Backyard Vision Defined by Walls
WALLS, particularly brick walls, feature so often and prominently in the imaginative, people-filled, paintings of English artist Stanley Spencer that the meaning they had for him can scarcely be doubted. If they are not walls made of brick or stone, then they are fences made of wood or iron. They are essential ingredients of his visual narratives, set in everyday surroundings but often retelling and re-envisioning Biblical events.
Walls and fences even frequent his unpopulated, factual landscape paintings - parceling land, separating little gardens, bordering pavements. These walls are part of his fondness for the cozy English village and its fabric.
Spencer was not a painter who used symbols obviously in his work; in fact he was clearly fascinated by the enigmatic, in particular by the mystery that attends the "commonplace." Walls made for strange spaces and unexpected perspectives in his imaginative paintings. He seems to have particularly enjoyed visualizing events on both sides of a wall - a distinctly sculptural concept for a painter.
Though walls in themselves are familiar enough features of village and country, Spencer's almost obsessive fascination for painting them with a kind of exact relish of their every nuance made them noticeable and significant. Duncan Robinson, in his 1990 study of Spencer, observes aptly: "Spencer never lost [his] ability to translate the abstract into the reality of experience and to locate the eternal in his backyard."
Spencer's walls serve him in a variety of ways - to meander and undulate over uneven ground, to partially hide or disclose figures, to act as background or as enclosure (either for a fantasized paradise, safely cut off from an external world, or as an entrapment to be escaped from). They also serve as divisions between people and awkward confines for figures engaged in some tense drama of meeting or confrontation.
A sense of place was crucial to his art, and walls were frequently his way of describing location and compartmentalizing action. They were much more than merely a question of stage setting.
When in 1950, toward the end of his career, he rejoined the Royal Academy of Arts in London (after a lengthy disenchantment with that establishment), he presented "The Farm Gate" as his "diploma work." He certainly must have chosen it with care to represent him and his art. Once again a brick wall - represented as ever in meticulous detail, each brick painted with scrupulous attention to color, texture, and perspective - forms an all-important element of the composition.
From what Spencer's commentators have written about this picture, its subject is not entirely clear. But they do agreed that the farm gate was the one Spencer would have seen as a child from his bedroom window - thus the high viewpoint. The Berkshire village of Cookham was Spencer's childhood world and the place in which his vision was most inspired. He said that he became a painter in order to preserve his visionary sense of this familiar and loved "backyard" and show that it wasn't just something belon ging to childhood.
Duncan Robinson describes "The Farm Gate" as based on "a recollection from his Cookham childhood." But Keith Bell, in his catalog note for the 1980 Spencer retrospective, identifies the two figures as Spencer and his first wife, Hilda. Spencer was certainly in the habit of depicting himself sometimes as rather boyish and diminutive (he was both). But the small boy cornered by the gate and wall, hemmed in by the two dogs and the steel bar he is hooking onto the gate, is surely a memory of himself at the a ge of 10 or so, and this means that the woman holding back the gate is hardly Hilda.
What is perfectly feasible is that Spencer vividly remembered being almost squashed into that small triangular space while the cows surged through the opened gateway. He had an acute memory for such apparently trivial incidents as possible subjects for paintings. The painter John Bratby recalls how Spencer once described to him with great enthusiasm a recollection of a "small visual incident" from many years before. Spencer, in Bratby's words, "burst into an excited and effervescent description" of this incident "that he had always wanted to make the subject of a painting, but had never actually done so. He had seen a girl lose her playing ball under a fence made of wire netting, and her bent figure trying to retrieve the ball at the base of the expanse of netting was an image that had stayed with him over the years." Minutes later Spencer was drawing the incident on an envelope.
Sometimes people criticized Spencer for his distortions of the human figure. It might be truer to say that he was interested in contortions - the girl reaching under the wire netting, the woman holding back the gate to let the cows through.
What is sure is that he knew precisely what he was doing. When he chose to be painstakingly realistic, he was. This was specially the case with his straight landscape paintings. "Southwold" is a fine, if in some ways not entirely characteristic, example of the realism he could contrive on canvas by the accumulation of cannily observed details - a buildup of a view out of thousands of small, neatly painted elements - not unlike building a wall.
His landscapes were his direct, and often exhaustively long, encounters with specific places. They were different in kind from his large-scale imaginative works. They were painted in situ, not drawn incisively on paper first and scaled up to be painted. Minutely precise drawing certainly is their basis, but Spencer seems to have deliberately subjected himself to observed verisimilitude of a most demanding and immediate order when painting landscapes on the spot. A friend has reported finding him waiting for the light on a puddle to fall just as it had the day before so he could finish painting it.
It has been said that painting landscapes engaged his interest more than he was prepared to admit. Financial difficulties were what he blamed for the drudgery of this kind of work; it was a favorite complaint. He called such work his "pot boilers." His dealer could sell them more easily than his imaginative works.
Nevertheless, on the evidence of many of the landscapes themselves, though Spencer may well have found them wearisome to do, much of his character and his intense affection for Cookham, are remarkably encapsulated in them. They are vivid realizations in paint of a very strong appreciation of English landscape. He is known to have looked carefully at John Constable's paintings, and he also recorded the inspiration he got one day from a large landscape by Rubens in the National Gallery, London, prompting a
landscape of his own.
The sun-filled beach scene he painted at "Southwold" in 1937, though not of Cookham, was clearly painted from motives other than duty or financial need. This East Coast resort was near Wangford, where he and Hilda had been married. After marital confusions, he tried to persuade Hilda (who had divorced him) to return with him to Wangford, to relive happier times.
WHEN she refused, he went by himself, and the day after his arrival he started this painting of the beach at Southwold. Though done on the spot, it nevertheless has the intensity of a dream, a kind of testimony to his love for Hilda and an association with what he thought was her ideal belief (as he put it in a letter to her seven years earlier) in "people conscious of and rejoicing in perfection."
And in "Southwold" too, once again, can be discovered his love of walls - though not, in this case, made of bricks and mortar. The breakwater angles away into the sea like a wall, the deckchairs line up facing the sparkling waves like a wall, and the towels and bathing costumes dry on the washing lines in the foreground above the concrete bastions of the sea wall. But, from his chosen high viewpoint, the canvas windbreak strung out straight down the pebbly beach, with people and deckchairs ranged along i ts two sides, is the feature of this scene that must have caught Spencer's fancy most intensely. The point is that he has selected an observation post where he can see what is happening on both sides of this "wall." And in that way he was able to exercise the power of the artist's all-encompassing eye.