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Looking to Heaven: Vol. 1 Hardcover – 3 Nov 2016
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"The notable 20th-century artist kept journals throughout his life, containing both his notes and sketches. This is the first of a three-volume illustrated set, publishing his abridged journals for the first time and giving insights into how he worked." --The Bookseller
"This exquisitely produced book is a labour of love, assembled by Stanley Spencer's grandson from the artist's papers.....I hope volumes two and three follow shortly." --Lynn Barber - The Times
Stanley Spencer s prose lacks the consistency of his painting. It can be tangled and opaque, straggly and shapeless. But it shows at all times the profundity of his artistic vision, and it contains moments of transcendent beauty. --Mail on Sunday
About the Author
Born in Cookham in Berkshire, England, Stanley Spencer was well known for his paintings depicting biblical scenes. He received numerous awards and great recognition throughout his life and was knighted in 1958. His journals are held by the Tate Gallery Archive."
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Lynn Barber's opening remark that this is an 'exquisitely produced book' and a 'labour of love', assembled by Stanley Spencer's Grandson, John Spencer, is however, very much to the point. As John Spencer himself comments (not in the book), 'My Grandfather was both a genius and pain in the neck' and it's been wonderful getting to know him!'.
Compiled as it is, almost entirely from Spencer's wartime letters, the book is a 'must read' for anyone hoping to get beneath the skin of this great artist, whose works reflect so many enigmatic levels of meaning in every instance. Roll on, also, the next book in the sequence, where Spencer's subsequent life and love affairs are to be tackled by a similar process of extraction from his own writings.
Perhaps one of the deepest impressions from this present book is the depth and extent of Spencer's reading, whether the 'literary greats', religious or philosophical works, poetry, studies of great painters and so on. He was not permitted to write about the wartime happenings, so he wrote about books he had read and those he hoped to receive. His 'starvation' for painting and music is also a prominent theme. If ever there was evidence of the 'questing mind', and the resonance of the inputs that helped inform his works, this could not be greater than is shown in this 'autobiography'. We also grasp something of the way in which Spencer's mind switches and flutters and reverberates between wonder at life's imponderables and a parallel wonder at life's precious realities back in his beloved Cookham, his home village. Here at Cookham's Stanley Spencer Gallery we regard this book as a great treasure amongst the many books that we hold concerning the artist, and a further illumination to the numerous Spencer works that we exhibit.
As a Trustee of Cookham's Stanley Spencer Gallery,
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John Spencer observes that his grandfather "has been variously presented as a village simpleton, an eccentric, haunted by the erotic, a recluse, an egoist, a victim of circumstance--and also a visionary, a complete original, and one of the greatest British artists of the twentieth century." Finally, readers can begin to judge for themselves, from Stanley's diligent letters and lists, the first stages of his British success.
Volume one commences with Spencer's recollections of his youth. Born in 1891, his sketches from his teens appear gracing the margins of this handsome publication. Already a command of line draws one's attention. At fifteen, he began watercolor lessons. These prepared him for matriculation at the premier Slade School of Fine Art, from 1908 to 1912. He commuted to London and back each day.
Tellingly, his classmates nicknamed him "Cookham." Yet he admits that what he "felt" in his village could not be expressed at the Slade. "My knowledge developed by the experience of a series of drunken experiences," unrelated to each other. The key adjective here denotes not inebriation from alcohol, but elevation from his environment, and what he calls an oracular sense of contact with the "Grand Vision." This encompassed his work and his life's perspective, as an alchemy stirring up the quotidian into the mystical. Although a Christian, his faith remained peculiar, generated from within.
His canvas, "John Donne Arriving in Heaven," by 1911 confirms his direction. The Pre-Raphaelites and Giotto combined with modernist elements and foreshortened angles at this formative juncture. The characteristics evident early on would motivate him for a half-century. His return from Slade to his "earthly paradise" back in Berkshire inspired him to create "Apple Gatherers." The wide-eyed or off-handed depiction of faces and gestures looms out of the surface. Limbs distend; bodies contort.
These contortions prefigured his entry into a war that would end this idyll. Stanley's older brothers enlisted. He with a younger sibling joined a Home Hospital Service in the Royal Medical Corps. But he confides to his close friend, Henry Lamb, also now in uniform, that he himself fears being called a slacker. Returning to Cookham, those "wounded are always quiet and never say a word about our not joining." Reading Dostoevsky's The Possessed and hearing a Beethoven movement that portended to Stanley the end of the world reveal his troubled conscience. He tries to align his resistance to brutality with the need to be "a manly man" as a stereotypical loyal young zealot ready to march off.
