Summer Exhibition 2013: Perspectives on Love
An insight into the passionate inner life of Stanley Spencer
The name of Stanley Spencer is inextricably bound up with the concept of love: of people and his sometimes complicated, unconventional relationships with them, of religion and of his home village of Cookham.
A theme of the show comprises his two marriages. The final chapter of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre famously opens: 'Reader, I married him'. Spencer, however, wrote, 'Marriage is usually where a novel breaks off, but I cannot imagine anything more dramatic than the life that begins with marriage.' His first wife Hilda Carline was a talented artist and despite their divorce in 1937, she was to remain his soulmate for life, even after her death in 1950. He continued writing long (un-posted) letters to her until his death in 1959. A number of works represent Hilda, from memories of their early life together, to his proposal of re-marriage, an offer she sensibly refused. On display for the first time is an important acquisition, Hilda with Hair Down, 1931, one of his most intimate and beautiful drawings of Hilda to whom he had written the previous year, 'I would so love to do a drawing of you with your hair down; not because I think it suits you, although it gives you one special look I love, but because it would be such fun to do...' Hilda was as attached to Hampstead, where her family lived, as her husband to Cookham, and a number of the Hilda works are set in NW3, the scene of some of their happiest years together during their courtship and early married life. The Beatitudes of Love: Sociableness (or Toasting), c1937-8 (lent by Alexander Kuznetsov), shows them naked in the Vale of Health studio, making toast at the fire, doubtless after making love. Hilda's fine head of auburn hair appears to take on a life of its own.
Stanley and Hilda Spencer met the artist Patricia Preece in Cookham in 1929. She was to be disastrously associated with two famous men: WS Gilbert (librettist of the Gilbert and Sullivan Savoy operas), whose death she inadvertently caused in her youth, when he rescued her from the possibility of drowning, and Stanley Spencer whom she married in 1937, four days after his divorce from Hilda. It proved a union in name only and she returned to live with her lifelong companion, Dorothy Hepworth. Spencer's idea of having as it were two wives signally failed to be realised. For a time, Patricia seemed to Spencer to embody the spirit of Cookham. She recalled that if she found him working she would often put records on his gramophone and dance. In the Scrapbook drawing Patricia and Gramophone, (lent by a private collector), she does just that, while smoking a cigarette, wearing only high heels and lingerie. Separating Fighting Swans, 1933 (lent by Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery)), as he himself recognised, offers several views of love: 'an incident in my life with a person in my life, and a place in Cookham, and a religious atmosphere ' Three stout, homely angels offer a blessing as the diminutive figure of the artist correctly seizes a swan around its wings, in order to separate it from its murderous rival. In Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill, 1935 (lent by a private collector), he presents her as a dramatically cut-off figure at the foot of the hill. She wears his gift of an expensive necklace of 'diamonds and amethyst', which he hoped would 'mix & look as natural as the purple thistles.'
Spencer's devotion to Cookham led him to use it as the setting for imaginative and religious subjects. In 1929, in the age of motorists opening up the countryside, Spencer purchased a car, a Clyno saloon, for just under £300. His brief flirtation with motoring is reflected in The Garage, 1929 (lent by The Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation), with its stylised versions of modish cars of the day. Many of the scenes alluding to the Thames have a sacred dimension. For most visitors, Cookham is a place for leisure rather than divine visitations, but for Spencer 'the river was the holy of holies'.
1. The Beatitudes of Love: Sociableness (or Toasting), c1937-8. Oil on
canvas, 76.2 x 50.8 cm. Lent by Alexander Kuznetsov
2. Separating Fighting Swans, 1933. Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 72.4 cm. Lent by Leeds Museums and Galleries
3. Hilda with Hair Down, 1931. Pencil on five pieces of paper, joined, 59.4 x 43.5 cm. Stanley Spencer Gallery
4. Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill, 1935. Oil on canvas, 76 x 51 cm .Lent by a private collector