Microcosm: a life in art

Stanley Spencer earned the nickname "Cookham" from his friends at art school in the early 1900s because he talked so incessantly about the village in which he was born and raised. Spencer (1891-1959) was to become perhaps the most imaginative British artist of this century but he was never to lose his attachment to the village of Cookham-on-Thames, 30 miles west of London. Possibly no other artist is as linked, as synonymous, with a single community.

Yet Cookham was a totally unremarkable village of humble buildings and gardens surrounded by agricultural fields. Amid all this ordinariness, Spencer, from childhood, was aware of a peaceful glow."Places to me are inhabited heavens ," he said, and proceeded to paint canvas after canvas that hinted at the conjunction of the invisible things of Christianity with the visible things of this world. He developed his own visual vocabulary to render the invisible in paint.

"Zacharias and Elizabeth" is an early example (1914) of this vocabulary. In this painting, Spencer brings two biblical characters forward in time to enact Luke 1:5-20 in the garden behind a Cookham coalman's house. The glowing landscape of Cookham has become the stage for a Bible story: the artist's beloved village painted as holy ground.

By using a trick found in early Italian painting, Spencer manipulates time in yet another way in this picture. The single frame of "Zacharias and Elizabeth" contains a whole sequence of events rather than a single moment. The scene at the rear of the painting takes place at a different time from the scene at the front. The whole story is given at a glance.

In the foreground, Zacharias tends a fire as he is approached by the angel Gabriel (the hooded figure), who tells him his wife, Elizabeth, will bear a son. Zacharias appears again in the right-hand corner of the painting, this time with Elizabeth. Perhaps here Elizabeth is telling her husband the news of her pregnancy. Elizabeth appears again in the center of the painting, behind the wall. This time she is in a meditative mood. The other figures are included by Spencer simply to round out the composition. The man at right dragging the tree is modeled on a Cookham gardener.

The colors Spencer uses here are the dark greens of Henri Rousseau's tiger-inhabited jungle. Later Spencer would favor pastel tones for the rounded, light-infused forms of the spiritualized inhabitants of Cookham which he painted in a series of resurrection pictures.

Paintings that followed "Zacharias" show other biblical events occurring even more obviously in Cookham. "Christ's Entry into Jerusalem," painted in 1921, shows Jesus astride a horse on a Cookham street, the village children scattering in astonishment at his presence.

Spencer's life in Cookham was interrupted by both word wars. Even in war, Spencer found hints of holiness. His experiences in the First World War inspired a series of paintings that show peace amid violence, glory infusing the menial.

Though Spencer's life was straitened by a shortage of money until the last four years, this tended to affect his wives more than him. Those who knew him have said that he didn't care much for possessions and coulg get along happily with much less than most people. There were other difficulties. His first marriage dissolved at the point when his popularity was becoming assured; his second marriage was a grave disappointment. Spencer painted it all: his works tell, quite clearly, the story of his life.

Of "Zacharias," Spencer said: "It was to be a painting characterizing and exactly expressing the life I was at the time, living and seeing about me. It was an attempt to raise that life round me to what I felt was its true status, meaning and purpose."

Spencer has been termed a pantheist because he saw divinity in everything. But most of his paintings are not naturalistic; they are visionary. "All ordinary things, even the sewing on of a button, are part of perfection," he said. In Spencer's mind, the kingdoms of the world had become the kingdoms of God.

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