Preece and Spencer married in 1936 but by the end of the year the marriage was effectively over and Spencer was plunged into financial debt, occasioned by his lavish courtship of Preece and supporting his first wife, Hilda, and their two daughters. Landscape paintings, encompassing flower paintings, garden scenes, such as the present work Cottage Garden, Leonard Stanley, and countryside and village views, were Spencer’s most commercially desired genre and he increased his output of these scenes to recuperate his losses. Spencer and his dealer, Dudley Tooth, came to an agreement whereby Tooth would sell his more challenging figurative paintings if Spencer dedicated most of the spring and summer to landscapes. Though Spencer bemoaned these as a distraction from the works meaningful to him, the landscapes were his most popular both critically and commercially. A critic for the Scotsman in 1936, commented: ‘Personally I think Spencer is in the tradition of British Pre-Raphaelitism… the poetic naturalistic kind of Hunt, Brown and the young Millais. Spencer paints landscape as they did, not so minutely of course, but with the same prodigious delight in all the facts of nature for their own sake. He loves to paint nettles and grasses leaf by leaf, blade by blade, as they did. He loves it all too much to leave anything out.’1
The present work, Cottage Garden, Leonard Stanley, was painted in 1940 in Leonard Stanley Gloucestershire, where Spencer lived for a few months, painting alongside his great friends George and Daphne Charlton. He would embark on a passionate affair with Daphne Charlton during this time that inspired some of his most acclaimed figurative paintings alongside over twenty paintings of the local area. Looking from the inside out, through a window, past the top of a fence or gate, and down into the little garden, Spencer delights in the riot of spring flowers. Daisies, dandelions, daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths dot the slightly over-grown, tumble-down garden. The garden seems a small slice of earthly paradise, a suburban sanctuary. Spencer’s approach to landscape was intimate and spiritual, drawing on English precedents – John Constable, the visionary Samuel Palmer, and the Pre-Raphaelites. As Keith Bell writes, ‘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.’2 It is not surprising that during World War II, when the present work was painted, that these depictions of England’s ‘green and pleasant land’ were so sought after by collectors, and a number were bought by serving officers.
The present work was acquired in 1942 by Arthur, 7th Earl Castle Stewart, who married Eleanor, daughter of Solomon R. Guggenheim, and upon the death of his father-in-law in 1949 was the first President of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
1 Quoted in K. Bell, Stanley Spencer, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, London 1992, p. 279.
2 K. Bell, ‘Stanley Spencer’s Gardens’, in Stanley Spencer and the English Gardens, exh. cat., Compton Verney, Warwickshire 2011, p. 37.
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