Stanley Spencer

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Self Portrait
'Helter Skelter', 1937. Spencer's muted use of colour is clear here.

Sir Stanley Spencer (30 June 1891 – 14 December 1959) was an English war artist, based largely out of his home town of Cookham, and well known for his depictions of war, events of the Gospels, and his unusual art style.

Educated at the Slade School of Art, Spencer served in the First World War in the Royal Army Medical Corps's 68th Field Ambulance unit - a harrowing experience, that inspired his work at Sandham Memorial Chapel - and the emotional impact of the loss of so many of his comrades is clear in his work from this time, and also arguably led to his divorce from his first wife. During the Second World War, he continued to paint, depicting the quiet, stoic pride of the workers on the Glasgow shipyards.[1]

Stanley Spencer had a difficult relationship with the RA, initially joining them in 1930, leaving after they rejected his work in 1935, but rejoining upon his reception of a CBE in 1950. He was knighted in 1959, but sadly died from cancer later that year.

Religious dimensions to Stanley Spencer's work

'The Resurrection - Cookham', 1926. Note the seemingly 'irreverent' depiction of the dead, peeking out from behind gravestones - Spencer here illustrates the simple humanity of events otherwise difficult for humans to comprehend.

Many painters have made recourse to religious themes in their art, but Spencer took a fairly unusual approach in this.

Rather than trying to depict God's glory overtly in paint, Spencer's work has a strong immediacy, and sense of Jesus' life-bringing presence 'in this world'. Thus, in his portrayal of the Second Coming, he did not paint famous celebrities, important leaders, or allegorical personifications, rising from the dead, but rather depicted ordinary people in the sleepy town of Cookham being resurrected, thus stressing the universality of the Christian message - Jesus coming for the humble and lowly, as well as for the high and mighty. Much of his seemingly non-religious art can be read in a similar way - his 'Convoy Arriving with Wounded', for example, is a testament both to the solidarity of war veterans, and also to the salvation of those who did not survive - the symbolism of the opening gate[2] is clear.

By focussing on images that anyone could relate to, and that were an actual reality for many of the audiences for his work, Spencer's style harks back to New Testament parables; their meaning is not immediately obvious, but they are very rooted in ordinary, everyday sights. No special education is needed to understand them, or decipher their meaning - only the day to day experience of common people.

'The Last Supper', 1920. Note the awkwardness of the seated figures - unlike Da Vinci's more famous painting of the Last Supper, Spencer sought to emphasise the humanity and normality of those present.


  1. BBC history article on WW1 war art
  2. Matthew 16:19

External links

Zachariah and Elizabeth, 1913 – 1914.