Few artists talked more nonsense than Stanley Spencer. Very little that he said about his work sounds reasonable when you stand in front of it.
Take, for example, at Reading Museum, the grotesque, hideously distorted figures of husbands and wives from his “Beatitude” series. Flesh bulges from fur and lace, hands grip like claws, stockings, heels, legs, feet, are a tangled mess as couples prickle with awkwardness, looking as savagely satirical as Georg Grosz or Otto Dix’s cabaret caricatures. But Spencer meant his gaucheries to be raptly erotic. “These people,” he said, “are the beloved of my imaginings.”
He painted them when both his marriages had collapsed, shortly after describing to his first wife Hilda “the peculiar excruciating exquisiteness” of his second wife Patricia. “The passionate intensity and meaning in her loveliness”, however, produced some of the most chilling nudes in western art: Patricia with fish-cold blue eyes, her sagging, lined skin shrivelling into the canvas in sexual distaste, her slimy fingers curling like tentacles, and a look of such loathing towards artist and viewer that it is a relief to learn that she left Spencer on their honeymoon.
And then there is Cookham on Thames, the “holy suburb of Heaven”, Spencer’s birthplace, lifelong home and inspiration, its red-brick houses, neat walls and marshy riverbank the backcloth for religious visions where lumpy, misshapen inhabitants re-enact the Bible as cosy folk yarn. “The Betrayal” takes place in Cookham High Street, behind the gardens of the two Spencer family homes; as Peter raises his arm to strike off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, the disciples withdraw behind a wall, lining up like village gossips.
“I feel at home in China because I feel that Cookham is near,” Spencer told Premier Chou En Lai in 1954 on a visit to communist China, whose peasant communes enthralled him.
Was he a provincial joke, a deluded realist or a mystic visionary? One thing has always been clear: he is the 20th-century English artist most inextricably linked not only with a sense of place but also with a yearning for home, bed and mother, a desperation for the comforts and consolations of childhood. “Mentally, I have been bedridden all my life,” he said in his 40s. Or, “I wish all my life I could have been tied to my mother’s apron strings. It would have suited me, mostly in the kitchen or the bedroom . . . a long talk and plenty of cups of tea.” Cushions, mattresses, rounded buttocks, heavy breasts, the curving backs of armchairs on punts: these are what give his paintings rhythm and texture, the garrulousness of objects piled up like inventories.
In “At the Chest of Drawers” (1936), the ample figures of Hilda and Stanley are painted from behind as they rummage for clothes in a bulging set of drawers, their figures squeezed into the shallow picture space alongside the corners of a mattress. Reading’s wall caption says Spencer “celebrates the joys of
marriage” in this “intimate moment”, but the claustrophobia makes you gasp. He and Hilda divorced the following year.
Stanley Spencer: Painting Paradise shows the entire collection of his work bequeathed to or bought by Cookham. It is rarely displayed together because Cookham’s gallery is too small, and cannot show to proper advantage its unfinished masterpiece, the five-metre “Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta”. So the transfer of the collection up the road to Reading Museum, a Victorian Gothic magnificence designed by Alfred Waterhouse, architect of the Natural History Museum, is revelatory. The larger works can breathe, and Spencer is so instantly at home here that you take his pre-
Raphaelite ancestry – in narrative impulse, the obsessive detail of the Cookham landscapes, the pervasive sexual unease – for granted, and focus instead on those aspects of his art belonging to modernity that made him a continuing, echoing presence throughout the 20th century.
Chief among these were, first, an unflinching treatment of the nude, which points straight to Lucian Freud, and, second, a melding of the everyday and the mystical into a homespun figurative style that at its best is transcendent, at its worst embarrassing and absurd. Cookham has no nudes, but several of the most convincing, unconventional examples of the religious visions.
In “Sarah Tubbs and the Heavenly Visitors”, homely, shapeless, praying Sarah collapses into a trance in her Cookham back yard, surrounded by “the angels in jumpers” mocked by Wyndham Lewis, who deliver knick-knacks and presents. “The Last Supper” is set in a Cookham malt house. The disciples, elongated figures recalling Flemish primitivism, sit around an L-shaped table, their huge bare feet, ankles crossed – a premonition of Christ’s position on the cross? – stretched out to form a dynamic but stylised geometric pattern in the centre of the composition. “You see, the disciples are a bit bored, they have heard it all before,” Spencer said, but the vitality and freshness explain why Henry Lamb wrote soon afterwards of “the astounding novelty of such a personality stepping in . . . to restore narrative art to its primitive purity”.
Reclaiming the spiritual in modern life, highlighting the supernatural in the commonplace: Spencer’s language is unique, but chimes nevertheless with both European surrealism and the English religious revival – Graham Sutherland, Eric Gill, T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh – of the interwar years. The dark, billowing, stretched-out figure of “Scarecrow, Cookham” (1934) reminds me not of a pastoral idyll but of the “Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind/That blows before and after time” in the “place of disaffection” that is Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”, composed the same year. Spencer emphasised the scarecrow’s fantasy and stoicism – “I like the feeling of it always being there. In the evening he faded into the gloaming like a Cheshire Cat” – but it is impossible not to see the Crucifixion in the composition; indeed, Spencer later painted a similar work with Christ on the cross in the same position as the scarecrow.
Spencer sustained the vocabulary of his childhood until his death in 1959, when, in the age of pop and minimalism, he was working on “Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta”. Covering almost an entire wall, this greets you like a fresco in a chapel. The paint, characteristic of Spencer’s later years, is thin and dry, but his powers of composition and visual recall are undiminished. All human life, mostly based on local characters, is here: Christ, wearing a straw boater and propelled forward from his seat on the old horseferry barge by the force of his words; the sturdy boatyard keeper in the foreground; the innkeeper and his tarty wife; excited girls whose outstretched arms rhyme with the long-necked swans hovering about their punt; elders lolling in their chairs; the pleasure-seeking Edwardian crowds.
“Sorrow and sadness is not for me” were Spencer’s last words, but as a reflection of his art, that is nonsense too. “Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta” has the busy joy of his love affair with home, but as drama it is an epic of loneliness, of worldly indifference to an individual who is trying to make himself heard. Half the time Spencer’s paradise feels like hell. It is when he tells a different truth from the one he wanted – more ruthless, bleaker – that he painted his best work, expressing a tangential, anxious relationship to reality that still compels and disturbs.
‘Stanley Spencer: Painting
Paradise’, Museum of Reading, to April 22. Tel +44 118 939 9800