Stanley Spencer and the English Garden, Compton Verney/Exhibition at Kunsthal, Rotterdam

Stanley Spencer and the English Garden, edited by Steven Parissien, London, 2011. ISBN 978-1-907372 12 4. (First published in conjunction with an exhibition at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, 25 June-2 October 2011).
Exhibition of Stanley Spencer at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, 17 September 2011-15 January 2012.

Compton Verney is really to be congratulated for putting on such excellent shows of 20th century British art. They regularly draw me down the M40 from London to the sylvan depths of Warwickshire to see what there is on offer and I am rarely disappointed. One senses an intelligent and sophisticated hand behind the selection of these shows. They tend not to be blockbusters, in the way one might expect the Tate to have a show; that would not be possible or appropriate for such a gallery; but they always approach interesting topics in a novel and subtle fashion.

Their Spencer show in the Summer was no exception. In England, unlike in the Netherlands as we shall see, Spencer has had widespread exposure. But as with so many great artists, there are various different Spencers to which one can be exposed. Whereas in Rotterdam one gets a good blast from all the different Spencers, in Compton Verney, consistent with its leafy, verdant setting, one got only the bucolic Spencer: for this was a show of Spencer’s gardens and landscapes.

I am not sure how Spencer came to paint these pictures. It is said that his long-suffering dealer, Dudley Tooth, pleaded with him to do the garden pictures with a view to selling them. They must certainly always have been more readily saleable to a wider audience than some of the artist’s more religious and personal subjects. But such a categorisation implies that these luscious pictures were in some way churned out for money. If so, one might expect them to be formulaic, unloved works, lacking the intensity and passion of what one might regard as ‘proper’ Spencers.

In fact, nothing could be further from the case. Many of the pictures have an intense deliberation about them in the same way as more ‘typical’ Spencers do. They are not, to all appearances, casually thrown off in order to earn the odd pound. Even if the motivation for producing them was at least partially financial – and what, pray, is the problem with that anyway? – one senses that Spencer took care over the work he subsequently produced and simply had a separate genre to his work which he took seriously, even whilst grudging the popularity of these pictures as against the figurative works. There are a number of artists who worked seriously and effectively in a number of apparently unrelated styles: one thinks of Ben Nicholson in England and the exceptionally versatile and skilful Colin Middleton in Northern Ireland.

So Spencer’s versatility does not indicate to me that these are to be treated as secondary pictures; as such I assume I am aligned with the creators of this fine exhibition. Certainly, a mere glance at the contents page of the catalogue indicates that very serious minds indeed have been engaged with its production and presumably with the genesis of the show.

Duncan Robinson is, for example, one of the great Spencer scholars. He writes the first chapter of the catalogue, entitled ‘Stanley Spencer in Retrospect’. It is an excellent background piece, and there is also a very good piece by Martin Postle, but the heart of the catalogue is the chapter by Professor Keith Bell, another great Spencer scholar. This analyses the work and the background against which it was produced; key points emerge. The rôle of a dealer comes sharply into focus, for example. Dudley Tooth had a problem with Spencer. He could sell every single piece he produced in the manner of landscapes or gardens, but he had more difficulty selling the figurative works. Yet the artist wanted the promotion of the latter at the expense of the former, because he thought they were the ‘serious’ part of his painting career. He wanted institutions to buy them and he was cross when Tooth sold the landscapes to public galleries. In the end Tooth did his best with both and singlehandedly kept Spencer’s sometimes chaotic finances afloat.

The next thing the exhibition, and Professor Bell’s chapter, raises is the relevance of an artist’s view of his own work. Spencer was convinced that the figurative work was more important than the rest; the buying public thought otherwise. Who is art for?

Painting of the natural world has a long and distinguished history in this country; Spencer is a prominent 20th century member of the club. His work is often more suburban than some, but then there have been other such ‘suburban’ artists, such as Lucien Pissarro and David Jones. Spencer may have chosen his subjects because they were what he saw near where he was living; or he may have sought subjects in which he could portray the interaction of the natural world with the human. Time and again the picture has garden or landscape and buildings. Powerful interactions are thereby established. Sometimes the effect is of the lavish foliage threatening to submerge man’s dwellings. “Cottages at Burghclere” from 1930 and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge would be an example of this. The hedges, foliage and trees are alive and invasive; the thatch on the cottage roof, by contrast, sags; there are no people visible – presumably they are cowering inside waiting for the vegetation to overwhelm them. There is a sense of The Day of the Triffids about this picture!

