Throughout his life, Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) retained an almost mystical attachment to Cookham, the village of his birth. He left it for short spells — to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, for example, and to serve as a medical orderly in Macedonia during the First World War — but Spencer always returned to the small village in the south of England he dubbed ‘a suburb of heaven’.
He spent the majority of his life in Cookham, and it features in a huge number of his paintings. In Spencer’s most famous work, The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27, now owned by Tate), the local churchyard is the setting for a mass resurrection of the dead.
One of the finest houses in the village belonged to solicitor Gerard Shiel. His Georgian property went by the name of Englefield, and Shiel commissioned Spencer to paint it five times between 1948 and 1955. The fifth and final of these canvases, Lilac and Clematis at Englefield, is being offered in the Modern British Art Evening Sale at Christie’s London on 17 June.
Spencer depicts only part of the house, which rises above various shrubs in the foreground yet is overlooked, in turn, by various trees in the background. A clematis trails over much of the brickwork, while a lilac tree in full bloom partly obscures our view of a window on the right.
‘It’s a meticulously rendered picture that captures nature and architecture in perfect tension,’ says Rachel Hidderley, Senior Director of Modern British & Irish Art. ‘The sensuous purples and greens complement and contrast with the rich red of Englefield’s façade. Spencer spent no fewer than five weeks painting this picture, and you can well believe that from its painstaking realism.’
There’s also a hint of mystery in the way the viewer is invited to peep through Shiel’s windows into a darkened living room.
Spencer is best known today for his boldly eccentric, figurative work. However, he regularly produced landscapes and flower paintings, too, in what’s generally considered a more conventional manner. For a while, this was for financial reasons: during the 1930s, he was deep in debt, and these pieces were his most popular with collectors at the time. (‘Easy sellers’ was how Spencer’s dealer, Dudley Tooth, described them.)
‘It's the figurative paintings that Spencer is most famous for, but in recent years we've seen a surge in the popularity of his other work, too’
‘His figurative work could be divisive,’ Hidderley says, ‘often dealing as it did with his feelings on religion, sex and family. The landscapes and paintings of flowers, by contrast, were invitations to look at the beautiful English countryside that everyone could enjoy.’
By the time of Lilac and Clematis at Englefield, Spencer’s finances were in a better state. His reputation was also on the rise again: in 1950, he became a member of the Royal Academy once more, 15 years after resigning in anger when two of his figurative paintings, St Francis and the Birds and The Dustman or the Lovers, had been rejected by the Summer Exhibition hanging committee.
In the 1950s, Spencer was able to concentrate solely on work that interested him, and the paintings of Englefield for his friend and patron should be seen in that light.
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The artist died in 1959, and Shiel helped found the Stanley Spencer Gallery in his honour three years later — a museum that remains open to this day in a converted chapel on Cookham High Street. Shiel himself died in 1975, and the canvas about to be auctioned is being offered by his family.
‘Nowadays, it’s clearly the figurative paintings that Spencer is most famous for,’ Hidderley explains. ‘But in the past few years we’ve seen a surge in the popularity of his other work, too’. In 2015, the fourth of Spencer’s five paintings for Shiel, Wisteria at Englefield, fetched £962,000 at Christie’s.
‘There’s a realisation that Spencer was a painter of truly all-round talents,’ Hidderley says. ‘In the case of Lilac and Clematis at Englefield, we witness him celebrating nature with the most wonderful abundance.’