slade.

An earlier work, from 1913/14 shows a painted garden with figures from a bible story of Zacharias and Elizabeth, and it shows the garden he could see from his studio in his parent's house.  This is a strange composition, with soft focus faces and blurred shapes, in contrast to the meticulously painted brick walls of Cookham cottages which I remarked on earlier.


I believe that some of the paintings need to be lived with and absorbed, and they could wend themselves into your subconscious, particularly I thought this being surrounded by the green countryside of Warwickshire, England.  Some works are serene, they show a world free of litter, free of graffiti, with few cars and absolutely no modern mess.  Cars must have been very rare in Cookham in the 1920s and 1930s.  I have been there and even now it is very quite and almost inward-looking.

In 1948 Spencer painted a view of Cookham from Englefield, with a theme, apparently of 'nature grappling with architecture', said the wall card.  Not sure if I agree with this, but it is a very beautiful painting, one of my favourites.

I returned to see the exhibition later in the day, at 4 pm.  The rooms this time were almost empty and quiet.  I made a few notes, for instance, was the barbed wire very  significant in the painting Bellrope Meadow, of 1936?


His subjects, plants, onions, cacti, are non-combatative, they do not give Spencer problems which he has to solve, they do not ask for anything or challenge him in ways he cannot cope with, the paintings I am talking about do not include people, birds, animals.  The gardens are controlled spaces, with rigidity enforced, created in part by man but softened by neglect, with overgrown hedges and brambles, as in Cottages at Burghclere.  The skies are not cloudless and blue, and if there is movement it is only in the clouds.

I wondered why the words 'private heaven' were used to describe these garden paintings?  This is the title of the works in the last room, where the following quote was also placed on the wall 'innocence and experience were reconciled' (Keith Bell);  I could not see evidence of innocence in these works.  There was no innocence, I feel, because even in very early works, there is a sophisticated use of paint used with passion, emotion and evidence of turmoil.  There is a very strange painting (among other strange paintings) in this room, dated 1940, showing a very large women in green, who seemed to be dominating a smaller, meek-looking man in a brown pinstripe suite (Spencer), there is also a dog in the background that looks dead, flat out.


Stanley Spencer died in 1959.  He and Gilbert Spencer both taught at Camberwell School of Art, in the Painting Department.  My husband and his friends were students there and remember the two men well.


I bought a copy of the book accompanying the exhibition, called Stanley Spencer and the English Garden, edited by Steven Parissien, and published by Compton Verney in association with Paul Holberton publishing.  It includes essays by Duncan Robinson, Keith Bell, Martin Postle, Jeremy Gould and Steven Parisssien.

Campton Verney is well worth visiting, the grounds are beautiful.  There is work in the grounds from artists too.  At the moment there is an exhibition of work by the illustrator, one of my favourite,  Quentin Blake.  It runs until 11 December.  Unfortunately Warwickshire is too far away for me to make another special trip, unless my situation changes and I win the lottery!

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