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Conference Papers
Publications : Chapters in Books

Auctioning Stanley Spencer: Oil Painting Sales 1990-2015.

Paul Gough
Introduction to Sophie Hatchwell, Paul Gough, Simon Shaw-Miller, Auctioning Stanley Spencer: Oil Painting Sales 1990-2015

‘The elsewhere of my mind…’: reflections on the art of Stanley Spencer

“I find I am painting things in the same order in which God created them’ wrote Stanley Spencer, ‘first the Firmament … then all the bare earth bits and the river bits, then the bushes and flowers and grass and trees and creepers and here I also do walls and buildings, then come animals and human beings together at the end…. I want to draw everybody in Cookham, to begin at the top of the village and work downwards.’

In exactly the same spirit, Spencer painted most of his canvases from top left to bottom right, ensuring that the cuff of his suit (which he invariably wore while painting) did not drag in the wet paint. Few artists can have been so organised in their methods as Spencer, and yet have led a life so outwardly chaotic, complicated and controversial. Few artists have been so prolific. He painted many hundreds of finely detailed canvases, produced thousands of drawings, many of them squared up with exacting detail for transfer to canvas, while others are mere whispers of ideas, exquisitely described in fine line and assured cross-hatching. Few artists can have written as many letters. Maurice Collis, invited to write the painter’s biography in the late 1950s, was astonished to take delivery of two large packing cases and a wooden truck on castors, in which were crammed ‘not only notebooks and writing pads of every shape, colour and thickness, but a multitude of loose sheets of writing.’ To compound his task, there was no list, nor inventory or guide of any kind. In order to fathom the unique individual embedded in these manuscripts Collis identified eighty-eight bulky notebooks, thirteen diaries, and over 900 extensive tracts of writing, ranging from musings scrawled on the back of envelopes to dense pages covered in Spencer’s excitable, passionate script. It is reckoned the painter wrote in primary form some two million words. Likening his output to that of James Joyce, one archivist has suggested that Spencer’s writing presents a stream-of-consciousness chronicle of his own thoughts and feelings ‘unparalle[le]d both in volume and intensity by any artist in the twentieth century.’ Abundantly imaginative, his letters are strewn with ideas for paintings, drawings, and ambitious memorial schemes. Spencer’s art knew no boundaries; his ambition was enormous, matched only by a single-minded pursuit of an unorthodox personal vision that now marks him out as one of the greatest British painters of the 20th century.

Sir Stanley Spencer CBE is renowned for two attributes: the immortalisation in paint of his home village of Cookham, his ‘heaven on earth’ as he lovingly called it, and the fusion in his paintings of the menial and the miraculous, of sex and saints, of dirt and angels, invariably melded together by an extraordinary sense of pattern, design and a unifying personal vision. Grounded always in rigorous observation, Spencer’s narrative paintings reveal a complex reading of the world, where everything had a double meaning – the everyday jostling with the imaginary, the ordinary alongside the extraordinary – which he attempted to reconcile through his art.

Believing that the divine rested in all creation Spencer transformed Cookham into a paradise where everything was endowed with mystical significance. It was a place of daily miracles, where his family and neighbours would daily rub shoulders with Old Testament figures, and where it seemed entirely appropriate that Christ would wander in the garden behind the local schoolyard. Enraptured by these personal visions, Spencer painted every corner and every character; his curiosity finding succour in a voracious pleasure of looking, dreaming, absorbing it into every physical desire.
‘I like to take my thoughts for a walk’ he wrote to his first wife Hilda, ‘and marry them to some place in Cookham.’

In the mid-1920s, the local churchyard became the backdrop for his first great resurrection painting, a vast canvas some 9 feet by 18 painted over three years in a borrowed studio in Hampstead. Like every one of his narrative compositions it is vividly memorable. Christ is depicted in the church porch, enthroned and cradling three babies. Moses and God the Father stand benignly nearby. Scattered around the churchyard the dead emerge unscathed from their graves; risen souls are transported to Heaven by pleasure steamer; Spencer, Hilda, family and friends lie in states of blissful undress amidst beds of ivy and lop-sided tombstones. It is a tour de force of deep peace and ecstatic joy, underpinned by impeccable draughtsmanship and finely nuanced brushwork. When exhibited at the Goupil Gallery in 1927
the painting caused a sensation. It was purchased by the Tate Gallery (through the Duveen Fund) that same year. For the thirty-six year old painter it was a triumph, launching him onto the London art scene and paving the way for some of the most memorable public commissions in the country. Yet Spencer’s reputation was always volatile. In the mid-1980s the very same resurrection painting was relegated to a modest wall in a darkened stairwell of Tate Britain. Spencer may have appreciated the irony. Never one to modify his views or to dilute his mature vision, he occasionally suspected a plot by the establishment to denigrate his art and to silence the open sexuality of his personal vision.

Spencer had been an outstanding student at the Slade School of Art, London where in 1910 he had joined a brilliant cohort of fellow painters. His biblical compositions attracted praise and prizes, marking him out as an individual of outstanding potential, even amongst an extraordinarily talented peer group. When he graduated he was already exhibiting his work, and was selected by Roger Fry to show in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition at London’s Grafton Galleries, even though his work owed as much to Giotto as it did to Gauguin. With his ebullient personality, surfeit of energy and inexhaustible fund of ideas Spencer made a memorable impression on all who encountered him. He was collected by such influential figures as Edward Marsh and Lady Ottoline Morrell who welcomed him into their circles as an energetic, if at times exhausting, house guest. Even a prolonged period of military duty on the forgotten Salonika Front did not diminish his innate sense of wonder and an enquiring nature, though it dented his religious belief, and caused him prolonged physical hardship and mental discomfort. Spencer returned from the war, wrote one shrewd observer, no longer an ‘essentially imaginative artist rather an intuitive one’. His growing reputation was confirmed by the brilliant achievement of the
Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, where he spent over five years painting an epic cycle of paintings recalling his war experiences in Bristol and the Balkans. Critical acclaim followed, commercial success was assured. In 1932, as the chapel was finally finished, he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and taken on by the London dealer, Dudley Tooth who became his sole agent.

