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Looking to Heaven: Volume 1: by Stanley Spencer

Looking to Heaven: Volume 1: by Stanley Spencer

Volume one commences with Spencer’s recollections of his youth

Looking to Heaven: Volume 1: by Stanley Spencer

4.5 / 5

Two million words from this English artist’s manuscripts fill notebooks and diaries at the Tate. Stanley Spencer’s grandson John edits what he confesses to be “an almost impossible task.” His forebear kept starting and stopping attempts to create his definitive account of himself. “I don’t want a tidy book,” the senior Spencer’s cited here, for “life is not tidy.” This statement may surprise those who visit the well-preserved (if far more trafficked today) Berkshire village of Cookham, the site of his birth. There, a small museum displays many of his skewed depictions of his neighbors placed into biblical or visionary scenes, alongside his accomplished pastoral paintings of the place where he spent most of his life. That hamlet remains neatly preserved in its heart. Many of Spencer’s landscapes remain recognizable to the careful viewer over a century after Stanley began his storied and odd career.

John Spencer observes that his grandfather “has been variously presented as a village simpleton, an eccentric, haunted by the erotic, a recluse, an egoist, a victim of circumstance—and also a visionary, a complete original, and one of the greatest British artists of the twentieth century.” Finally, readers can begin to analyze for themselves, from Stanley’s diligent letters and lists in Looking to Heaven, the first stages of his British success.

Volume one commences with Spencer’s recollections of his youth. Born in 1891, his sketches from his teens grace the margins of this handsome publication. Already a command of line draws one’s attention. At 15, he began watercolor lessons. These prepared him for matriculation at the premier Slade School of Fine Art, from 1908 to 1912. He commuted to London and back each day.

Tellingly, his classmates nicknamed him “Cookham.” Yet he admits that what he “felt” in his village could not be expressed at the Slade. “My knowledge developed by the experience of a series of drunken experiences,” unrelated to each other. The key adjective here denotes not inebriation from alcohol, but elevation from his environment, and what he calls an oracular sense of contact with the “Grand Vision.” This encompassed his work and his life’s perspective, as an alchemy stirring up the quotidian into the mystical. Although a Christian, his faith remained peculiar, generated from within.

By 1911, his canvas “John Donne Arriving in Heaven” confirmed his direction. The Pre-Raphaelites and Giotto combined with modernist elements and foreshortened angles at this formative juncture. The characteristics evident early on would motivate him for a half-century. His return from Slade to his “earthly paradise” back in Berkshire inspired him to create “Apple Gatherers.” The wide-eyed or off-handed depiction of faces and gestures seem to extend out of the surface. Limbs distend; bodies contort.

These contortions prefigured Spencer’s entry into a war that would end this idyll. His older brothers enlisted. He with a younger sibling joined a Home Hospital Service in the Royal Medical Corps. But he confides to his close friend, Henry Lamb, also now in uniform, that he himself fears being called a slacker. Returning to Cookham, those “wounded are always quiet and never say a word about our not joining.” Reading Dostoevsky’s The Possessed and hearing a Beethoven movement that portended to Spencer the end of the world reveal his troubled conscience. He tries to align his resistance to brutality with the need to be “a manly man” as a stereotypical loyal young zealot ready to march off.

By his mid-twenties, already known by poet-soldier Rupert Brooke and patron Lady Ottoline Morrell, Spencer felt pressured to do more for patriotism. In mid-1915, he followed his younger brother Gil into the St. John’s Ambulance Corps. Assigned to the Beaufort Lunatic Asylum serving as a War Hospital. Stanley survives its “crushing atmosphere” by “means of my own creative feelings.” At this point, John Spencer’s edition lacks illustrations. Instead, a few facsimiles of letters under a YMCA letterhead appear. The elder Spencer longed to flee the “beastliness” of serving as an orderly. He volunteered for a Field Ambulance as Britain mobilized for the “big push” on the Somme, the massive offensive mid-1916.

