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Jerwood Gallery brings a fresh insight into the work of Stanley Spencer
Sir Stanley Spencer Neighbours, 1936. © the artists estate / Bridgeman Images.

HASTINGS.- “When I see ordinary circumstances, I seem to see the whole of which it forms a part.  All these isolated happenings touch in a conception of life which I call religious; they tell of it and there is a truth in their revealing.  I like to celebrate all loveable acts.  All ordinary acts such as sewing on a button are religious things and part of perfection.”

The ordinariness of daily life beguiled Sir Stanley Spencer RA. One of the most celebrated British artists of the 20th century; he saw joy and indeed, God, in the mundane. From his house keeper fetching in washing to a bustling wool shop, Spencer delighted in the everyday.

Bringing a fresh insight into this aspect of his work, Jerwood Gallery’s new one-room display, In Focus: Stanley Spencer – A Panorama of Life, also presents art lovers with an opportunity to see several important works rarely seen outside Spencer’s home town of Cookham, in Berkshire.

“His celebration of the everyday is the main theme of the show,” explains Jerwood Gallery Exhibitions Curator Victoria Howarth. “The paintings coming to us from Cookham represent life as it was lived in the first half of the last century. They evoke and capture a bygone time and give a very British snapshot of day-to-day life and work.”

Part of the popular East Sussex gallery’s In Focus programme and the national ‘Year of Stanley Spencer’, A Panorama of Life revolves around nine key loans, focusing on those created by the artist in the 1920s and 30s.

Spencer was enormously influenced by all forms of religion. The paintings he made for the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere and his masterpiece The Resurrection did much to establish and define him as an artist in the public’s imagination. In fact, the theme of the resurrection became a leitmotif throughout his career. However, his sense of faith could be seen in myriad other forms. Fetching Shoes is a pencil drawing that playfully shows Spencer and his lover Daphne Charlton entwined together as they put on their footwear. Spencer wrote: “A part of the religious expression of desire. All things such as these incidents, the many ordinary happenings between two lovers are all a part of the love experience. They make love through everything between themselves.”

Here Spencer reveals something very important about his work. Inspired by the divine it may have been, but at the same time, the earthly is very earthly. And yet those central themes of the ordinary, everyday, mundane aspects of life radiate with the divine. He once said: “When I lived in Cookham I was disturbed by a feeling of everything being meaningless. Quite suddenly I became aware that everything was full of special meaning, and this made everything holy. The instinct of Moses to take his shoes off when he saw the burning bush was very similar to my feelings. I saw many burning bushes in Cookham. I observed the scared quality in the most unexpected quarters.”

In 2013, Spencer’s Neighbours was voted on of the nation’s favourite British works of art and it is one of the real stars of the Jerwood Gallery display. One of nine pictures in the Domestic Scenes series of 1935-6, which concentrated on his childhood and marriage to his first wife Hilda Carline; Neighbours commemorates the occasions when his elder sister Annie exchanged gifts with her cousin over the privet hedge at their Cookham home, Fernlea.

Ten years before he painted Neighbours, Spencer created an ink on paper study of his brother Sydney trimming the hedge at the front of Fernlea with shears.

Intriguingly, Spencer created a small volume of work revolving around the theme of the English garden, which art historians and scholars are becoming increasingly fascinated by. For a visionary such as Stanley Spencer, even the most unprepossessing garden represented a little bit of Heaven on earth.

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