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Stanley Spencer: Celebration Exhibition

3rd November 2016 – 26th March 2017

Some Comments on the Current Exhibition

 

What we will be applauding in the new Celebration Exhibition

Stuart Conlin, Chairman of Trustees

I look forward very much to welcoming home some of our most treasured pictures which have been on loan to Hepworth Wakefield for their groundbreaking exhibition. In particular I will celebrate the return to our walls of 'The Last Supper', perhaps Spencer's most important religious painting and one of the most significant 20th century works by an English artist in that genre.

Ann Danks , Gallery Archivist

I would like to draw attention to three new long term loans that are of interest as a result of their personal connection to Stanley Spencer and through which we see a glimpse of the artist himself and the life he led.

Portrait of Julia Cooke (1949) tells the story of a friendship. The Cooke family, Charles and Marjory and their daughters Julia and Jane, lived next door to Stanley in Cookham Rise in the 1940s. As neighbours they were in close contact as the Cookes owned a telephone and Stanley did not, so they would take calls for him - Marjorie rushing round to tell him when someone was on the line. Dudley Tooth was known to get in touch with him this way. Stanley did not feel comfortable with the telephone (to Gerard Shiel 1952 'I hate phoning') and was very anxious one day when he saw Marjorie through the glass of the front door. She called out 'It's alright, it isn't the phone' - she had come to tell him that there was a great display of Wilenski's book on the Port Glasgow Resurrection in the bookshop in the Pound. Charles Cooke was a banker in the city but was also a talented amateur photographer. Stanley asked him to take photos of his work, he liked to keep records of paintings and drawings he had sold, and sometimes his sitters. Charles also took a number of very fine portrait photographs of Stanley, both formal and informal, which are now held in the SSG archive and have been used in recent publications and films about the artist. Charles recorded his memories of Stanley for Julia and Jane. A very human picture of Stanley popping round to see his friends emerges. A clip of this recording in which Charles talks of Stanley drawing Julia is used in the Audio Guide commentary available in the Gallery.

Portrait of Rachel Westropp (1959) Stanley had become close to Rachel and Michael Westropp during the 1958 Exhibition of his works which took place in Holy Trinity Church and vicarage in Cookham (Michael was Vicar of Cookham 1952 – 61). Planned originally as a fundraiser for the church roof it became a national event and had to be extended as a result. (Photos, press cuttings and a computer presentation about the event are available in the SSG archives). When Stanley became ill in 1959 and had to have an operation for cancer the Westropps invited him to stay with them at the vicarage whilst recovering (despite the fact that they had only recently lost their daughter Anna). Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta was installed in his bedroom there so that he could continue to work on it. Rachel and Michael’s daughter Janie passed on some info about the portrait:

Stanley convalesced for approx 2 months at the Vicarage from Feb – April after his operation in Dec 1958. On Feb 24th, Michael’s birthday he announced at breakfast when Michael was opening his presents that he had decided to paint a tiny portrait of Rachel as his present to Michael. Would Michael please drive him to Maidenhead that morning to buy the canvas. When he returned with the canvas Rachel said ‘but you said a tiny portrait’ to which he replied ‘I couldn’t get you on to anything less’. The first sitting was that afternoon and from then on for approx 6 weeks Rachel sat, generally for very short periods as her life was already full with family, household and parish, and she never expected to have to find time to have her portrait painted. When someone commented that she did not look relaxed but anxious, he said but she was always listening to hear if the children were arguing or whether the potatoes were boiling over or the telephone ringing. When it was said that she looked sad the reason was that Stanley with his sensitivity and compassion was aware of the sorrow that still showed as Rachel’s eldest daughter Anna had died two months before.

Stanley had no suggestion as to what dress she should wear but when she appeared one day in a dress with a slight check pattern he chose that one as he liked the texture. He also insisted on the very old cardigan Rachel had thrown on for warmth. The texture meant that each little check was painted meticulously taking hours and Rachel rather regretted the choice as it involved so many more hours sitting. The one item she asked to be included was the double row of pearls she always wore to which Stanley replied ‘I hate painting beads’.

He spoke very little while painting, sat very close to the subject, studying it with tremendous intensity and concentration. At one point when it was thought he got quite a good likeness he said ‘You look much too pretty, I’m going to ugly you up now’. He had great difficulty with the mouth and was not satisfied even when it was finished.

The background of the church was painted from the window on the back stairs and could be done without Rachel present. At that time the roof of the church was being repaired and a portion of it was covered with a green tarpaulin. A little corner of it can be seen in the painting. When Michael and Rachel suggested that it was unnecessary to include it as it was only temporary he replied ‘I paint what is there and it’s there now’. Similarly when Rachel asked if he could include some wild daffodils in the grass under the hedge which would be in flower in a matter of weeks there was a definite refusal ‘they are not out now’. He thought it was rather nice for Rachel to have the church as her background and the tower looking like an unusual hat!

Footage of Rachel Westropp talking is on the Audio Guides in the Gallery.

Both works have been lent by direct descendants of the families they were painted /drawn for and it is our unique position being in Cookham that encourages and allows these close connections with the artist to be recognised, documented and celebrated.

The Mill, Durweston (1920) This painting, another long-term loan new for this exhibition, is very important to the SSG collection as an early landscape that was painted at a similar time to the religious works that are on show. All demonstrate the important of buildings to Stanley – they stirred great spiritual feelings within him. He was particularly drawn to buildings such as those of the maltings complex within the village. These monumental buildings are depicted in The Betrayal 1919 and The Last Supper 1920. Their shapes; cubes, conical roofs, solid rectangular walls were akin to geometry in the landscape. The mill in Dorset depicted in this painting may well have had a similar attraction for the artist who noted that he was particularly drawn to the pattern of small windows in the large mill building.

 

Portrait of Rachel Westropp lent by a private collector © The Estate of Stanley Spencer All Rights Reserved, 2016 Bridgeman Images

The Mill, Durweston lent by a private collector © The Estate of Stanley Spencer All Rights Reserved, 2016 Bridgeman Images

 

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