Stanley Spencer Shines at Carrick Hill

John Neylon reviews Stanley Spencer: a twentieth-century British Master and delves into the connection between the artist and venue of Carrick Hill.

So sad. As you read this, tens of thousands of Pokémon Go addicts are traipsing up and down the countryside in the name of fun. There was a wild Pokémon tapping on my kitchen window the other evening courtesy of a computer-savvy nephew.

I’ve since had the house reiki-ed but it just doesn’t feel the same. And why is this sad? Because in the process of shoving noses into a screen while walking around, the whole world and life is passing by unnoticed. I wonder what Stanley Spencer would have made of this? Probably hardened his gaze on something truly remarkable such as the way a fence post was leaning or the angle of a branch was echoed in a distant rooftop – dipped his brush and carried on.

So, when people stop to think about the relevance of what David Hockney calls ‘eyeballing’ the subject, no better reminder of its capacity to change a life can be found in the remarkable images created by Spencer so many years ago, in a little village on the other side of the world.

carrick-hill-stanley-spencer-artists-window-cookham-adelaide-reviewFrom the artist’s window, Cookham (1938), oil on canvas  50.8 x 76.3 cm, Collection of the Carrick Hill Trust, Adelaide Hayward Bequest

It is called Cookham. When Spencer went to the Slade School in London he earned the nickname ‘Cookham’ such was his affection for the place. Not only affection but envisioning Cookham as a stage on which the great cycles of human life were played out in a context of Christian belief in a rather English god who walked on a green and pleasant land. Today Spencer, courtesy of this exhibition, is walking in a sense on an Antipodean version. This is not Spencer’s first Adelaide manifestation.

There are some reading this text who will remember the big Spencer show at the Art Gallery in South Australia in the 1966 Adelaide Festival of Arts. This was in fact the first Spencer exhibition to be presented in Australia. How prescient of the Gallery Board to do this. Today the artist is hailed as ‘one of the greatest British painters of the 20th century and ‘most original figures in 20th century British art.’ It wasn’t always so.

Spencer’s reputation, waxed and waned according to fashion and occasional outbursts of moral indignation at the overt sexuality of some of his domestic subjects. But there was never a question of his extraordinary talents as a pictorial artist and outstanding draughtsman.

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Daphne by the Window, (1952)

Stanley Spencer: a twentieth-century British Master is the first exhibition in Australia in 50 years devoted to the artist. It will be one of five exhibitions in the world this year marking the 125th anniversary of Spencer’s birth.

The exhibition which includes still-lifes, landscapes, portraits and figurative compositions on loan from national and international sources, is also the centerpiece of Carrick Hill’s 30th anniversary of public opening. The exhibition is accompanied by an extensively illustrated book (Wakefield Press) with essays by Ted Gott, Paul Gough, Anna Jug and Richard Heathcote. Within these essays, the Carrick Hill-Spencer-Cookham connection is given the full treatment.

carrick-hill-stanley-spencer-blue-iris-adelaide-reviewBlue iris 1938, oil on canvas 40.0 x 50.9 cm, Collection of the Carrick Hill Trust, Adelaide, Hayward Bequest

And it is a remarkable story. The key figure is Ursula Hayward. Ursula and her husband Bill were keen art collectors and on their many trips overseas acquired works of art by principally British and French artists of the early 20th century. The Haywards first saw Stanley Spencer’s work in Adelaide in 1935 in the Loan Exhibition of Contemporary British Art.

They bought their first work by the artist during their honeymoon in England the same year. They eventually acquired the largest private collection of Spencer’s work outside England. Anna Jug’s essay, in particular, traces in detail the close relationship Ursula forged with the London art dealer, Dudley Tooth.

Tooth emerges in Jug’s essay as a pivotal figure who supported a number of emerging artists including Matthew Smith, Augustus John and Paul Nash in exploring more adventurous modes of expression in their work. His role eventually expanded to having full control over Spencer’s finances, at the request of the artist. In his dual role of dealer and accountant Tooth encouraged Spencer to keep producing a very sellable series of flower paintings. There are many examples in this exhibition, including Carrick Hill crowd favourites Blue Iris and From the artist’s window, Cookham.

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Sunflower (1938), oil on canvas  50.9 x 40.5 cm, Collection of the Carrick Hill Trust, Adelaide, Hayward Bequest

Of the many Cookham subjects included, none surpass Wheatfield at Starlings, a view through a straggly fence to distant houses and a gasometer in expressing such open-mindedness to a single moment suddenly presenting itself.

Spencer’s most remarkable pictures are those in which he explored the idea that extraordinary and ordinary and even miraculous and earthly things could live side by side. On this basis he was quite comfortable with the idea of Christ wandering around Cookham or the Resurrection taking place in the local church’s graveyard. Take time with such works, particularly Parents Resurrecting, and allow their powerful haptic qualities to take hold of the imagination.

Stanley Spencer: a twentieth-century British Master Carrick Hill Until Sunday, December 4

carrickhill.sa.gov.au