Cottages at Burghclere by Sir Stanley Spencer

Cottages at Burghclere by Sir Stanley Spencer (1930)

On August 5th I featured a painting by Stanley Spencer entitled Double Nude Portrait, which in some ways was a pictorial insight into his life at that time.  For many it was a shocking painting, to others it was a sad realisation as how tormented the artist must have been at that juncture in his life.  Today I am looking at another painting by Spencer,  which could not be more different and which I hope you will like.

For the last two days I have been on my travels visiting my elder daughter who lives in the Derbyshire Peak District and I decided that as I was relatively close to Compton Verney I would call there on my way back home as I knew there was a small exhibition of Stanley Spencer paintings in their galleries.  The title of the exhibition was Stanley Spencer and the English Garden and it is on until October 2nd.  If you get a chance you should try and get there as not only do you have a great selection of paintings, including the Stanley Spencer exhibition, you have the chance to walk around the magnificent grounds of Compton Verney.

Stanley Spencer had served as an orderly with the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War, stationed first at the Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol then at the age of 24 he went overseas and served the RAMC in Macedonia in the 68th Field Ambulance unit.  It was whilst there that he transferred into the infantry division of the Berkshire Regiment.  It was during that time that he witnessed horrendous suffering and lost many friends on the field of battle.

After the war Spencer received a commission from Mary and Louis Behrend to paint murals for the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, which had been built as a memorial to Mary’s brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham, who had died at the end of World War I.    He started work on them in 1926 and did not complete the commission until 1932.  The featured painting does not come from the chapel but I will feature some of them at a later date but today’s painting is one which he painted in his spare time when he was at Burghclere.  In some ways I think it may have given Spencer a respite from the memorial paintings and the horrors of war which were relevant to those works.

My Daily Art Display painting for today is entitled Cottages at Burghclere which he painted in 1930 and is owned by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge but is now part of the Compton Verney exhibition.  In this beautiful painting we see two cottages, one with a thatched roof that is slightly bowed and mirrors the bowing of the side hedges separating it from the other, with its tile-cladded roof and its more modern horizontal wooden-slatted facade.  These two side by side dwellings serve as a contrast between old and new.  Both of the dwellings are almost buried by a profusion of shrubbery.  We have before our eyes a voluptuous excess of summer with gardens full of blooming flowers and bordered by lop-sided topiary.  The small compact gardens are fronted by white picket fences, which struggle to fend off the invading weeds and brambles, which press against them in their attempt to spill over into the manicured gardens.  On one side of the fence we see the dwellers have managed to tame the rampant weeds whilst on the other side of the fence line the weeds are mustering forces to lay siege once again.  It is almost man versus nature.

A white picket fence gate in the left foreground stands ajar as if inviting us in to this garden paradise.  The verdancy of the image is almost too much to behold as we look towards the wooded background.   Everything is so lush.  This painting is not of a vast garden with its beautifully manicured lawn which we are used to seeing around French chateaux of the Loire Valley.   This painting is of a small, full-to-the brim with flowers, Berkshire garden in front of its chocolate-box type of dwelling.  There is a snug homeliness about this picture.  There is a feeling of security and wellbeing about the setting.

We are all so used to seeing Spencer’s unusual figures in his religious paintings, which link biblical stories with his native Cookham.  We are also used to his paintings which hark back to the relationship with his two wives, but the garden pictures of Stanley Spencer which he painted throughout his life, have remained little known.   They celebrate all those things that Spencer thought of as quintessentially English and highlight the English love of their gardens.  For this reason I urge you to visit the exhibition before it closes.

The Times described this painting as:

“….the work of a Pre-Raphaelite who has looked at Cezanne..”

The Director of Compton Verney said of Spencer’s paintings:

“…Nothing in Spencer is without symbolism.  He was an inherently mystical person.  For him even the most modest garden was a self-contained vision of heaven…”

I will put it more simply and say that it is so easy to fall in love with the simplicity and beauty of Spencer’s garden paintings and I would love to hang one on my wall at home to remind me of the beauty that is the English countryside.