Halfway around Of Angels and Dirt, the Hepworth’s Stanley Spencer exhibition, I realised I had been infected by a bout of temporary synesthesia. I could audibly smell some of the paintings (that phrase makes sense to me in my head) and hear them, too. I have liked Stanley Spencer’s paintings since I was an early teen, and I hoped that visiting another exhibition of his work would help me work out why. I think it has.
I walked to the gallery from Wakefield Westgate, down the pastoral route of the A638, bejewelled with Currys, Homebase, Toys ‘R’ Us and wire mesh fencing. On the way, I saw a young man casually drop his greaseproof fast food wrapping to the floor as he licked his greasy mayonnaise fingers. It is a simple, single action that makes a tut echo in my head as my mind sighs sadly at humanity. Casual littering is an action, or lack of action, that makes me resort to sociopathic thoughts and ruing the failure of parents, education and society as a whole. It was the sort of ugly action that can be adeptly countered by rooms filled with the paintings and words of Stanley Spencer.
“I like my life so much that I want to fill every empty space on a wall with it”
I like Stanley Spencer for a two, maybe three pronged nostalgia.
I used to go to a book fair with my father in Cookham. The Stanley Spencer Gallery is the first art gallery I went to with him.
There is tremendous warmth in his paintings and feelings of a memory of an England that probably never was but was fertile in the mind of Spencer. It is certainly a better England on the wall than in my ear as I write this while a man on the Bradford train is leaving bids for a car loudly over his phone (which is on speaker).
I look at his images of Cookham and can reminisce over things that never happened in my life.
Why is placing New Testament events in the graveyards, on the river banks and in the streets of Cookham so delightful. Can I ever understand how I painter can so adeptly transfer the delight in his mind onto canvas and still convey that 57 years after his death?
While Francis Bacon may have us distressed and murmuring, “what fresh hell is this?” , Spencer has our eyes smiling as we ask, “but what fresh heaven is this?” And his heavenly images are not those of a distant magnificence that says’ “all this can be yours just as soon as your dead”, it says, “this can be yours and it is here and it is now”.
The Last Supper (1920) reminded me of Gulley Jimson (the artist of Joyce Cary’s Horse’s Mouth who, in the film if not in the book, lazily I cannot tell you if it is both, spends months painting feet for a grand mural. When he sees the right wall, he must paint on it, even though he has never been able to be true to what hangs in his head). It is not merely the lightness of this last supper, it is the disciples bare feet all sticking out from under the table that pleases so much.
His naked paintings were considered beyond the bounds of decency during his life. The painting of his second wife, Patricia Preece, topless is the antithesis of contemporary consumer nude. The breasts sag, the veins are apparent, the flesh is fleshy. There was too much reality for some then and there may be too much reality for some now. There is no air in this brush. He described his brush as being like an ant crawling all over her body as he recreated what was before him on paper.
It is the room of the workers on the Clyde and the cluttered Art Class where the noise really begins, and the smell too. Why, when I have seen so far more exact painterly interpretations of boat builder’s yards and furnace huffing industries does Stanley Spencer’s work create the most noise?
And amongst all these, some of the most beautiful paintings of flowers, and gardens and landscapes…
I probably still haven’t worked out what it is about Spencer, but after a morning at the Hepworth, my delight in him is even more firmly held than it was the day before.
Only a few days left, you should go, you deserve it.
Book Shambles series 4 has begun. Episode one is Alan Moore talking of rap and myth and Lovecraft and creation, next up is Noel Fielding. Patreon subscribers will get a bonus 70 minutes of Alan Moore on Sunday. You can find Alan Moore (and the rest) HERE.(also, if you are in London, remember the brilliant US comic Barry Crimmins is playing Leicester Square Theatre on Friday and Saturday)