Modern British & Irish Art

Lose Yourself in the Simple Beauty of Spencer's Cottage Garden

By Halina Loft

E nglish artist Sir Stanley Spencer spent the summer of 1940 hard at work, intent on painting artworks which would attract critics and collectors alike. He needed to be: at 49, Spencer was a seasoned artist, having exhibited twice at the Venice Biennale – but even so, he was burdened with financial debt. Spencer’s first marriage had ended in divorce, and his second, to Patricia Preece, was all but over. He needed to support both women, as well as his two daughters. And on top of everything, it was wartime; the demand for art was slowing.

So Spencer and his dealer, Dudley Tooth, made a deal: Tooth would focus on selling Spencer’s less commercially popular figurative paintings (which Spencer preferred to paint), so long as the artist spent his springs and summers creating more landscape works, which sold very well. Spencer held his end of the bargain, renting a cottage in the small village of Leonard Stanley, Gloucestershire, for the summer – and his friends, painters George and Daphne Charlton, came along.

Sir Spencer Stanley, R.A., COTTAGE GARDEN, LEONARD STANLEY, 1940. Asking price $700,000.

At the cottage, Spencer spent his days capturing the unlikely, simple wonders of the natural world. His garden, in particular, proved inspiring: in the present work, titled Cottage Garden, Leonard Stanley, Spencer masterfully reveals the humble beauty hidden in the small plot of soil. Sunlight bounces off tumbles of daisies, dandelions and clovers, washing the scene with peaceful light and unexpected color. Spencer’s complete fascination with each petal and blade of grass is contagious – the artist’s attention beckons the viewer to immerse himself in the canvas, as well. Indeed, as art historian Keith Bell notes:

“Like the best of Spencer’s figure paintings, his garden landscapes succeeded through their searching re-examination of familiar places and objects, an extraordinary control of space, and an ability to draw the viewer into looking again at everyday scenes that might otherwise have received no more than a passing glance… In Spencer’s paintings every nettle, every bean, every tulip has the potential to be more than it seems while remaining exactly what it is.”
(K. Bell, ‘Stanley Spencer’s Gardens’, in Stanley Spencer and the English Gardens, exh. cat., Compton Verney, Warwickshire 2011, p. 37.)

Sir Spencer Stanley, R.A., Portrait of Daphne Charlton, 1939. Sold at Sotheby's in 2018 for 32,500 GBP.

But Spencer’s attention wasn’t fully preoccupied with nettles that summer. In 1939, the artist had begun an affair with Daphne Charlton, which would continue until 1941. The relationship seemingly renewed Spencer’s spirits: during his summer with Daphne, Spencer realized over 20 landscape of the cottage and surrounding landscape. Though the artists’ affair ultimately fizzled out, the passion of the relationship mark Spencer’s work from this period. Looking at Cottage Garden, Leonard Stanley gives one a feeling of new beginnings, and the quiet excitement of a warm summer day.

First acquired in 1942 by Arthur, 7th Earl Castle Stewart (who became the first President of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York), this delightful work is a highlight of Inspired by Chatsworth: A Selling Exhibition, continuing until 13 September at Sotheby’s New York. Contact a department specialist now to learn more.

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