Mind and Mortality: An Argument for the Importance of Stanley Spencer’s Portraiture

From right to left: Self-portrait, 1959, Sir Stanley Spencer, red conté ©Estate Stanley Spencer/Bridgeman Images, courtesy of Stanley Spencer Gallery; Self-portrait, 1959, Sir Stanley Spencer, oil © Estate of Stanley Spencer. All Rights Reserved 2021 / Bridgeman Images, courtesy of the Tate

On show now at Cookham’s Stanley Spencer Gallery, ‘Mind and Mortality: Stanley Spencer’s Final Portraits’ spans, perhaps unexpectedly, over 50 years of Spencer’s creative career, from his very first portrait of his brother, to the last self-portraits he created before his death from cancer in 1959.

Spencer is best known for his grand work ‘Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta: Punts by the River’, but this exhibition aims to show how portraiture was a key pathway for Spencer into spirituality as well, and a space for him to consider his own mortality. Many of Spencer’s portraits’ were of the people around Cookham

Portrait of Dr Osmund Frank, 1950, ©Estate Stanley Spencer/Bridgeman Images, courtesy of Stanley Spencer Gallery

When you follow the portraits through, the value of including earlier work alongside the exhibition’s apogean final portraits. From his childhood portrait of his brother, painted in 1909 when he was only eighteen, to the portraits of his adulthood, the evidence of his influence by his training at the Slade School of Art, as well as his dedication to the techniques of the Italian and northern Renaissance shine through.

Pieces like his portrait of Dr Osmund Frank, local GP and Mayor of Maidenhead, with its exquisitely detailed finery, was compared at the time to a ‘Modern Holbein’. His attention to detail does not always produce flattering portraits, but rather real ones, with genuine care behind them. One of the most affecting pieces on show is the portrait of Priscilla Ashwanden, on loan from the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. Only sixteen, she was already dying of leukemia. Spencer’s depiction of her doesn’t undermine the tragedy of the situation — there is a war memorial just behind her through the window. Yet her pink jumper and patterned cushion remind the onlooker that through this misfortune, Priscilla is still a sixteen year old girl. Tragically, the painting arrived on the morning of Priscilla’s death.

Portrait of Miss Ashwanden in Cookham, 1958 © The Estate of Stanley Spencer,Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry, Bridgeman Images

Priscilla’s portrait is not, as you might expect from an exhibition with the word ‘mortality’ in the title, the only painting with an intimate connection to death. I have already mentioned the exhibition’s main attraction, two self-portraits painted by Spencer in 1959, months before his death.

Amy Lim, curator of the exhibition, does not feel that Spencer approached his own mortality as a mark of loss; rather, his responses to friends show he approached it as a sign of how important it was to make use of the time he had left. In a letter he wrote to Mary Behrend, a friend and patron, as he left hospital in February 1959, the year of his death, he remarked ‘I love and long to paint … I was only able last year to spend 3 months of the year on the work I meant to do. As you can see I have come out of hospital fit & as a sign of it in no gentle mood’.

Self-portrait, 1923, Sir Stanley Spencer, oil on canvas, ©Estate Stanley Spencer/Bridgeman Images, courtesy of Stanley Spencer Gallery

The portraits are interesting as more than just a marker of what, after months of cancer, Spencer looked like. They were commissioned by a friend and regular patron of his, Joy Smith, who wanted a self-portrait. Despite his initial reluctance, he was eventually convinced, and undertook a drawing of himself in red conté crayon. Smith however was not happy with the portrait. She claims to have rejected it because it was not a good likeness, but curator Amy Lim has suggested in a recent interview, that it is more likely because it was ‘too faithful a likeness’. Spencer agreed to try again, with oil paints bought for him by Joy.

Lim pointed out the differences between the two portraits: where the drawing makes clear the wear his cancer has had on him, with down turned lip and a worn expression, the oil painting has a carefully optimistic smile and eyebrows raised in care rather than concern. To Lim, though she avoids the concept of ‘truth’ in portraiture, certainly a more accurate depiction of how Spencer as an artist saw himself, if not a glimpse behind into what he was feeling.

‘Mind and Mortality: Stanley Spencer’s Final Portraits’ is on show at Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham until 27 March. To learn more about it, click here.

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