Stanley Spencer

· culture ·

As I mentioned here, we went to the Stanley Spencer Gallery the day before we moved house. We both love his paintings, with their curious mix of the utterly commonplace and the spiritual. He had a number of quite distinctly different styles, from highly detailed sharp landscapes, through the scenes of groups of people with rounded bodies and huge, curving limbs, to his ultra-realistic intimate portraits which remind me a bit of Lucien Freud's work. He was very firmly rooted in the village he was born in — Cookham in Berkshire — and many of his paintings feature scenes and people from the village. The most striking painting on display in the gallery is a huge work depicting Christ giving a sermon at the Cookham regatta. He's sitting in a punt (complete with a grey straw boater on his head), and holding forth to an audience of small children who are sitting in the bow of the boat. All around hordes of people in their Sunday finest and larking around in boats, some listening and looking at him, and others pre-occupied with their own affairs. Stanley Spencer also painted a famous series on the Resurrection, showing people emerging from their graves in Cookham churchyard. It's one of the most moving paintings I've seen on the subject because it's so down-to-earth. Wives brush the dust off the shoulders of their husband's jackets affectionately as they both rise from the grave, and mothers embrace their long-lost children. Other people are just draped contentedly over their headstones, apparently watching the goings-on with pleasure and amusement.

There was also a rather unconventional Last Supper in the gallery, with the bare feet of the disciples poking out from under the table cloth. They all have huge, hobbit-ish feet, and they are crossed at the ankles. This looks cosy and comfortable, but perhaps it is also supposed to echo the position of Jesus on the cross. His paintings weren't all religiously inspired; I love the series he did of the steelworkers in the shipyards of Glasgow. You really get a sense of the scale, the noise and the confusion of the place, and it's nice to see working people treated with respect and reverence for the tough and dangerous job they do.

There were some great photographs of Stanley at work in the village, with small boys peering intently at his canvas while he tried to ignore them. There's even a polite notice he used to pin up as he worked, explaining that he really wanted to finish the painting, and asking visitors to avoid disturbing him. I can't imagine that it worked very well — he was the kind of person who would probably attract a lot of insatiable curiosity, both for his work and himself.