Stanley spencer

From Botticelli to Marvel: why artists love St Francis

‘A small, black, repulsive picture’ is not how most people today would describe Zurbaran’s haunting painting of ‘Saint Francis in Meditation’ (1635-9) in the National Gallery. But that was how one Protestant critic of its acquisition in 1853 described this image of an Italian saint satirised three centuries earlier by the German Lutheran cleric Erasmus Alber in his Koran of the Franciscans. Alber chose his title advisedly, for one of this peacemaking saint’s legendary acts of diplomacy was initiating an interfaith dialogue with the Muslim Sultan of Egypt, al-Malik al-Kamil. In 1219, so the story goes, Francis crossed to Damietta, then under siege by troops of the Fifth Crusade, slipped

Alive with innovation: British art between the world wars

When I mentioned the subject of this book to someone reasonably well-informed about 20th-century British art, the response was: ‘Isn’t that all portrait and still-life paintings?’ Well, perhaps if you’re looking exclusively at the contents of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions – and even there landscape was another popular choice. But actually the period was alive with innovation – with abstraction and surrealism infiltrating and balancing out a new kind of realism. Art was a melting pot of competing attitudes, drawing equally on native traditions and stimulating foreign influences, principally Cézanne and Picasso. In her enjoyable new book Frances Spalding identifies ‘a recurrent tension… between a precarious stasis on the

Imagine being married to Stanley Spencer

It sometimes rains in Cookham. It rained all day when I visited the Stanley Spencer Gallery to see the exhibition Love, Art, Loss: The Wives of Stanley Spencer. But it rarely rained for Spencer, or at least never in his pictures of his hallowed birthplace, where even when skies are grey the red brick of the houses is warmed by the eternal summer sun of childhood. Not in the winter of 1937, though. That winter saw the 46-year-old artist rattling around his seven-bed family home, divorced from first wife Hilda Carline and separated from second wife Patricia Preece, painting pictures of grotesquely ill-matched couples who seemed unaccountably happier than him.