By his mid-twenties, already known by poet-soldier Rupert Brooke and patron Lady Ottoline Morrell, Stanley felt pressured to do more for patriotism. In mid-1915 he followed his younger brother Gil into the St. John's Ambulance Corps. Assigned to the Beaufort Lunatic Asylum serving as a War Hospital. Stanley survives its "crushing atmosphere" bu "means of my own creative feelings." At this point, John's edition lacks illustrations. Instead, a few facsimiles of letters under a YMCA letterhead appear. Stanley longed to flee the "beastliness" of serving as an orderly. He volunteered for a Field Ambulance as Britain mobilized for the "big push" on the Somme, the massive offensive mid-1916.
That September, Spencer landed in Macedonia. In its mountainous terrain north of Salonica, he yearns for "something findable." For two-and-a-half years, this region "became the goal and place wherein spiritually I wanted to find the redeeming and delivering of myself in all the activities the unexpressed me had lived through and in." The verbiage of this phrasing does not belie its sincerity.
Pencil sketches and ink and wash appear in the margins of John's compilation, signalling Stanley's productivity between his duties. His inspiration comes "by praying for the Power to live purely and absolutely you get that power." He acclaims the intense "feelings" resulting as necessary for an artist.
Shakespeare and Hardy, Chaucer and Milton, music and poetry pepper his letters. Despite hospitalization for malaria, Stanley Spencer sustains his cheer. He requests Robert Louis Stevenson and a little book on Raphael. He misses hot cross buns. He envisions martial splendor from the Book of Joshua. He paints his comrades scrubbing shirts in the overflow from torrents. He compares this to "how the old Greek women do their washing." His imagination fired, he writes to Henry Lamb. "I am a thousand times more determined to do something a thousand times greater than anything when I get home, and am storing up energy all the time." Whether betraying a touch of Orientalism or merely expressing his drive to create and to incorporate thus the Other, he tells another recipient: "Yesterday I drew the head of an Asiatic man. It was nearly as exciting as Columbus discovering America."
Early in 1918 he transfers into the Royal Berkshire Regiment. Their foe, "the Bulgars," moves him typically, as Stanley "got the impression of them as beings which came from an essential and permanent night, and that each night we approached their dark abode as midnight drew near and as the morning descended and came away with it." This sentence shifts from echoes of verse to cadences of the Bible, and given Spencer's immersion into literature then, reflects his own mystical reactions.
After he quotes Paradise Lost to a correspondent, he adds: "That's the sort of thing I live on, along with Army rations." He goes on digging, loving God, and reading Milton as his main occupations. This retreat for introspection ended when in May Spencer applied for a War Memorial promotion "scheme" and to be employed by the Ministry of Information to "paint pictures relating to the war."
Then, an extended passage from Stanley's later recollections is inserted in the chronicle by John. This narrates a bivouac, a long march away from battle, and a sense of dreaminess as distance brings peace. Suddenly, scouting a gradient, Stanley met an armed officer who "wished me well out of the way." He was in the British Army. "No wonder they were still annoyed to see that I still existed."
Soon, combat commences. After, Spencer carries blankets to camp. His Regimental Sergeant Major passes by: "I expect you'd rather be painting, wouldn't you, Spencer?" He might have, given malaria again laid up Stanley back in Salonica. There he reads "the Testament nearly all day," in spite of "paganistic sentiments" in "many things." Looking back twenty years later on his Army treatment, Spencer acknowledges the right and wrong issues. But he laments how the "last war was exploited and used as a means of abusing people in their professions so as to be able to give vent to their jealousy of distinguished persons." Parsed in context, by implication, Stanley declaims that artists in the ranks "did not (AS THEY THOUGHT) serve in any way the immediate needs of the country."
The army's "anti-intellectual prejudice" rankles him. Around 1936, he looks askance at his fellow citizens who refuse to accept that Stanley aspires rather to a "true spiritual life." Therewith he strives towards "the model of essential humanness." While imperfect, he nonetheless insists on being treated fairly. Stanley Spencer's humanity, emphasized as this compendium closes, reminds his audience of the aims he would continue to seek through another war and into another stretch of partial peace.
His 1914 self-portrait takes up the cover of this elegant edition. A dark-haired man with dark eyes. A bold, confident, subtly defiant look. He captured himself well.
The final sentence from this manuscript edited by his grandson sums up much to come for Stanley. "I wish always to stress my own redemption from all that I have been made to suffer." His subsequent life, which it is to be hoped will be documented in the next installment(s) of this series, attests to Stanley Spencer's prickly pride, his dogged individuality, and his spiritual transformation through art.