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Audio: Sir Stanley Spencer, Self-portrait
Sir Stanley Spencer, R.A. (1891-1959)
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Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more
Sir Stanley Spencer, R.A. (1891-1959)

Self-portrait

Details
Sir Stanley Spencer, R.A. (1891-1959)
Self-portrait
signed and dated '57 Stanley/Spencer' (lower right), signed again and inscribed 'I don't usually sign my paintings but I did by request Stanley Spencer' (on the reverse)
oil on panel
14 x 10 in. (35.6 x 25.4 cm.)
Provenance
Donated by the artist for sale at the Cookham Village Bazaar, 1957.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 13 May 1992, lot 75, where purchased by the present owner.
Literature
K. Bell, Stanley Spencer, London, 1992, pp. 512-3, no. 430A, illustrated.
Exhibited
Cookham, Church and Vicarage, Stanley Spencer Exhibition, 1958, no. 34.
Cookham, Stanley Spencer Gallery, Stanley Spencer in 1939, Summer Exhibition, 1989, no. 54.
Special notice

Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.

Brought to you by

Katharine Cooke
Katharine Cooke

Lot Essay

In 1957, Stanley Spencer was invited by his friend, the vicar Rev. Michael Westropp, to open the Cookham village bazaar after the original guest, cricketer Denis Compton, cancelled at the last minute. Spencer agreed and also donated the present work for auction at the event. The local paper described the drama that ensued: 'Mr Spencer carefully picked up his black bag from the table and drew from it his self-portrait in oils. The Vicar proposed that it be auctioned immediately, and a member of the audience, who had been rather taken by surprise, opened the bidding at a pound. When the bidding had reached 6 pounds. 10s. Mr Spencer thumped his chest, and after some sales talk by the Vicar (...) the bidding closed at 11 pounds'.

Spencer had painted the portrait at Cliveden View in Cookham Rise, a house built by his grandfather, Julius Spencer, and previously occupied by his sister, Annie. Spencer moved into the house in 1945 and remained there until his death fourteen years later. The picture was painted in the tiny bedroom that he also used as a studio. Behind him can be seen part of an unfinished canvas, Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta, the scene being reversed because the portrait was painted with the use of a mirror.

Spencer shows himself close up against the picture plane, his shoulders cut off by the edges of the composition and his head reaching almost to the top of the panel. The bearded figure with the hat, jutting into the picture on the right, is Christ, who preaches to the people of Cookham from the comfort of a wicker chair placed on a punt.

A few years earlier, around 1942-43, Spencer had discussed his approach to self-portraiture in reference to two other works - 'life size' nude drawings of himself made while working as a war artist in Port Glasgow: 'The two seven and eight foot drawings of self are drawn with a sense of the drama of ones-self. The whole figure is drawn in the same way and mood as for a portrait drawing of a head. I have spoken of the great journey of the face and its world of places and how the knowledge that one will move from one moment of it to another affects the way one draws it. Now in the front view [of] one of these two onebegins with an eye as I usually do and I do it with a sense of meaning to have the whole head explored ...' (Tate Gallery Archives, 733.9.122).

Spencer's first self-portraits were four pen-and-ink 'heads', drawn around 1913, shortly after he left the Slade School. These were closely followed by the superb oil, Self-Portrait (Tate, London) of 1914, which Spencer later noted was 'inspired by seeing a reproduction of a head of Christ by a sort of Laini', probably a reference to an Italian Renaissance painter, either Luini or Lotto. There were (as Carolyn Leder has pointed out) also other more immediate sources such as Botticelli's Portrait of a Young Man (National Gallery, London) where the head-and-shoulders depiction shows the figure of the young man pressed close against the picture plane. Interest in the old masters was common among Spencer's generation at the Slade, as seen, for example, in self-portraits by Edward Wadsworth (1911) and Henry Lamb (National Portrait Gallery, London, 1914). Spencer and Lamb were in close contact at this time (Spencer later broke off their friendship), and they certainly saw and discussed each other's work.

Spencer subsequently painted two more self-portraits in 1923 and 1924, now using a looser brushstroke and a lighter palette but employing the same straightforward composition, with the artist looking straight at the viewer; the gaze is direct and the analysis of the features is unidealized and increasingly unsparing. This was essentially the format that Spencer would use for the remainder of his career.

The role of the self-portraiture in Spencer's life evolved gradually. At first, he was clearly seeking to claim his position among the old masters and his contemporaries. As the years went by, however, he shifted towards a more intimate and analytical approach. At the same time he began to employ his own likeness in the increasingly ambitious, autobiographical narrative works, notably The Resurrection, Cookham, 1924-6 (Tate, London), where he appears nude in the churchyard, and then in the imaginative figure paintings of Cookham and its inhabitants, intended for the (never constructed) Church House. In addition, he briefly added another person, his lover and future wife, Patricia Preece, in two extraordinary double nude portraits, Self-Portrait with Patricia Preece, 1936 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) and The Leg of Mutton Nude, 1937 (Tate, London). The intensity and intimacy of these two works often recurred in Spencer's subsequent single self-portraits, especially during the period 1935-1939, when his personal life and financial circumstances were both under great strain.

By the time the current work was painted, Spencer's situation had improved. His personal affairs and his finances were more settled and the positive public and critical response to his shipbuilding paintings for the War Artists' Advisory Committee (Imperial War Museum, London) which were shown nationally, had firmly established him as one of Britain's leading artists. This success brought a growing demand for his skills as a portrait painter, and some of his finest likenesses were painted in the post-war years.

As the present picture demonstrates, Spencer's self-portraits showed a continued and evolving interest in the genre and are some of the finest studies of approaching old age to be found in British painting during the 20th Century. In part, this was probably due to Spencer's sessions with the Jungian psychoanalyst, Dr Karl Abenheimer, whom he had met at the home of Graham and Charlotte Murray in Port Glasgow during the war. Abenheimer helped Spencer gain a more balanced and accepting idea of self, which is clearly apparent in this painting and the other completed self-portraits of the 1950s.

We are very grateful to Prof. Keith Bell for preparing this catalogue entry.

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