Obsessed with Cookham, the ancient Berkshire village where he grew up, Sir Stanley Spencer never lost the urge to paint its tranquil riverside setting, modest houses and, above all, its flowers. The villagers often waved and chatted to him as he wandered around Cookham, pushing a rickety old pram heaped with his easel, umbrella and artist’s materials.
Spencer was a friendly character, but once he had settled on a subject his concentration grew fierce. And the outcome of all this impassioned scrutiny is now surveyed at Compton Verney, in a well-focused show where Spencer’s devotion to the English garden is explored at every turn.
Even so, these densely observed paintings are not just lyrical celebrations of nature. Spencer produced most of them after his service in the first world war. In 1916, he wrote a letter describing how this ordeal “made me ache to go down to the bottom of our garden and look over the low wall”. Spencer drew in the same letter an aerial view of the garden, identifying all his favourite trees: Williams pear, laburnum, apple, cherry and fir. He explained that “this fir tree has many apertures, openings which greatly excites [sic] my imagination. They all seem holy and secret.” This was no idle claim. Even the simplest flowers in Spencer’s work turn out to be freighted with redemptive meaning.
His experiences in Macedonia were so traumatic that he later claimed to have been “crushed by the war”. After returning from the battlefields, Spencer decided that his overriding priority was healing and renewal. He realised, more keenly than ever before, the importance of growth.
Most of his energy during the 1920s was channelled into the planning and execution of monumental war memorial paintings on the walls of Burghclere Chapel in Hampshire. Yet he still found time to paint a lovingly expansive image of “Cottages at Burghclere”, where the white picket fences in their front gardens are almost overwhelmed by the super-abundant hedges and plants. Spencer, it seems, is rejoicing at the world’s stubborn ability to regenerate itself after war.
During the 1930s he gets closer to the petals that ignite his imagination. In a large canvas called “Bellrope Meadow” they dominate the foreground, surging upwards with such irrepressible richness that the distant trees seem almost insignificant by comparison. Such paintings link him with John Constable, who had celebrated the kitchen and flower gardens of his Suffolk family home with equally avid attention. Viewed from a distance, Spencer’s appetite for minuscule detail in “Bellrope Meadow” seems limitless. When we get near the canvas, though, his talent for summarising even the most intricate clusters of form becomes evident.
His letters often complained about the pressure exerted by his London dealer, Dudley Tooth, who told Spencer that his landscapes were far easier to sell than his overtly religious figure paintings. Sometimes, the relentless pressure to make money made him become humdrum. Yet he never lost sight of his overall ambition as an artist, to achieve a union between the sacred and the profane. Even when in danger of succumbing to pedantic realism, Spencer retained his vision of Cookham as an earthly Eden. He once described the village street as “the Nave” and the nearby Thames as “a side aisle”. Ideally, everything he painted would have been displayed in “The Church House”, a fantasy building that underlined his religious convictions throughout its interior.
But Spencer also took an unholy delight in lauding sexual desire. The strangest painting in this show is called “The Dustman, or The Lovers”. Here, a throng of adoring women hold up cabbage stalks and an empty jam tin as resurrected offerings to the dustman, whose legs are clamped around his wife’s waist. She holds him tightly in her arms and, according to Spencer, “experiences the bliss of union which his corduroy trousers quicken”. By 1935, Spencer still looked back to the war and “felt that the only way to end the ghastly experience would be if everyone suddenly decided to indulge in every degree and form of sexual love”.
Spencer’s own attempts to indulge terminated in estrangement from both his wives. Two of the paintings he made in 1936 convey a feeling of entrapment. “Boatbuilder’s Yard, Cookham” focuses on melancholy goldfish imprisoned in a tank; “The Jubilee Tree, Cookham” shows the vulnerability of a sapling as it struggles to grow inside an iron cage. And memories of war returned to haunt him in “Cookham Rise” (1938), where he depicted the new council-built houses extending outwards from the village of his childhood. Eerily, the white concrete posts marking out their gardens look like slender gravestones in a military cemetery.
Ultimately, though, Spencer’s sustained involvement with nature carries a strong redemptive charge. In “Wisteria, Cookham”, he conveys a sense of wonder at these luminous blue plants burgeoning among the neat privet hedges and chimney-pots. Even though Spencer painted this canvas in 1942, when another war was threatening to destroy the world, the wisteria’s splendour affirms his defiant vision of Cookham as a village in heaven.
Until October 2, Compton Verney