SIR STANLEY SPENCER, R.A.Baby in a High Chair
- Sir Stanley Spencer, R.A.
- Baby in a High Chair
- oil and pencil on canvas
Cookham, Stanley Spencer Gallery, on long-term loan, 1996-2018.
Stanley Spencer’s appetite for painting the human figure was voracious. Obsessed with his work, he populated his paintings with fully fleshed-out characters supplied by a never-ending stream of family, friends and Cookham acquaintances. His work was but an extension of his life and thus the cast of characters was mined from his experiences. These familiar faces occupied scenes both prosaic and spiritual as the human figure became, for Spencer, a conduit between the earthly and divine, and Biblical stories played out in the streets and surrounding fields of his beloved Cookham. By the 1940s, Spencer’s work – and his unconventional life – was gaining increasing notoriety and, with this exposure, commissions followed, which kept Spencer and his family afloat during periods of financial difficulty. One such commission came in 1943 by the British and Northern Shipping Agency Ltd to honour Lars Larson, a founder of the company, with the aim of hanging the finished portrait in the boardroom; Portrait of Lars Larson, 1943, was sold in these rooms in 2003 for £308,000. A successful businessman, Lars Larson was a distinguished resident of Cookham and well-known personally to Spencer as he rented Lindworth, Spencer’s occasional home, during the War but permitted Spencer to continue his work in the garden studio. In turn, Larson’s son, J.S. Birt, commissioned the present work, a portrait of his baby son, George, that same year. In a pleasing symmetry befitting of Spencer's worldview, the portrait of the grandfather is just visible hanging on the wall behind his young grandson.
In preparation for the commission, Spencer undertook at least two preparatory sketches and then a third on the canvas (seen on the right of the present work over an earlier sketch showing the beginnings of a garden landscape) with the oil painting itself to the left. Upon completion, however, Spencer did not cut the canvas thus leaving oil painting and pencil drawing side-by-side. Slight modifications can be gleaned from surveying the total canvas – to the right the toddler clutches a blanket and looks out whilst to the left he sits in a high chair with gaze cast down. Spencer studied at the Slade alongside the so-called ‘Crisis of Brilliance’ generation and, taught by the notorious Henry Tonks, he was instilled with the importance of honing his work in pencil, in the time-honoured tradition made famous by the previous Slade generation of Augustus John and William Orpen. Spencer’s draughtsmanship underscored his art – infinite gradations of shaded pencil translate into accumulations of touches of paint that result in a tessellated yet homogenous surface.
The oil painting to the left is a quintessential Spencer portrait. The flesh of the young child is beautifully realised with touches of blues, greens, pinks and reds coalescing. Clumps of golden locks curl across the toddler’s forehead, his eyes are framed with delicately delineated lashes and touches of white highlight his puckered bow lips. Spencer characterises the young boy with remarkable individuality and personality. He sits still for his portrait perhaps a little reluctantly, certainly slightly shyly - maybe even slightly petulantly having been disturbed from a game with his counters. As with the best of Spencer’s portraits from the 1940s and '50s, elements of exquisite still-lifes are scattered across the work from the portrait of Lars Larson and the hobby horse in the background to the multi-coloured counters and swirls of carpet in the foreground. As a continuation of Spencer’s attempt to paint the full gamut of human experience, Baby in a High Chair reveals a sensitive affinity with his young sitter.