What to book: ‘Friends and Family – Portraits by Stanley Spencer’

Spencer’s touching depictions of close acquaintances go on show in the village where he was born

‘Self-Portrait’ by Stanley Spencer. All images courtesy of the Stanley Spencer Gallery

Stanley Spencer’s affection for his home town was so intense and enduring that while studying at the Slade School of Fine Art he was known as Cookham. Given the yesteryear charm that the historic village retains, it’s easy to appreciate his attraction to this idyllic corner of Berkshire, where the house in which Spencer was born became a hub of music, literature and articulate debate.

The family also regularly attended a Wesleyan Chapel situated a short stroll away, whose closure in 1910 was a source of great sadness to the 19-year-old Spencer. It is appropriate, therefore that the eventual conversion of this simple building into a gallery dedicated to the community’s most notable citizen is once again the village’s calling card.

‘Roy’ by Stanley Spencer 

That very gallery’s new exhibition, ‘Friends and Family’, is largely devoted to those sitters with whom Spencer had a personal connection. One of the most captivating, partly because the artist was just 16 and untrained at the time, is Roy. Executed in pen and ink, a favourite medium at the time, the portrait shows a five-year-old boy (the brother of a friend) leaning over a church pew. A sense of pent-up energy, boredom and disconnection is revealed in every postural detail, indicating a young boy fidgeting and longing to be elsewhere. Such simplicity of tone contrasts with the portrait of Marjorie Metz, a friend of the artist who is shown wearing an evening dress chosen by Spencer against a busy background that conveys the vibrant character of this local café owner.

‘Mr and Mrs Baggett’ by Stanley Spencer

The breadth of styles and characters that interested Spencer are never more apparent than in Domestic Scenes: At the Chest of Drawers. Chaotic and imaginative, the painting has a mischievous sense of humour – and, perhaps, eccentricity – at its heart. Spencer was, after all, somewhat maverick in his relationships, though his love for Hilda is evident in Hilda with Hair Down, an intimate portrait of his then wife that he kept for the rest of his life.

This thoughtful tribute reveals that Spencer found constant inspiration in his friends and family, as well as in his beloved Cookham.

‘Friends and Family, Portraits by Stanley Spencer’ runs until 24 March 2019 at the Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham.

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