Stanley Spencer Evokes Controversial Dichotomies British artist Stanley Spencer’s paintings combine themes that are not traditionally found together to create a new and often provocative perspective.
Spencer takes Biblical scenes and sets them in his home town, mixing the historical past with his present reality. Scenes regarding a sexual nature are painted in a redeeming light. Mystical scenes are situated in Spencer’s modern context.
By juxtaposing these dissimilar topics, Spencer searches for a new and deeper understanding. In modern times, many Stanley Spencer fans only appreciate and recall the whimsical aspects of aspects of his work.A viewer such as this does not consider the controversial subject matter tackled by Spencer. The work made by Stanley Spencer refuses to be sorted into a box within which they can be easily dealt with.
The struggle creates an changing meaning creates a work that continues to be of value over the course of history. Stanley Spencer was an English painter born in 1891. He attended the Slade School of London, but traveled home most days for tea to his home town of Cookham. Because of his eccentric obsession with the town of Cookham, his fellow students even began to use Cookham as a nickname for Spencer.As exhibited in many of his paintings Spencer was deeply religious, but not in a conventional sense.
He felt that organized “religion is a gloomy wretched thing, a depressing atmosphere”.  Spencer’s paintings drew on his different approach to faith and are often quirky depictions of Biblical stories set in his hometown. During WWI Spencer served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. So shocked by what he saw, Spencer took a two year painting holiday at the suggestion of his friend. In 1925, Spencer married Hilda Carline, a fellow artist. Spencer became charmed by his neighbor Patrice Preece.
He divorced Carline in 1937 and married Preece one week later. Preece continued to live with her female partner Dorthy Hepworth and refused to consummate the marriage with Spencer. Although Preece would not grant Spencer a divorce, Spencer rekindled his relationship with Carline until she died of cancer in 1950. The painting “The Centurion’s Servant” recreates a Biblical scene in which Jesus heals one of his friend’s favorite servants without stepping into the room. For the setting, Spencer imagined the painting in an attic of his house where his own maid lived.The paintings locale is a bare and isolated room containing only the bed. Villager’s of Cookham surround the bed kneeling, praying for the ill servant. There is no promise of healing given in the painting; the bleakness of the room does not provide much hope.
The biblical story reminded Spencer of his own life experiences so he painted them in his own surroundings. The painting takes a familiar story and allows for a new and possibly different interpretation. Spencer continues to paint Biblical scenes into his surroundings, this time taking it into his own back yard.The painting “Zacharias and Elizabeth” completed in 1914 occurs in the garden that is visible to through his studio window. In the scene an angel visits Zacharias and tells him that even though his wife is beyond her child bearing years, she will have a son and he will grow up to be John the Baptist. Spencer says that “it was to be a painting characterizing and exactly expressing the life I was … living and seeing about me… to raise that life round me to what I felt was its true status, meaning and purpose.
” This is a common thread that runs throughout Spencer’s work. Spencer sees everyday surroundings worthy of these Biblical scenes.The painting “Resurection Cookham” continues the theme of rebirth and redemption. The piece depicts a Cookham church graveyard at the moment of the resurrection. The deceased rise up, pushing away their caskets. Sexual tension is displayed as Hilda awakes from a sleep in a bed of ivy and Spencer leans nude against a tombstone. In the far left boats take the souls away and up the Thames river. The color scheme evokes a unsettling feeling; one a somber and not joyous occasion.
Spencer remarks of this work that“Resurrection Cookham”that he did not mean to paint a scene of horror but a scene of redemption. All of Cookham is worthy of redemption in this painting. Some of Spencer’s most famous works deal with a fragmented event to setting relationship. The painting “Christ Carrying the Cross” completed in 1920 is a prime example of this technique. When Spencer sees carpenters carrying ladders down the street he compares it to Christ carrying the cross through Jerusalem. Pale, ghostly angels lean out of the windows and watch the procession. Spencer’s strong Christian faith led him to feel that the miraculous could be found in every day places.
Spencer felt that his town of Cookham was holy and he was going to paint it as such. Spencer’s application of holiness did not simply extend to his location. The first painting that pertains to love and sexuality that Spencer completed is “The Beatitudes of Love. ” This work was created during the “collapse of his marriage, Spencer gave himself up to a prolonged meditation and fantasy on the theme of ‘husbands and wives’. ”  The figures in the painting are illustrative and grotesque. It explores the notion that the highest and most pure love is not found in the