Sir Stanley Spencer, R.A. (1891-1959)
Portrait of Kate Morrell
oil on canvas
19½ x 30 in. (50 x 76.2 cm.)
Painted in 1959.
Commissioned by the sitter in 1958, and by descent.
K. Bell, Stanley Spencer: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, London, 1992, pp. 356, 518-519, no. 445, illustrated.
London, Arthur Tooth & Sons, catalogue not traced.
London, Royal Academy, Summer Exhibition, 1959, no. 114.
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Lot Essay

‘You can escape in art of course, and that is one of its godsends’ (Stanley Spencer in a letter to Kate Morrell, private correspondence, 17 June 1959).

Stanley Spencer’s portraiture marks a fascinating and often missed trajectory within his oeuvre. Having worked on several portraits earlier in his career, alongside a handful of well-known self-portraits made at different pivotal moments for the artist, Spencer’s later portraits are distinctive in both style and composition.

In the post-war years, Spencer attended drawing sessions with his brother Gilbert and the Carline family, who were also artists, drawing each other some days and guests on others. Within his social circle, portrait and group-portrait painting were a common and lauded practice, one that would have likely influenced Spencer’s wider practice. As Keith Bell has commented, Henry Lamb’s group portraits were strongly influenced by Spencer, suggesting ‘the portraits probably reflect the dialogue that went on between Lamb, Spencer, Richard Carline, and their friends in the Carline circle’ (K. Bell, Stanley Spencer: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, London, 1992, p. 322). His portraits in the years following this were often intimate renderings of those close to him: sitter and artist’s relationship being one of closeness and potential tension, from his second wife Patricia Preece in 1933, to his lover Daphne Charlton in 1941. By 1950, Spencer had at last received public recognition and with this fame came a string of portrait commissions from a wider circle of friends and admirers. This was perhaps particularly spurred on by the chance to have these paintings seen at the Royal Academy, at which Spencer was made an Academician in 1950. The portraits painted in the 1950s, therefore, are more akin to in-depth studies of people in their own environments, capturing the details of their lives through facial expressions, surroundings and the minute details that might give away a clue to the lives the subjects led outside the frame of the canvas.

Travelling to the sitters’ homes formed a part of the portraiture ritual for Spencer; it created a sense of familiarity by engraining the sitter within the details of their own environment. These later portraits were often commissions, predominantly heralding from close personal friends. Kate Morrell can be included among this list, who’s request for a portrait he responded to in positive but honest terms: ‘I would love to stay and do a painting of you. I am always a bit terrified of failing and it shakes my confidence’ (private correspondence, 15 Sept 1959).

A sense of familiarity in these works is conveyed through the intensity with which Spencer depicts his subjects: a keen and evenly divided attention to detail across the whole image. Unlike the figures in his religious paintings, whose limbs often drape around one another in rhythmic simplifications of their form, Spencer’s portraits are painted with the powerful sense of realism seen in his other later works. He scheduled multiple visits to Morrell’s home, not only to spend the weekend with her and her family, but to continue work on the portrait. Keith Bell comments, ‘Spencer’s own sense that everybody creates a ‘nest’ or home for themselves which expresses their individual personality, also guided him in his approach to portrait subjects’ (K. Bell, Stanley Spencer: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, London, 1992, pp. 350-356).

Facing a certain sense of pressure of painting his close friends and their relatives, he expressed satisfaction with the result of this work, writing to her ‘I think there are good things in the portrait even the slightly ‘crying’ look if such there is’ upon its completion (private correspondence, 17 June 1959). In this work Morrell is portrayed in a blue patterned dress, which Spencer meticulously reproduces but does not allow to take over the image. The setting is likely to be Morrell’s living room, where the sitter rests on a blue sofa with the hints of a doorway and a window frame towards the outer reaches of the canvas. Morrell’s right hand has been pensively left resting near her face, and a complex expression is shown in her eyes, whether meditative or concerned. The textures and shadows in this portrait all contribute to the sense of familiarity with which Spencer paints Morrell, who sits with a relaxed stance. The physical closeness of this portrait delineates the relationship between painter and sitter, creating not an aggrandised version of a sitter seeking a more formalised prestige of being immortalised in paint, but rather a sitter confident in the artist’s ability to faithfully render not only her likeness, but her personality.

The writer, and expert on Stanley Spencer, Carolyn Leder has commented that this work is a fine late portrait, also noting: ‘at this stage in his career, Spencer was adept at capturing a sympathetic likeness, especially of female friends. Spencer became almost an honorary member of several families in his later years – engaging the affections of the children as well as their parents. This is apparent in his painting of the Morrells’ garden, in which he chose to focus on the area where the boys played, entitling the picture Boys’ Garden (sold in these Rooms, 27 June 2017, lot 110 for £245,000). The portrait of their mother was painted in the final year of Spencer’s life when - already a CBE and RA - he was awarded a knighthood. Both Boys’ Garden and the Portrait of Kate Morrell were exhibited in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition of 1959, not long before his death in December of that year’ (private correspondence, 12 May 2018).

We are very grateful to Carolyn Leder for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.

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