PROPERTY OF THE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, CHICAGO, SOLD TO BENEFIT THE MUSEUM'S ACQUISITION FUND
Carnegie Institute, Pittsburg, where acquired by Mary and Earle Ludgin, Hubbard Woods, Illinois in 1955
Promised gift from the Mary and Earle Ludgin Collection to the present owner in 1981
Converted to a full unrestricted gift to the present owner in 2008
Usually, in order to understand any picture of mine, it means taking a seat and preparing to hear the story of my life. (the artist, in correspondence with Dudley Tooth, 13th April 1933)
There can be few artists of the twentieth century for whom the fusion of life with art is more deeply embedded than Stanley Spencer. His visionary paintings, covering almost five decades, transport us to an imagined realm in which the artist's memories, feelings, relationships and circumstances fold in upon themselves over and again to forge a world that is quite unlike anything else.
For almost his entire life, Spencer found that he was able to embody his ideas best by translating them into the everyday, the familiar. Ordinary people and ordinary places, most notably his native Cookham, then still a small town on the Thames, were transformed to expand on the infinite themes of life which Spencer chose to present. Whilst much of his work has a basis in biblical themes, the particular infusion of ideas which Spencer brings to his paintings creates something far removed from the mere literal translation of the initial subject. In addition to this, from the late 1920s (and possibly earlier), Spencer very definitely saw his work as a united body, with each painting being part of a wider group that combined into a grand overall vision which would demonstrate to the viewer the totality of his vision. Several sketches and letters exist which help us to realise the astonishing complexity of such a scheme which was to grow and evolve over the years, known usually as the 'church house', and although there was never any real prospect of such an edifice ever becoming reality, the underlying sense of such a concept can only heighten one's recognition of Spencer's achievement. For Spencer the everyday and the intimate, be that the broken teapot and cabbage stalks presented in The Dustman (or The Lovers) (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne) or the lanes and paths of Cookham, take on by their very familiarity an almost miraculous quality, and it is this sense of joy in the world around him, even when it is difficult and troubling, that allows his painting to welcome us to the possibilities he foresees.
Spencer's work has at its heart a sense of inexplicable excitement that comes from using our senses beyond their fundamental functions, and in trying to express this in paint he draws upon the events and experiences of his own life. Central to this are the relationships which he developed throughout his life, from his earliest days as part of a large family in Cookham, through his time at the Slade (where he was part of a remarkable generation that included Paul Nash, David Bomberg, William Roberts, Mark Gertler, C.R.W. Nevinson and Dora Carrington) and on through his personal triumphs and dramas. However, no figure is more important to Spencer than his first wife, Hilda Carline. They first met in the early 1920s, and married in 1925. To Spencer, the relationship with Hilda was miraculous, the intimacy and union of their two beings becoming a source of wonderment. Everything about Hilda fascinated Spencer, and he rejoiced in not only the love and inspiration she engendered in him but in the reciprocal feelings he brought out in her. However, one senses that Spencer's tendency to idealise could be somewhat taxing in normal life, and Hilda, an intelligent and practical woman, whilst recognising her husband's genius, found that the difference between reality and Spencer's vision of her could cause tensions. In 1932, they moved back to Cookham, and with Spencer now holding a position of some renown in the art world and having a reasonable income, they took up residence in Lindworth, a substantial house in the town. Hilda's brother George became ill, and during the course of the year she spent long periods of time in London nursing him. Spencer had renewed an old acquaintance with an artist then living in Cookham, Patricia Preece, and with Hilda away, he began spending increasing amounts of attention on Patricia. Initially she seems to have found this amusing, but for Spencer she was starting to take on an important muse-like role in opposition to that of Hilda. To Spencer, Patricia appeared elegant, fashionable and exotic, qualities which he found appealed to him and he began to buy gifts of jewellery, clothes and perfumes for Patricia. A further complication to the situation was that Patricia had been living for many years with another artist, Dorothy Hepworth, and although Patricia was always at great pains to deny that there was a lesbian element to their domestic arrangements, it seems clear that both Dorothy and Hilda found the developing relationship between Spencer and Patricia worrying. By 1935, Hilda moved back to Hampstead with their two children. Spencer continued to spend large sums of money on Patricia and was dropping deeply into debt, had made over Lindworth to her, and was finding the strain of the situation telling on him. He seems to have envisaged some sort of ménage arrangement with both women, but it appears that whilst Patricia may have encouraged such a concept, presumably to draw Spencer's sexual attention away from her, Hilda had been deeply hurt by events. Her letters make her position clear...'My desire for you is for your happiness in the way you want it....as soon as I saw it was impossible for you to pursue any course other than the one you were pursuing, I left you, never to return....Physically and mentally I am going under....there are so many degrees of dying....what you are doing is nevertheless a degree of murder.' (HS to SS, 1st May 1935 TGA733.1.1593-1734). In May 1936 Hilda began divorce proceedings against Spencer.
