Anna McNay

Review of In Focus: Stanley Spencer – A Panorama of Life at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings


In Focus: Stanley Spencer – A Panorama of Life

Jerwood Gallery, Hastings

15 October 2016 – 8
January 2017

“The small man with twinkling eyes and shaggy
grey hair (often wearing his pyjamas under his suit if it was cold) became a
familiar sight wandering the lanes of Cookham pushing the old pram in which he
carried his canvas and easel.”

Today, more than half a century after
his death, the Berkshire village of Cookham remains synonymous with its
best-known former inhabitant, Stanley Spencer (1891-1959),
an artist so dedicated to home that he earned the village’s name as his nickname
while studying at the Slade (1908-12). Born
the eighth of nine surviving children (two further siblings died in infancy) into
a close-knit family, Spencer was educated early on at a school set up by his
father in their back garden, focusing on reading, music and nature, as well as
Bible stories. Spencer attended the local Wesleyan Methodist chapel with his
family, and remained enthralled by the Bible throughout his life: much of his
painting unites the religious with the secular, the miraculous with the
everyday. In 1947, he wrote to his first wife Hilda: “I want to show the
relations of the religious life in the secular life, how that all is one
religious life.” Another time he said: “I approach heaven through what I find
on Earth.”

Spencer’s works are often described
as “visionary”, for their placing of religious events in a contemporary Cookham
setting, but this is a common artistic trope dating back to early Italian
painters, known as the Italian primitives, such as Giotto, Fra Angelico and
Botticelli, whose paintings Spencer saw at the National Gallery when he was a
student. By the time he had finished his studies, Spencer was one of a number
of artists to have become known as the neo-primitives because of their
enthusiasm for this style. With a career spanning the first half of the 20th
century, Spencer is respected as one of the greatest British artists, and, to
mark the 125th anniversary of his birth, a number of international celebrations
of his life and work have been taking place throughout 2016. This small,
one-room “In Focus” exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, forms part of
these events and brings together paintings, drawings and archival material from
the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, with works by Spencer and an artist
friend and collaborator, Daphne Charlton (1909-91), from the Jerwood’s own collection.
Called A Panorama of Life, it offers a concise but surprisingly thorough
overview of Spencer’s life in, and love for, Cookham; his complex personal
relationships and marriages; and his dedication to depicting everyday domestic
life through a spiritual lens.

Read the rest of this review here