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1935 Exit Spencer

“I never wanted to become an associate,” Stanley Spencer declared to a Standard reporter, “I do not approve of the Academy, but I thought the best way to change it was to join it.”1 Never one to shun publicity, when he resigned in 1935, he published his correspondence with the Royal Academy’s Secretary, William Lamb, in The Times. Spencer was elected as an Associate in 1932 and two years later, in 1934, sent in six canvases, the maximum number a member could submit to the Hanging Committee. All of them were accepted and three, by no means the least unconventional, were reproduced in that year’s Royal Academy Illustrated. He was therefore surprised as well as enraged by the decision in the following year to reject two of the five paintings he submitted. The Secretary wrote in emollient terms to ask him:

to withdraw from the exhibition your two pictures St Francis and the Birds and The Lovers (The Dustman), as they do not think that these works of advantage to your reputation or the influence of the Academy. … The Committee has much pleasure in placing your other works in good positions.2 (Figs 1 and 2)

True to their word, the remaining three paintings were hung in Galleries I and XI, to the right and left of the entrance vestibule. But this did not placate the artist, who demanded that all five of his pictures should be withdrawn. When the catalogue and the Royal Academy Illustrated went to press, they included the three paintings the Committee had accepted: the uncontroversial Scarecrow, Cookham, and The Builders together with its pendant Workmen in the House, both painted earlier in the year for a building contractor, Charles Boot, who promptly rejected them as being “not up to specification”. Initially Lamb stood his ground, reminding Spencer of the rules that the Hanging Committee was entitled to reject work and that once selected, pictures could not be removed before the end of the Exhibition. Spencer’s reaction was predictable: “If it is your idea … to make me unhappy you are succeeding in doing so. Please, please let me have my pictures back. I want my pictures.” Finally, in late April, his dealer, Dudley Tooth, arranged for all five paintings to be collected from the Academy, to be exhibited in his Bond Street gallery.

Explore the 1935 catalogue

Public reactions were divided. Senior Academicians like Sickert and Augustus John defended Spencer, whereas Munnings was violently opposed. The popular press was, with few exceptions, hostile. “Mr Spencer’s St Francis is a caricature which passes the bounds of good taste,” according to the Continental Daily Mail’s reviewer.3 Clearly for some, the depiction of one of christianity’s favourite saints, the alter Christus who wrote The Mirror of Perfection, touched a raw nerve, just as others were doubtless offended by the quirky sexuality of the diminutive dustman clasped like a child in the arms of his lover who “experiences the bliss of union which his corduroy trousers quicken.” Spencer’s explanation of the bloated figure of the saint was equally disarming. It was inspired by his “memory of his father in a dressing gown going to the larder … to get food for the hens and ducks.”4

Perhaps the Hanging Committee’s decision simply reflected a change in membership from one year to the next, but it is also possible that its members reacted against the religious unorthodoxy apparent in both paintings. The Lovers preside over a ritual in which the participants solemnly elevate their offerings of garbage. St Francis leads a congregation of domestic fowl in an act of worship in which his outstretched arms refer to both the crucifixion and his stigmatisation. In both images, Spencer deliberately collated the sacred and the profane. “Nothing I love is rubbish,” he insisted, “I am always taking the stone that was rejected and making it the cornerstone in some painting of mine.”5

This certainly goes some way towards explaining why Spencer attached so much importance to exhibiting all five of the pictures he had submitted in 1935. To understand his outburst fully, however, it helps to look back to the previous year and to trace in the works he chose for public exhibition the unfolding narrative of his private life centred in his birthplace, the village of Cookham. Two of the paintings he exhibited in 1934 literally resurrected the past: Villagers and Saints and Parents’ Resurrection. The Meeting solemnised Spencer’s first encounter with Patricia Preece, which took place in 1929 when he and his wife Hilda met her and her companion Dorothy Hepworth in the tea rooms in the High Street. Over the next several years, his infatuation grew and, conflicted though she was, she encouraged his advances and eventually agreed to become his lover. Instead of the tea tables where they met, Spencer chose to depict them in the passageway next to Fernlea, his childhood home, a space he had already invested with religious significance as the setting for Christ’s Betrayal painted in 1923. It could hardly have been by chance that he selected it to reflect on his own betrayal by his wife, and in 1935, to provide the site for the ecstasy of St Francis. A fourth exhibit, the Souvenir of Switzerland recorded Spencer’s visit to the Swiss Alps in 1933 when his host, Sir Edward Beddington-Behrens, invited Preece to join them there. Finally, Preece was the subject of the Portraitof an unnamed sitter shown in 1934.

The five pictures submitted in 1935 continued the running commentary on Spencer’s complicated love life and the psychological tensions it incurred for him, his wife, and his mistress. Workmen in the House recalls the domestic happiness (and frustrations) of family life at Chapel View,the house the Spencers occupied with their two children, while he was engaged on the painting of the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere. The Builders is similarly concerned with making homes and building nests, at a time when Spencer’s marriage was disintegrating. St Francis and the Birds completes the account. According to the artist’s brother Gilbert, it was painted over an earlier picture of Hilda sitting on a haystack with hens and ducks feeding around her.In the reworked picture, she was supplanted by old “Pa” Spencer as the saint (another resurrection) and two supporting figures. The small boy to the left clearly represents Spencer in the innocence of youth. The woman on the right, Preece for sure, clutches a bunch of wildflowers, while her raised arm casts a shadow of doubt across her face. All of the protagonists in Spencer’s turbulent life are past and present. By refusing to exhibit The Lovers and St Francis, the Hanging Committee had in effect deprived Spencer of the opportunity to expose himself to the world in a sequence of allegorical representations of his apologia pro vita sua.

  1. From a book of press cuttings shown to the author by Richard Carline in 1975.↩︎

  2. Quoted by Kenneth Pople, Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Collins, 1991), 338.↩︎

  3. Continental Daily Mail, 27 April 1935, quoted in Duncan Robinson, Stanley Spencer (Oxford: Phaidon, 1990), 69.↩︎

  4. Maurice Collis, Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harvill Press, 1962), 114. Collis drew upon the notes which Spencer wrote about his paintings ca. 1937 and which are now housed in the Tate Archive.↩︎

  5. Spencer’s words are taken from the same source, quoted by Robinson, Stanley Spencer, 61 and 65.↩︎

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Explore the 1935 catalogue