With the divorce finalised in May 1937, Spencer arranged his wedding to Patricia, but it was to fall apart almost immediately. Patricia and Dorothy left for the 'honeymoon' in St Ives, ostensibly to allow Spencer to complete some paintings he was working on, but a night shortly after his wedding was actually spent with Hilda who Patricia had encouraged to come to Cookham to look after Spencer. Following Patricia to St Ives, there seems to have been little harmony, and his attempts to consummate the marriage appear to have been far from successful. Spencer would seem to have been already realising how far from the joyous, mystical union with Hilda his new marriage was.
Estranged from Patricia, Spencer's financial problems were somewhat alleviated by the efforts of his dealer, Dudley Tooth, and the saleability of his landscape and still life work, but when Patricia decided to rent out Lindworth, he was effectively evicted, and moving to Hampstead, renewed his efforts to get Hilda back. The outbreak of WWII and Hilda's own fragile mental state further hampered this position.
Once the war was over, Spencer's position with the critics had improved, helped by his Port Glasgow series of paintings, but, and in spite of at least two significant affairs, it was to Hilda that he continually sought to return. Finally, he began divorce proceedings against Patricia with the aim of being able to remarry Hilda. Patricia prevaricated, Hilda was diagnosed with breast cancer, and on 1st November 1950, she died, aged just sixty-one. As ever, Spencer's private thoughts were channelled into his work, and the paintings of his final years draw hugely on his relationship with Hilda. Throughout their lives together and apart, they had written long letters to each other, and after her death, Spencer continued to correspond with Hilda. Indeed, the letters themselves are at the centre of one of the most moving depictions of intimate connection, Love Letters of 1950 (Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection). Seated together in an oversize but clearly comfy and well-used armchair, Hilda passes her letters to Stanley who buries his face, eyes closed, in them. The words and content are no longer of importance, the physical existence of the letters merely emphasises the substance of the connection between Hilda and Stanley.
It is to this world of memory that the present work belongs. Painted four years after Hilda's death, Spencer looks back to his visits to a convalescing Hilda at Pond Street in Hampstead. However, he has translated himself into the young Stanley of their early days, harking back to their courtship in the early 1920s. Whilst in many of the paintings that feature Hilda and Stanley the artist portrays himself as a small, slight figure, seemingly dependant on the larger Hilda figure, here they are roughly equivalent in size. From a huge striped box, Stanley offers a spray of lilies to Hilda. With his left arm, Stanley stretches out and spreads his hand above her head in a protective gesture. Such presentation is immediately redolent of the portrayals of the Annunciation to the Virgin in earlier art, and as we know from letters that Spencer originally intended the male figure to be an archangel, it is not unreasonable to see this image as relating to the series of paintings of Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta that Spencer was working on around this time and which would include what is in effect an apotheosis of Hilda. Thus we see Stanley's visits to Hilda in their courtship combine with those during her illness, his gift of flowers both proclaiming her special status to Stanley, whilst the tissue paper and shape of the box from which they have come has just a hint of the shroud and coffin, declaring Hilda's fate. However, it is a fate which Stanley knows is merely a step towards their ultimate reunion. And so, after all the hurt, tears and recriminations, Hilda and Stanley will be reunited in joy and hope.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale