Audio: Sir Stanley Spencer's The Crucifixion
Sir Stanley Spencer, R.A. (1891-1959)
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Sir Stanley Spencer, R.A. (1891-1959)

The Crucifixion

Sir Stanley Spencer, R.A. (1891-1959)
The Crucifixion
oil on canvas
36 x 30 in. (91.5 x 76.2 cm.)
Painted in 1934.
Commissioned directly from the artist by John Hobday, Toronto, in 1934.
with Edwin Hewitt Gallery, New York, 1954, where purchased by Toby Everard Spence, and by descent.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 21 November 1995, lot 168, where purchased by the present owner.
S. Spencer, letter to John Hobday, Toronto, 2 January 1936.
S. Spencer, letter to Toby Everard Spence, 27 March 1954.
Exhibition catalogue, Stanley Spencer, London, Royal Academy, 1980, p. 132.
S.B. Kennedy, Burlington Magazine, November 1981, 123, vol. 944, pp. 672-673, no. 79, illustrated.
C. Leder, Burlington Magazine, March 1982, 948, vol. 129, p. 159.
K. Pople, Stanley Spencer, London, 1991, p. 494.
K. Bell, Stanley Spencer A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, London, 1992, p. 432, no. 161, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, Images of Christ, Northampton, St Matthew's Centenary Art Committee, 1993, p. 35, no. 28, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, Stanley Spencer, London, Tate Britain, 2001, p. 233.
Northampton, British Council, St Matthew's Church, Images of Christ, March - May 1993, no. 28: this exhibition travelled to London, St Paul's Cathedral, June - July 1993.
London, Tate Britain, Stanley Spencer, March - June 2001; this exhibition toured to Ontario, Art Gallery, September - December 2001, and Belfast, Ulster Museum, January - April 2002, not numbered and exhibited at Belfast only.

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André Zlattinger

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Lot Essay

The present work is the second of only three Crucifixion scenes painted by Spencer: the first from 1921 is in the collection of Aberdeen Art Gallery, and was painted while the artist was staying with Muirhead Bone at Steep. The third was commissioned by Jack Martineau, the Master of the Brewers Company for the Chapel of Aldenham School in 1958 (fig. 1, private collection); this painting held the world record for the artist's work at auction for many years after its sale in 1990.
Brian Kennedy, in his article 'Stanley Spencer: a recently discovered Crucifixion', documents that the re-discovery of the present work in 1980, after Keith Bell had recorded its existence from a notebook from the 1940s in the Royal Academy exhibition catalogue of that year, is of particular interest because until that point only the early and late pictures were known; the second had left England for North America fifty years earlier.

The present work fits neatly in the middle period of the artist's output and was commissioned by John Hobday, a Canadian working for the Dr Barnado's organization in Toronto, in 1934 who owned it until 1954, when it was subsequently purchased by T. Everard Spence. Spencer wrote to the new owner in 1954, explaining the commission and the stipulation that the picture should include the figure of the scarecrow which had appeared in a picture of the same year (see fig. 2, private collection, currently on loan to the Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham). Accordingly, 'The landscape background and the lighting are exactly as in the other painting, the setting being the garden of 'Rowborough', a house near Cookham, with a view across the river Thames to Cliveden. The relationship of the central figure to the landscape is identical in each picture. Adapting the composition from one work to another as was done here was not unusual in Spencer's painting.

It is difficult to identify with certaintly the individual figures which comprise the group to the lower right of the Cross, but those depicted may be the Virgin with her left arm on the shoulder of St John who is bent forward with grief and, at the bottom right-hand corner, Mary Magdalene who is kneeling and touching St John with her right hand as if to comfort him. The identity of the elderly man with one arm around the Virgin and the other around a child is problematic: he appears to be too old for St John (that is, if the crouching figure is not St John) although his protective act towards the Virgin recalls Christ's command to John to care for her (John 19, 26-27). Some priests, grouped in front of Christ, taunt Him. 'I failed to make the Priests 'wagging their heads' and with their breast plates effective', wrote Spencer continuing, 'I had hoped the breast plates (all of precious stones) would sparkle and radiate light & so to form a large sort of nimbus of light (all of different colours) against which Christ would be seen'. To the left of the Cross, isolated from the principal group, of figures, a soldier parts Christ's raiment with his sword. At the top right of the composition, a man prepares to nail Christ's hand to the Cross. His resolute expression and the spiky nails held in his mouth are antecedents for the brutish treatment of Christ's tormentors in Spencer's 1958 version of the theme, a usage which, hitherto, has been thought to be without precedent in Spencer's art. The rather flimsy T-shaped Cross and the idea of Christ seen from behind are also antecedents for the 1958 composition' (ibid.).

The British Council exhibition catalogue further describes, 'the common theme running through each [Crucifixion] painting is the attention Spencer gives to the executioners, rather than the executed. They tie Christ onto the Cross, they wield hammers and mallets, they grip sharp nails between their teeth. In Spencer's Cookham, it is these forgotten bit players, these everyday folk who are of interest. In his vision, we can all be saved, as in The Resurrection, Cookham 1924-26 (Tate, London), but there is only one Crucifixion. The only person he shrank from seeing in the faces of his neighbours was Christ himself. In The Crucifixion, 1934, the Cross is flimsy, and the string which is used to attach Christ to it would not have been enough to hold him upright. Around the Cross, the figures fall into five groups. There is the soldier who tears apart Christ's raiment with his sword. There is the executioner, who holds the nails between his teeth, while securing Christ's arm on the Cross. In the centre there is a group of Jewish priests, with breastplates of twelve precious stones, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. To the right of the Cross are the traditional group of mourners. In the left foreground are two bucolic locals, perhaps gardeners, who walk past the scene almost oblivious. The fork of the first character cleverly cages in the face of his companion.

Behind this gruesome gathering is the serenity of the Berkshire countryside ... Perhaps the fact that the commissioner was Canadian encouraged Spencer to include the elements of English village lore into the painting. The upright of the Cross recalls the maypole. The village scarecrow image had been exploited in a painting of the same year and Spencer retains the loincloth of straw. The crown of thorns becomes a chain of wild dog roses'.


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