Yet tragically, Spencer’s domestic life turned to turmoil in the mid-Thirties: his first marriage collapsed, he abandoned his family, his new wife spurned him, revelling instead in an extravagant life style that threatened to bankrupt him. The painful aftermath of his bizarre personal life became the unexpurgated subject matter of his work. During the winter of 1937, cast alone in Suffolk, Spencer painted a series of searingly awkward canvases, The Beatitudes of Love, about ill-matched couples, which owed more to German Neue Sachlichkeit than it did to British precedents. Radical and controversial nude self-portraits, challenging figure compositions packed with incident, and double nude portraits followed, many never to be shown in his lifetime. Restless and rootless, distanced from his family and from Cookham, Spencer resigned from the Royal Academy in 1935 when two of his bustling domestic paintings were rejected. Faced with financial crisis Spencer had little option but to take Tooth’s advice to churn out smaller landscape and still life works, which found a ready market. For a decade Spencer could be spotted trundling a pram stacked high with easel, umbrella and painting gear somewhere around Cookham. Although the peaceful landscapes are beautifully idiosyncratic Spencer loathed doing them, regarding them as little more than potboilers intended to pay his second wife’s bills, while his true work was ignored by critics and buyers. In 1938 Tooth effectively took over managing Spencer’s finances, and the painter eked out a living until he was again commissioned as a war artist. His suite of shipbuilding paintings produced in Port Glasgow set a new standard for an epic, even heroic, portrayal of skilled labourers joined in patriotic endeavour.

As Sophie Hatchwell reveals in her diligently researched study, Spencer’s prices oscillated under Tooth, who struggled to interest buyers in the artist’s personal work. Ironically, as she illustrates in her study, all this was reversed in the decades after the painter’s death in 1959. The value of his work rose appreciably following a major retrospective at the Royal Academy, London in 1980. His painfully vivid Crucifixion, painted in the year before he died, sold in 1990 for £1.32m and set a new sales record for a modern British painting. The same year a more homely canvas depicting Spencer and his first wife, Hilda, established a new auction record for his work, doubling the pre-sale estimate. In 2011 the auction record for a painting by Spencer fell twice, first by ‘Workmen in the House’ which fetched £4.74m, and then by ‘Sunflower and Dog Worship’ which sold for £5.41m, more than double the estimate. Seven of the painter’s works achieved a total of over £23m. It was a remarkable moment, all the more poignant for the derision which many of these works had once been received by the critics and public alike. Ironically, a long lost landscape of a potato patch painted in Rostrevor, County Down in the early 1950s failed to reach its reserve sales price in April 2013. However, the distinction between Spencer’s ‘own’ work and these so called ‘potboilers’ is a false one: whatever he painted or drew he invested with extraordinary singularity. He had a quite unnerving ability to capture objects in paint through the fullest absorption of the thing ‘into’ himself, because in that self-identity they were revealed to him as the ‘Forms chosen by God’. This may explain the unique strangeness of Spencer’s compelling vision and he found it almost unbearable that others might not be able to see the world in the same way.

Professor Paul Gough

Melbourne, 2015
Published 2016

Auctioning Stanley Spencer: Oil Painting Sales 1990-2015
Sophie Hatchwell, Paul Gough, Simon Shaw-Miller

The Noble Index is a series of monographic publications of art sales prices achieved at auction, for a selection of leading 20th-century British artists. They involve the collaboration of a commercial art dealership, Piano Nobile Works of Art and the University of Bristol's History of Art Department; bringing together academic and commercial expertise on the artists for the benefit of those with an interest in their work. They are funded by the generosity of a private benefactor. The studies are confined to analyses of auction art sales results from 1990 to the time of the study. Although largely from UK sales, data supplied by international salerooms are also included. Graphs an interpretations of these figures are analysed and significant trends and buying patterns revealed. It is envisaged that this data will be of growing value to private and corporate clients, museums and fine art funds. Accurate commercial appraisal has always played an important role in the consideration of new acquisitions throughout the history of art. No more so than today is this seen with the fluctuating, but ever more significant rise in value commanded by the best of many 20th-century artists' work. This publication of the Nobile Index Series, written by Sophie Hatchwell, academic at Bristol University, focuses on the sales history of Sir Stanley Spencer from 1990-2015. Stanley Spencer, arguably one of the greatest British artists of the twentieth-century, is also renowned for his chequered sales history and money struggles. This rigorous study into the prices his work now commands at auctions demonstrates the significance of major sales over the past twenty-five years and the increasing value the market places upon Spencer's paintings. Evaluating general market trends, genres and media amongst other factors, Sophie Hatchwell's investigation provides an invaluable source of information on Stanley Spencer as an artist and the legacy and future of his work within the art market. The publication comes in two sections - an introduction by renowned Spencer specialist Professor Paul Gough, results and analysis, and a booklet insert of appendices.