Independent in both character and style, Stanley Spencer, while very much aware of current trends, was slightly wary of modern painting, and although loosely associated with the Neo Primitives early in his career, resisted falling in too closely with any particular grouping of his contemporaries. His inspirations varied widely, with drawings prior to the First World War betraying the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites and Tenniel’s illustrations, while in works such as John Donne Arriving in Heaven (1911, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), which was selected for Roger Fry’s Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, we see evidence of the early Italian Trecento.
Of particular importance to Spencer was the work of Giotto. He was certainly exposed to the Italian’s works in 1909 when he attended Roger Fry’s lectures, in which Fry espoused the merits of Giotto and Cezanne, and he was later gifted Ruskin’s text on Giotto by his friends Gwen and Jacques Raverat. His interest in the artist continued after the First World War, and in Carrying Mattresses the flattened shapes and weighty figures call to mind Giotto’s frescoed compositions. The reduction of detail, chalky colours, and blocks of pigment are particularly akin to the fresco technique, a mode of painting Spencer had in fact considered taking up during his rather difficult transition back into his working life as an artist.
In Carrying Mattresses Spencer depicts a local community activity - figures preparing boats for their journey, ferrying cushions from a barn down to the river in the foreground. Spencer revels in the patterns created by the persistent rhythmic movement of the individuals, the wooden timbers of the barn, the rungs of the ladder and the slats for the boats. In one of his notebooks Spencer referred to the present work as Slessers Going to the River, suggesting that it may depict an event that Spencer witnessed while living with his friends Henry and Lady Slesser at their home near Cookham. Spencer first met the Slessers in November 1919, when he was invited to tea along with his brother Gilbert and his patrons, Mr and Mrs Louis Behrend. In April 1920 Spencer accepted an invitation to stay with the Slessers and they provided him with a room overlooking the Thames. He painted twenty pictures in the year he stayed there, most notably Christ Carrying the Cross (Tate, London) and The Last Supper (Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham). In the 1930s Spencer gifted Carrying Mattresses to his friends Gerald and Nora Summers, who were his contemporaries at the Slade and who he often visited in Dorset with Henry Lamb.
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