Wisteria at Englefield was painted over a period of five weeks in 1954, being the third of a total of five paintings commissioned from the artist by Gerard Shiel during the years 1948 to 1955. The others were Cookham from Englefield, 1948; Englefield Garden looking towards Hedsor, 1950; Englefield House, Cookham, 1951; and Lilac and Clematis at Englefield, 1955. Mr Shiel had taken a lease on Englefield, Cookham, in 1939 and settled there permanently after the war. After meeting Spencer he became an enthusiastic collector of his work, specialising in commissioned landscapes and garden views of Englefield and its immediate neighbourhood. He was also a Founder Member, Trustee, and sometime Chairman of the Trustees of the Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham. He died in 1975.
While Spencer frequently accepted portrait commissions during the post-war period, he rarely accepted requests for specific landscapes or garden subjects (an exception being Rock Roses, Old Lodge, Taplow, 1957 (private collection) for Mr and Mrs J.E. Martineau). He chose his own subjects, taking advantage of the weather, the seasons, and visits to other parts of the British Isles and beyond, for example China where he took time from a British cultural mission in 1954, to paint two small scenes, Ming Tombs, Peking (private collection) and The Ministers, Ming Tombs (Government Art Collection). As he reported to his dealer, Dudley Tooth, in 1940 from the White Hart Inn, where he was probably engaged in painting Cottage Garden, Leonard Stanley (private collection): 'At this time of year I usually concentrate on some aspect of landscape which includes flowers as the time of their duration is short. This landscape therefore is a garden plot'. (Tate Gallery, Spencer/Tooth Correspondence).
Wisteria at Englefield and the other works Spencer painted for Mr Shiel also clearly conform to this seasonal timetable, in this case, catching the late spring wisteria in full bloom, a subject he had previously addressed in another local view, Wisteria, Cookham, 1942 (Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston), where the wisteria is similarly set off against the red brick villas of another street in the village.
Spencer often found the pressure to produce landscape and flower paintings deeply irritating. As he complained to his dealer, Dudley Tooth, in May 1933, ‘As I feared, everyone as usual wants my landscapes,’ going on to state ‘I am very sorry public galleries are taking my landscapes as representative works of mine’. Certainly, Spencer preferred to direct critics and collectors directly to his imaginative figurative paintings, but the pressure to produce the more popular landscapes increased during the 1930s, when he was deep in debt and Tooth was urging him to produce as many ‘easy sellers’ (landscapes) as possible to pay the bills. The situation was made worse because he found it necessary to paint landscape and garden subjects from life, unlike the figurative works where he worked from drawings and, in the early years, also from small oil sketches. The time taken to paint a medium-sized landscape, usually four to six weeks, during which blossoms faded and the seasons changed, contrasted sharply with the roughly three to four days for a similar-sized figurative work produced in the studio.
By the time Spencer began painting for Gerard Shiel, his finances were in better shape and his figurative paintings were receiving more attention. He was also shortly (in 1950), to once again become a member of the Royal Academy after a long gap following his acrimonious resignation from that institution in 1935, when two of his figurative paintings (St Francis and the Birds (Tate) and The Dustman or the Lovers) (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)) had been rejected by the summer exhibition hanging committee. Crucially, he now returned to live in Cookham, first for two years from 1942-44, and then permanently in 1945. No longer under so much pressure to produce landscapes quickly, Spencer was able to spend more time on work which interested him, including a number of exceptional landscapes and garden views, among which were the paintings, including Wisteria at Englefield, which he painted for the Shiels.
Spencer’s return to Cookham, the source of all his early inspiration, led him to the realisation that, as he wrote in the publication Sermons by Artists (1954), ‘quite suddenly I became aware that everything was full of special meaning and this made everything holy’. Clearly this refers to the village as landscape and makes clear that his landscape paintings were rarely just the ‘potboilers’ he sometimes called them. This was not an entirely new revelation; he had felt this way about Cookham before the First World War. But the trauma of his war experiences had led to a dulling of his acute sense of Cookham as a place of bliss and intense feeling. After his return, his notion of Cookham as a ‘Village in Heaven’, as he had called it in a painting of that name in 1937 (Manchester City Art Gallery), had become at least partially restored.
From his very first paintings, Spencer had been acutely aware of the land and gardenscapes of Cookham. As a child, and later as a young adult, he had explored the village with its narrow lanes, high brick walls and dense hedges and trees, all of which excited in him a powerful sense of mystery and emotion. Many of these places became the settings for his early paintings. While composing these images, Spencer began to make small oil and pen and ink studies for many of the settings. For Zacarias and Elizabeth (Tate), painted in 1914, for example, he made a small oil study of the scene, the garden of St George’s Lodge, seen over the high garden wall from the window of ‘Wisteria Cottage’, later explaining, ‘I wanted to absorb and finally express the atmosphere and meaning the place had for me’, (Tate Spencer Archive, 733.3.1). The small oil study was probably Spencer’s first landscape and as such is a direct forerunner of Wisteria at Englefield.
When Spencer came to paint Wisteria at Englefield and its companion pictures, he chose to show the house overgrown with wisteria, so that the building almost disappears behind the exuberant growth of the bushes and the trees beyond. Like the Zacarias oil study, the painting shows Spencer’s intense understanding of the relationships between the human and natural environment, with what Steven Parrisien calls ‘a suggestion of higher significance’. (‘Stanley Spencer’s Architecture’ in Steven Parissien (ed.), Stanley Spencer and the English Garden, Compton Verney, 2011).
We are very grateful to Professor Keith Bell for preparing this catalogue entry.