Grahame Sydney was invited to open the Stanley Spencer exhibition at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. In his speech Sydney acknowledged Stanley Spencer’s daughter Unity.
“On a personal note first of all, may I say what an honour it is to have Stanley Spencer’s daughter, Unity, here with us tonght.
As if having a Spencer show in Dunedin is not enough, it is an occasion made all the more significant by your presence tonight, Unity, and a particular pleasure for me to be able to say that I have now met both of Stanley’s daughters here in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery: an “everyday miracle” for me.
One of the first reproductions of an art work I ever pinned to my bedroom wall, the bedroom I pretended was my first ever studio as a schoolboy in the 1960’s, was Michael Smither’s painting “St Francis in Ecstasy in the Garden of Eden”, carefully torn from the NZ Women’s Weekly. In the accompanying article Michael paid his great respects to the English painter whose work and example had given him the courage to try to be an artist: Stanley Spencer.
I went searching for this Spencer, and found him hiding in one or two books upstairs in the Moray Place Public Library. I immediately removed those books on permanent renewal, and felt real irritation towards anyone who interrupted my possession with loan requests of their own.
That admiration, now well into its 4th decade, has never faltered – for either me or Michael Smither. We have both made the closest thing either of us will ever get to Religious Pilgrimages to Cookham, stood in front of Fernlea and the Church, walked its tiny High Street and recognised its high brick walls, had our photographs taken on the bridge over the sluggish Thames. It’s a form of worship by ageing painters, and I’m proud of it.
I still have several Spencer postcards near me when I work, and on my studio wall a black and white photograph of Stanley drawing in the Glasgow Shipyards during WW2 has kept me company for many years.
Spencer’s example and influence on painters around the world has been immeasurable, and I derive great satisfaction from knowing that a painter who was so utterly saturated in the pageant of his own life and beloved, small corner of the world – and who was so determinedly unaffected by the surging tides of international art movements and fashions throughout his life, should now be so internationally recognised and celebrated.
Spencer was a gloriously complicated man, but put simply his preoccupations were two-fold, and both are nicely represented in this exhibition:
The First, and most compelling to me, was his unashamed fascination with himself, his unfolding life and spiritual beliefs. Who else could write (1922) “of course I love myself more than anybody…. I collect Stanley Spencer’s just as George collects stamps…. I love myself in much the same way as a baby loves a tin soldier.”
Who else could seriously plan a “Church of Me” which would be a Cathedral of Memory, with separate wings devoted to paintings of the important women in his life?
And who else could write later of his “pining to get home and back to that happy realm of thinking about myself – my special brew of thoughts when all the Stanleys, this me and that me, can come out like children coming out of school.”
Spencer was blessed with a wonderful conviction that he was witness to the miracle of everyday living. While much of his work was from memory, “a reclamation and contemplation of his own past”, and focused intently upon his fabulous imaginings of the Biblical and Gospel stories happening in Cookham, with recognisable Cookham characters as stars in the on-going revelations, there was at the same time another preoccupation: the “potboilers,” frequently disparaged by the man himself.
These were the bread and butter of simple survival; but they were much more than that – his catalogue of Cookham’s landscape – lovingly, scrupulously observed and painted with rare patience. These are the FACT paintings, where the others are the IMAGINING works, but they reveal his delight in and respect for the sheer visual luxury of things: pattern, detail, variety, colour, texture.
Far more than most, he was alert to this visual richness, and it thrilled him:
“Cooped up as I am in myself, I gaze out on my own chicken run and feel I could write a chapter on each ridge of mud, or scratched hole, or nettle, or claw mark. I prefer to have no greater world.”
The mystery and magic of life and living.
In this exhibition we can stand in front of one of the greatest paintings of the C20th, Spencer’s oversized “Self Portrait” begun just before the outbreak of WW1. He was 23 and he painted it in the charmingly named “Wisteria Cottage”, which he rented as a studio from Jack Hatch, the local coalman. He had hardly spent a night away from Fernlea, the Cookham High St home his grandfather had built.
If I was allowed to steal one painting from the Tate Gallery and get away with it, I’d steal this self portrait. Beside this assured and monumental 1914 work you’ll see another of the same man, now much reduced, and 45 years older. It’s a dreadfully honest painting: he has cancer and will be dead in 2 months. We can stand in front of it now just as he did in 1959: we see him as he saw himself – unconcerned, unbrushed, uncensored.
He does not look afraid of dying – indeed it may be, according to his daughter today, that he did not know he was. But after all, this was a man who believed that on Judgment Day everyone would be resurrected, saints and sinners alike. The idea of Heaven had always excited him, and he’d happily imagined it would be no different to Cookham. All his life he’d painted miracles happening in his own back yard. This is the face, I should add, of a man who had just recently been Knighted by his Queen.
They make a brilliant pair, these two works, bookends to the story of an uncommon and truly marvellous life told in 50 years of paint.
As one who believes that one of the fundamental purposes and appeals of great art is the extent to which it ushers us into the exclusive domain of what it’s like being someone else, Spencer’s compulsion to show and tell, as he once said, “to tell everybody everything”, and to do so with extraordinary craft and confidence, is something millions of people the world over are profoundly grateful for -–myself and Mr Smither included.
He was a rare and fascinating individual, and his paintings show us all precisely how rare and fascinating one life, lived so intensely and exuberantly, can be.
It’s a privilege to have these works in this gallery, and a privilege to have Unity Spencer in our company tonight, herself, unsurprisingly, an artist too.
My appreciation also to the staff of the DPAG – to you, Priscilla, for the work done getting this exhibition together, and to you Justin for the beautiful and lucid writing, as always.
Our thanks are due to you all for doing us the huge favour of enjoying Stanley Spencer in our own village, half a world away.”