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1950 The Resurrection and Stanley Spencer’s Re-Election

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The 1950 Summer Exhibition witnessed the return of Stanley Spencer as an exhibitor and member following a fifteen-year absence from the Royal Academy. He returned in triumph, rejoining the institution as a full Academician, and exhibiting in the show part of a major series of works themed around resurrection. The central piece of the series, The Resurrection: Port Glasgow (1947–1950), was a major exhibit, purchased under the Chantry Bequest and reported to be one of the highest-grossing sales of the show (Fig. 1).1 This work, which was acquired for Tate, depicts men, women, and children rising out of tombs in a graveyard meadow, the people intended to represent the residents of Port Glasgow, which was the setting for Spencer’s commissioned war paintings made from 1940–1945. These resurrected figures reach out and embrace loved ones, and a centre-right group lift their hands and faces up in praise. The work is vast in scale, over two metres tall and six metres wide, and painted in Spencer’s idiosyncratic mode of modern realism. It was accompanied in the show by four other works from the Resurrection series: The Hill of Zion (1946) (Fig. 2), Reunion (1945), Rejoicing (1946), and Waking Up (1945). These show other images of the resurrected Port Glasgow residents around the graveyard, reunited with family members, and ultimately mounting a hill on which reside heralds and apostles.

The critics responded warmly. For The Daily Telegraph, Port Glasgow was the “outstanding picture” of the show. 2 The Manchester Guardian praised all the works’ “tremendous strength of purpose which is Spencer’s great gift” in an article titled “The Royal Academy: Spencer and John make it a Better Year”, a sentiment shared even by the acerbic artist and critic Wyndham Lewis in The Listener.3 Overall, the success of Spencer’s 1950 exhibits mark a significant moment in his career: his re-acceptance within the institution (and his willingness to return into its fold), and the recovery of his reputation with critics, which had taken a major hit in the 1930s.

The 1930s were a difficult period in Spencer’s career and personal life. Personally, his marriage to his wife Hilda was breaking down and he began an unsuccessful relationship with Patricia Preece, the subject of a number of challenging portrait pieces produced later in the decade.4 Professionally, his work became increasingly difficult in subject and scope, tending towards compositions that Keith Bell has termed “iconographically obscure”.5 This problematic period is epitomised by his terse and very public break with the Academy in 1935. Two of the works he submitted to the Summer Exhibition of that year, The Lovers (Dustmen) (1934) and St Francis and the Birds (1935), were rejected by the Hanging Committee. Angered, Spencer tried to withdraw the rest of his works from the show and wrote an open letter to the Academy claiming that he had felt “pressed” to join when made ARA in 1932 and now tendered his resignation. Some critics were sympathetic to Spencer’s position and questioned why the Academy, having elected him, would reject work “completely in line with his previous painting”.6 However, the weight of opinion was against the artist, favouring the Academy’s argument that his attempt to remove works submitted was a breach of the rules that he had pledged to follow and an “ill-judged protest”.7 The critical fall-out from this dispute, along with financial problems exacerbated by Spencer’s marital difficulties, made for a difficult few years for the artist.

His return to favour, marked by his re-election in 1950, began with the successful reception of his war work. Commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) in 1939, he set out to record shipbuilding on the Clyde. Intended as a series of eleven works, the resultant commissions, including works such as Riveters (1941) were well received by the WAAC and by the critics, and the prestige and economic benefit Spencer enjoyed from this work helped reinvigorate his reputation.8 His dealers, Tooth’s, also played a big role in promoting and supporting him from the 1930s onwards. Their ability to mobilise critical interest was evident in Spencer’s 1950 one-man show at their dealer-gallery, timed to coincide with the Academy Summer Exhibition. The main feature of this show was the remaining three works from the Resurrection series: Reunion of Families (1945), Tidying (1945), and The Resurrection with Raising of Jairus’ Daughter (1947), with the show providing the opportunity for audiences from the Academy to see the series in its entirety. These works were presented alongside landscapes and flower paintings, all on sale, showing how Tooth’s aimed to draw audiences familiar with the Academy Exhibition in order to promote Spencer’s wider work, and particularly their own commercial holdings. This is made clear in the gallery’s pamphlet, which carries a picture of The Resurrection: Port Glasgow, noting that “this important painting” was then on show at the Summer Exhibition.9 Tooth’s use of the Summer Exhibition to cultivate the critical and commercial reputation of their artist shows the Academy and the Summer Exhibition acting as marker of critical validation. The failures and successes that Stanley Spencer experienced at the Academy went in tandem with fluctuations in his critical reputation, and marked key moments of transition in his practice and standing. This aligns with broader art-historical narratives of the artist’s career, which have proposed a chronology that sees the mid-1930s as a moment of crisis and 1950 as the start of period of stability and success.10

  1. Anon, “Spencer Picture for the Nation”, The Daily Telegraph and Morning Post, 29 May 1950, 7. The reporter notes the picture was on sale for £2,000, the highest-priced work in the Exhibition.↩︎

  2. Anon, “Spencer Picture for the Nation”, The Daily Telegraph and Morning Post, 29 May 1950, 7.↩︎

  3. Anon, “The Royal Academy: Spencer and John make it a Better Year”, The Manchester Guardian (29 April 1950), 5; Wyndham Lewis, ‘Round the London Art Galleries’, The Listener, 18 May 1950, 878–879. Lewis criticised Spencer’s handling of paint and the “quaintness” of his subjects, yet still felt them to be a positive addition to the Academy.↩︎

  4. For a fuller account of Spencer’s biography, see Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer: a Complete Catalogue of the Paintings (London: Phaidon, 1992); Kitty Hauser, Stanley Spencer (London: Tate, 2001); Andrew Causey, Stanley Spencer: Art as a Mirror of Himself (Farnham: Lund Humphries, 2014). The “leg of mutton” portrait, The Artist and His Second Wife (1937), is an example of the nature of his depictions of Preece.↩︎

  5. Bell, Stanley Spencer, 107.↩︎

  6. “Private Wire”, “London Sensation”, The Manchester Guardian, 26 April 1935, 8.↩︎

  7. Anon, “An Ill-Judged Protest”, and “Sir William Llewellyn and R.A. Dispute”, The Daily Telegraph, 26 April 1935, 12 and 14.↩︎

  8. Sophie Hatchwell, Stanley Spencer: A Sales History (London: Piano Nobile, 2017).↩︎

  9. Stanley Spencer CBE RA, An Exhibition of Recent Landscapes, Portraits And Flower Paintings, Together with Paintings of The Resurrection, in Completion of the Series Now on Show at the Royal Academy, 2 May–3 June (London: Arthur Tooth and Sons, 1950).↩︎

  10. See, for example, Bell, Stanley Spencer.↩︎

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Explore the 1950 catalogue