Stanley Spencer is a curious artist. His dates (1891–1959) place him squarely in the Modern era, and although his work does look like it emanates from the Twentieth Century it harks back to works made much earlier by artists like Jan Van Eyck and Brueghel the Elder. I was lucky enough to see Van Eyck’s masterpiece The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (aka The Ghent Altarpiece) recently and while walking round the Spencer exhibition last weekend I was struck by the connections that can be drawn between the two artists. Not least, the eye for detail and the staging of religious events in vernacular surroundings.
For a student – especially one studying on Drawing 1 or Painting 1 – this is an ideal exhibition to catch as it covers many of the exercises you are asked to do. The works shown here reflect Spencer’s interest in portraiture and self-portraiture, as well as his representations of Cookham, Biblical scenes, and work made during the Second World War. There’s even a ‘squaring-up’ exercise!
His detailed execution of complexity shows that looking hard is always at the core of his work. In The Boatbuilder’s Yard, Cookham, for example, each brick in the low wall behind the incongruous fish tank is a detailed examination of its particularities. Spencer ‘builds’ the wall from individual bricks rather than dividing the wall up into a bland grid of regular shapes devoid of texture. This rigorous examination of the world through paint and drawing is a common theme of Spencer’s practice and of this show. This technique, though, is always at the service of a narrative or insight and not an end in itself.
While the surfaces of his paintings aren’t luscious in the manner of, say, Lucian Freud or Jenny Saville, they show a level of scrutiny that, especially when applied to portraits, can make the viewer uncomfortable. Spencer is a major British artist like no other and the title of the show – Of Angels and Dirt – neatly summarises his concerns.
Join me on the 3 September at the Hepworth in Wakefield to see this show. As a bonus, there is also a show of objects, paintings, and sculptures from the fabulous Kettle’s Yard collection on display. It’s a great chance to see works by Alfred Wallis, Constantin Brancusi, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo, and several others.
If you want to bring drawing materials and make some studies from the work on display as a way of interrogating the detail on display, I’ll be happy to give brief feedback on anything produced during the visit.
There is a café onsite, but the museum has given us access to their indoor ‘picnic’ area, first room on the right as you enter the museum, so feel free to bring a packed lunch. Remember that the museum is a little outside the centre of Wakefield, so other cafés/shops are ten to fifteen minutes’ walk away. I will be in the ‘picnic’ area from noon and will be aiming to start going round the show at 1pm.
To reserve your place please email firstname.lastname@example.org or alternatively to request a place on a study visit please click here and complete the form.
For study events that require a ticket, there is a non refundable fee of £10 to pay and your confirmation email will instruct you on how to do this.
Bryan Eccleshall, OCA Tutor.