Laura Freeman Laura Freeman

Holy visions and dustbins

In his anniversary year, it’s time to see beyond the paintings of wisteria blossom to the angels and the dirt

Woolworth’s spectacles. Pudding-basin haircut, rather sparse. Norfolk jacket. Pyjama cuffs below trouser legs and sleeves. Paints and brushes in an old black perambulator. And a sign propped up on a gravestone: ‘As he is anxious to complete his painting of the churchyard Mr Stanley Spencer would be grateful if visitors would kindly avoid distracting his attention from the work.’

This was Spencer in his Cookham dotage, a picture of wilful eccentricity, painting the church, cottages, meadows and Thames banks he had known since childhood. An odd little fellow, with the emphasis on little. He was 5ft 2in, by his family’s estimation, and better suited to the ambulance service than he was to the infantry when he volunteered in 1915. He was no taller than 5ft, said his brother-in-law. He was but 4ft 10in said his patron, Sir Edward Beddington-Behrens, remembering Spencer on a painting trip to the Swiss Alps, jolted and bumped up a mountain on the back of a mule. Spencer is smaller with every telling and made more ridiculous, more like an absurd, endearing pet, the more he shrinks.

He sketched the warships at Port Glasgow on an unspooling loo roll. He was partial to biscuits and bully-beef. His favourite meal was buttered white bread with strawberry jam. How delightfully strange, how deliciously English. Sir Stanley Spencer of the commuter-belt resurrections.

His Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, painted with scenes from his years as a Bristol hospital orderly and Macedonia ambulanceman, is not five minutes from Highclere Castle, otherwise known as Downton Abbey. One can do Downton in the morning, a picnic lunch, then on to the Spencer Chapel with its well-drilled Tommies making their beds.

Recent exhibitions have given us Sunday-afternoon Stanley Spencer. He was hung in the Tate’s Art of the Garden show in 2004.

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