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Stanley Spencer and The English Garden, Compton Verney | reviews, news & interviews

Stanley Spencer and The English Garden, Compton Verney

Stanley Spencer and The English Garden, Compton Verney

The English artist's lesser-known paintings celebrate the village garden as paradise

In his later years, Stanley Spencer cut quite a figure in his native village of Cookham in Berkshire: he would often be seen pushing his rickety pram, with its battered umbrella, paints and canvas, and a hand-painted sign requesting all curious onlookers to desist from disturbing the artist at work. He spent most of his life in the village - even acquiring the nickname “Cookham” at the Slade, since he’d rush back by train after lessons every evening, presumably in time for tea.

His beloved “village in heaven” resided in his imagination always, and his religious paintings, for which he is best known, are populated by locals re-enacting the part of Biblical figures, which, despite their subject matter, exude a characteristically down-to-earth comic air. But he wasn’t just a painter of very British resurrections and picket-fenced Gospel scenes. Throughout his life, he gloried in the floral and vegetable abundance of the domestic English garden. He had witnessed at first hand the horrors of the First World War, during which he’d served with the Royal Army Medical Corps, first at the Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol in 1915 and then in Macedonia the following year. The familiar English garden represented for him a safe and comforting paradise. 

“As a child I used to peep through chinks in fences, and catch glimpses of those gardens of Eden,” he recalled. And in one letter home to a friend Spencer wrote how he ached to go to the bottom of the garden of his childhood home, as he lovingly sketched it out in a map.

 

The exhibition at Compton Verney, in Warwickshire, focuses on these lesser-known paintings (and in the first gallery the battered pram, on loan from the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, takes pride of place). These are paintings of village gardens in and around Cookham which are stripped of human presence. And while it’s easy to make the case that Spencer’s vision of a nature controlled and contained by orderly hedge borders and fences and tree guards was a response to the turmoil and madness of war, as this exhibition does, it is also possible to make the opposite case: that fecund, exuberant nature can barely be contained by anything manmade. 

SSRedMagnoliaTake Wisteria, Cookham, 1942 (main picture), and the unusual low-angled close-up of its composition. Those heavily overhanging, pendulous lilac blossoms suggest an overabundance of flora that’s heady and intoxicating, rampant and forceful. And perhaps it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to suggest that Spencer’s imagery is spurred as much by the sexual frustrations of his unconsummated second marriage as his experiences of warfare. 

His second marriage to Patricia Preece, whom he married in 1937, produced some of the starkest, bleakest and most brutally honest paintings of his career, indeed of the mid-20th century. They proved a profound influence on Lucian Freud. His nude double portraits, in which they appear together but utterly separate, speak eloquently of frigidity and inexpressible despair. We don’t see any of those paintings here to offer a counterpoint, but many of his garden paintings of the same period appear to suggest sensual salvation. Red Magnolia, 1938 (pictured above right), for instance, focuses on nothing but blushing pink, swollen blooms pushing against the picture plane. They are both delicate and erotically suggestive.

Of course, we also see the direct influence of Samuel Palmer here, that English painter of mystical, dream-like landscapes. The lustful dominance of those wisterias surely brings to mind the pink blossom tree surreally dominating the landscape of In a Shoreham Garden, 1829. Spencer’s colours may not glint with the same jewel-like richness as Palmer’s, but they do speak of a quietly self-contained spiritual joy.

But not all the paintings in the exhibition possess the same kind of arresting strangeness. Spencer did have a tendency toward convention, even dullness, and there are a few paintings here that seem to have been produced to order rather than through inspiration. He said himself that he didn't highly rate his garden paintings and was forced to continue painting them for commercial reasons, and though I’m not sure this can be taken entirely at face value, one occasionally feels there may be something in his complaint. 

SSTheDustmanIn the last room we encounter the paintings that Spencer is best known for: his Biblical scenes. The Dustman (or The Lovers), 1934 (pictured left), is the strangest and certainly the most arresting amongst them. It was a painting that was rejected by the Royal Academy, leading to Spencer’s resignation.

In it a man with a somewhat infantile face is carried in the arms of his wife, his boneless legs comically entwined around her waist. A gathering of villagers are offering up the contents of their dustbins as gifts to this humble, almost Christ-like visionary – teapots, tin cans, a cabbage. He is clearly experiencing some vision or spasm of ecstasy, both sexual and religious. It is both an absurdly comical and disconcerting sight. 

By way of both complement and contrast, an adjacent exhibition explores the work of the great Northumbrian landscape gardener Sir Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Brown championed English naturalism against continental formalism and many of his grand architectural vistas are still with us today, at least in part, including the glorious grounds of Compton Verney (pictured below). These offer two further reasons for paying this Robert Adam house-turned-gallery a visit this summer.

capability brown compton verney

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