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A Modernist Artist Blends Realistic Memories of World War I Onto Canvas

Molding complex themes of religion and sexuality, this British artist reveals the simple lives of people in the wake of WW I.

by Anna Marks
24 July 2016, 12:00pm

The Art Class, Left outer panel from the Empire Marketing Board Series, 1929, oil on canvas. Gift from the Audrey & Stanley Charitable Trust, 2009. Image courtesy of University of Leeds Art Collection © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images

Depicting busy, British occasions, shell-shocked soldiers, and sausage-throwing chaos at the butchers, Stanley Spencer is an artist known for blending pockets of memories from The First World War on canvas. This year marks the 125th anniversary of Spencer's birth and The Hepworth Wakefield in West Yorkshire, showcasing a large breadth of his work, has taken the opportunity to not only celebrate the legacy of one of Britain’s greatest painters but also introduce Spencer to a new generation. Many of the works of Stanley Spencer: Of Angels & Dirt are from his private collection, including a sketchbook dating back to 1907 (and making its first appearance in the exhibit), which reveals some of his earliest drawings.

Curator of the exhibition, Eleanor Clayton, spoke to The Creators Project, explaining Spencer's importance as a British artist. She says “Spencer holds a unique space in British Modernism, as an artist who pushed and tested figurative painting—using different styles to portray various subject matters. He reimagined and celebrated ordinary and mundane places and events, which is very inspiring. His paintings also express sometimes contradictory ideas—sex and religion for example—in ways that allow for complicated emotions and the complexity of people.”

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Self-portrait By Gaslight Looking Downwards, 1949, oil on canvas © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images and photography courtesy of © Reading Museum (Reading Borough Council)

Not only does Spencer’s work represent British Modernism, his compositions make visible the common worker’s life. He blends the wearisome with the imaginative. In his teenage sketchbook, the artist comes off as loyal to the English landscape but also knowingly aware of society.

Spencer molds complex themes of sexuality, religion, and moral perspective, exhibiting his outlook on British culture and lifestyle. Remembering Spencer’s famous quote, “I am on the side of angels and dirt” his artistic style showcases his fascination with mankind and the capacity to reach a divine, higher level surpassing mortality. This is done by distorting the characters in his paintings.  

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Sausage Shop, 1951, oil on canvas.  Reproduced with the permission of Newport Museum & Art Gallery © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images

“Spencer uses different styles for different subject matter—his portraits and landscapes are forensically detailed and almost hyper-real depictions of the physical world, while his religious paintings tend to have more distortion,” Clapton explains. “This may be due to the dialog between the physical world and the transcendental spiritual world that Spencer tried to express in his compositions."

Self Portrait, Adelaide Road, 1939 Private collection. Images courtesy of Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images

We get a specific insight into Spencer’s outlook on the war from his paintings, but there is more to the story Clayton explains, “There was a show about Spencer and the war a couple of years ago, but this is not that show. We’re looking really at the breadth of his practice. He worked as an artist for just under 50 years and only a small portion of that output relates directly to the war—although of course you can read his war experiences into lots of his work, he said of his repeated depictions of resurrections for example, ‘I had buried so many people and saw so many dead bodies that I felt that death could not be the end of everything.'"

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Zacharias and Elizabeth, 1913, oil on canvas © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images, Photography © Tate, London 2016

Bellrope, Cookham, Berkshire, 1936 © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images. Image courtesy of Touchstones Rochdale Art Gallery, Link4Life

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Self-Portrait, 1923, oil on canvas. Stanley Spencer Gallery Collection © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images

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The Resurrection: Tidying, 1945, oil on canvas © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images. Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust

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Stanley Spencer’s Sketchbook, 1907 © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images. Courtesy The Hepworth Wakefield

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Stanley Spencer’s Sketchbook, 1907 © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images. Courtesy of The Hepworth Wakefield  

Stanley Spencer: Of Angels & Dirt runs until October 5th, 2016. To read more about it click here. 

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