That September, Spencer landed in Macedonia. In its mountainous terrain north of Salonica, he yearns for “something findable.” For two-and-a-half years, this region “became the goal and place wherein spiritually I wanted to find the redeeming and delivering of myself in all the activities the unexpressed me had lived through and in.” The verbiage of this phrasing does not belie its sincerity.

Pencil sketches and ink and wash appear in the margins of John’s compilation, signaling Stanley’s productivity between his duties. His inspiration comes “by praying for the Power to live purely and absolutely you get that power.” He acclaims the intense “feelings” resulting as necessary for an artist.

Shakespeare and Hardy, Chaucer and Milton, music and poetry pepper his letters. Despite hospitalization for malaria, Spencer sustains his cheer. He requests Robert Louis Stevenson and a little book on Raphael. He misses hot cross buns. He envisions martial splendor from the Book of Joshua. He paints his comrades scrubbing shirts in the overflow from torrents. He compares this to “how the old Greek women do their washing.” His imagination fired, he writes to Henry Lamb. “I am a thousand times more determined to do something a thousand times greater than anything when I get home, and am storing up energy all the time.” Whether betraying a touch of Orientalism or merely expressing his drive to create and to incorporate thus the Other, he tells another recipient: “Yesterday I drew the head of an Asiatic man. It was nearly as exciting as Columbus discovering America.”

Early in 1918 he transfers into the Royal Berkshire Regiment. Their foe, “the Bulgars,” moves him typically, as Spencer “got the impression of them as beings which came from an essential and permanent night, and that each night we approached their dark abode as midnight drew near and as the morning descended and came away with it.” This sentence shifts from echoes of verse to cadences of the Bible, and given Spencer’s immersion into literature then, reflects his own mystical reactions.

After he quotes Paradise Lost to a correspondent, he adds: “That’s the sort of thing I live on, along with Army rations.” He goes on digging, loving God and reading Milton as his main occupations. This retreat for introspection ended when Spencer applied for a War Memorial promotion “scheme” and to be employed by the Ministry of Information to “paint pictures relating to the war.”

Then, an extended passage from Stanley’s later recollections is inserted in the chronicle by John. This narrates a bivouac, a long march away from battle and a sense of dreaminess as distance brings peace. Suddenly, scouting a gradient, Stanley met an armed officer who “wished me well out of the way.” He was in the British Army. “No wonder they were still annoyed to see that I still existed.”

Soon, combat commences. After, Spencer carries blankets to camp. His Regimental Sergeant Major passes by: “I expect you’d rather be painting, wouldn’t you, Spencer?” He might have, given malaria again laid him up back in Salonica. There he reads “the Testament nearly all day,” in spite of “paganistic sentiments” in “many things.” Looking back 20 years later on his Army treatment, Spencer acknowledges the right and wrong issues. But he laments how the “last war was exploited and used as a means of abusing people in their professions so as to be able to give vent to their jealousy of distinguished persons.” Parsed in context, by implication, Stanley declaims that artists in the ranks “did not (AS THEY THOUGHT) serve in any way the immediate needs of the country.”

The army’s “anti-intellectual prejudice” irritates him. Around 1936, he looks askance at his fellow citizens who refuse to accept that Stanley aspires rather to a “true spiritual life.” Therewith he strives towards “the model of essential humanness.” While imperfect, he nonetheless insists on being treated fairly. Stanley Spencer’s humanity, emphasized as this compendium closes, reminds his audience of the aims he would continue to seek through another war and into another stretch of partial peace.

His 1914 self-portrait takes up the cover of this elegant edition. A dark-haired man with dark eyes. A bold, confident, subtly defiant look. He captured himself well. The final sentence from this manuscript presented by his grandson sums up much to come for Stanley. “I wish always to stress my own redemption from all that I have been made to suffer.” His subsequent life, which it is to be hoped will be documented in the next installment(s) of this series, attests to Stanley Spencer’s prickly pride, his dogged individuality and his spiritual transformation through art.

      • Publisher:
        University of Chicago Press
      • Pages:
        256

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