Others have distinctively suggestive subjects. “The Scarecrow, Cookham” of 1934 (Private Collection) is for all the world like an inanimate Crucifixion. The scarecrow hangs on its cross surveying the landscape from the front of the picture. The viewer of the picture is behind the scarecrow. The imagery of “Cookham Rise” from 1938 (from Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum) has been much remarked upon by commentators. The prominent arrangement of the concrete marker posts in the gardens of the houses have been likened to rows of gravestones, but what has died? The loss of the English countryside is perhaps what the artist mourns.

Landscapes from later in his career, such as the picture of “Merville Garden Village, near Belfast” from 1951 (now in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in New Zealand) and the “Hoe Garden Nursery” from 1954 (from Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery), are painted in a drier, more detailed way. They are still loaded with significance. The modern block of flats at Merville, completed in 1949, which is the ostensible subject matter of the Belfast picture, has in front of it a dominating and extensive scene from an old walled garden (which presumably belonged to Merville House, on whose estate the ‘garden village’ was built). Dilapidated and overgrown and reverting to nature, the old has not succumbed to the new; its fecundity belies the tidy notion of a ‘garden village’. (Spencer’s connection with Merville was through his musician brother, Harold, who lived there. He visited a number of times in the 1950’s).

The Rotterdam show was altogether different. Unfortunately the catalogue is in Dutch, so this reviewer at least is able to say nothing about the text. But I am able to say something about this wonderful exhibition.

Apparently, the genesis of the exhibition was the fact that the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam owns two Spencer Self-Portraits: one of 1914 and one from 1936. These may well be the only Spencers in public collections in the Netherlands. Now a Spencer self-portrait is always a powerful image and some local Dutch artists were influenced by these pictures to paint self-portraits in styles not entirely dissimilar. The Dutch curator of this exhibition, Alied Ottevanger, saw this connection and decided to build an entire, and extremely comprehensive, show, not only of Spencer’s great works, but also of a large number of his British near-contemporaries.

So, whilst we get a good sample of major works by Spencer himself, we also get pictures by Freud, David Jones, William Roberts, Paul Nash, Dora Carrington, Wyndham Lewis, CRW Nevinson, Eric Gill, Gaudier-Brzeska, David Bomberg, Edward Wadsworth, Mark Gertler, Richard and Hilda Carline, Edward Burra, Jacob Kramer, and one or two other less well-known names. These pictures resonate with those of Spencer in different ways. Some are overtly religious and can be compared in that sense – the pictures by William Roberts and David Jones, for example. Some are war scenes, such as the pictures by Wyndham Lewis (the great ‘A Battery Shelled’ from the Imperial War Museum), Nevinson and David Bomberg. Others are landscape works or portraits. Undoubtedly no-one really approaches the major visionary work in Spencer’s hallmark style, but there are enough overlaps elsewhere to remind us that an artists as multi-talented as Spencer are unlikely to be found to have operated in an artistic vacuum. He was at the Slade with a number of the artists mentioned, sharing their training and, crucially, some of the influences from historical artists which they experienced. So he achieves a degree of context in this show, which is usually denied him in solo shows in England.

This is not to say that the Spencer work on show somehow settles back into a genre which could be loosely described as English painting of the first half of the 20th century. The similarities in some areas simply succeed in pointing up the differences and in showing the amazing brilliance of his imagination and execution. Spencer was surely a very great British artist. His religious imagery may alienate some viewers today, who have lost the familiarity with religious subjects that earlier generations would have had. But why is that more difficult for the modern viewer than the attempt which he has to make to engage with the subject-matter and iconography of a picture by Raphael? Unfamiliarity with the religious themes depicted in some of Spencer’s major work is not an excuse to dismiss it or to bundle it off into an artistic cul-de-sac. In many ways, Spencer’s subject-matter connects him to many of the greatest artists the Western world has every produced. He was a fine, visionary and accomplished artist and an impressive ambassador in Rotterdam for 20th century British art.