Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
                                 Or what's a Heaven for?
                                                                                         Robert Browning, Andrea del Sarto


Stanley and Hilda with their daughters, 1943For Stanley Spencer, each visionary picture was never an isolate product, making a disconnected statement. His urge was to fashion a procession of paintings in which the message of each would carry forward to the next, until by the end of his career he would hope to have mapped the universality of his thought-world or, in his metaphysical terms, approached the identity of God, an event which, if accomplished, could be symbolised for him in terms of the biblical Last Day. My head is full of notions he wrote towards the close of his life, and they really are most thrilling ideas I think. I keep trying to get with them to where some all comprehending notion will great-grandpa the lot. These notions seem to belong to one thing, to be part of one thing. What is that one thing?  I conclude that God is the grand-daddy of them all, and that a sort of Day of Judgment would be the thing into which all these notions could be hurdled.

Whether such an achievement was possible in realistic terms Stanley did not know, any more than did the mediaeval alchemists who hoped to find universal perfection from their search for the philosophers' stone, or the scientists of today who controversially argue that there might be a Theory of Everything. In Stanley's case, he could only follow his instinct. Few other artists have been so consistent in their purpose and vision.

A useful analogy is that for Stanley each visionary painting was a halt on a pilgrimage through life, a viewpoint along the path. The young Stanley was aware that he was destined for his journey but he had no clear notion of what the pilgrimage would entail. He was an explorer, testing the way. By the close of his life, the panorama was beginning to clarify, but by then was becoming so complex that he died with it only partly recorded.

How does one encompass whatever it is which constitutes the identity of God - the universal mind if you wish - which in effect Stanley was striving to do?

The route, we have argued, was decided for Stanley by a feeling. We can describe it as his master feeling, because all other creative feelings were to be related by him to it. It derived from the happiness - cosiness - of his idyllic boyhood years in Cookham. Happiness (as opposed to momentary pleasure), writes psychologist Professor Martin Seligman, comes from knowing what your highest strengths are and deploying them in the service of something you believe in larger than you are. There's no shortcut to that. That's what life is. Or, as the sculptor Henry Moore saw it : The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.

The quotations light the young Stanley like a beacon. He labelled the feelings of those early years his Cookham-feelings. They induced in him what he called a state of awareness so vivid that specific persons, objects and places in Cookham became holy for him. They stirred the sensations he later came to know as Love

To the mature Stanley, the instinct to love was more than the down-to-earth urges we call sex. He regarded it as a mystery, a gift which helps us break out beyond the prison-wall-tapping of our isolate self and join with (or as he put it, be liked with) our fellows in exploration of our universality. He defined it as his impulse towards the total absorption of himself into every living thing he encountered, irrespective of its human, animal or plant nature, but ever deferential of its identity. There are two parts of me, he once wrote, one is me and the other is the life around me which is me also....I am aware that all sorts of parts of me are lying about waiting to join me. It is the way I fulfil and complete myself.

The happiness of these creative feelings convinced Stanley of the absolute necessity of peace in getting himself into his up-in-heaven life. Peace in that sense did not mean absence of war, nor of material struggle, nor of the dangers of adventure, for these cannot be avoided in our everyday lives. Rather it referred to an inner experience of imperturbable isolation from everyday circumstances. Time and again he sought such peace, even at the expense of safety or comfort in his down-to-earth life.

Only the creativity achieved in such peace was valid for Stanley. It alone accurately identified the universal aspects of his up-in-heaven existence. To help discern it, he followed the classic thinking of mankind which has been ground through the mills of time. Christ, Buddha, Confucius, Mahomet, the Bible, the ancient philosophers, the fathers of the Christian churches - Augustine, Aquinas -  the poets and novelists who had understood humanity in its universal nature - Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, the Metaphysical Poets - the classical composers, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart - the great artists, especially those of mediaeval and Renaissance periods - all these in their different ways were welcomed as successful practitioners by Stanley. For this reason he remained devoted to their works, not always perhaps with full understanding, but sufficiently to absorb the gist of their wisdom. 

Each of these great minds had evolved a pattern designed to express his understanding of the link between the everyday and the universal. Followers, adopting it, use it as a paradigm, an ongoing storyline accepted within their culture as providing a framework by which their needs for social cohesion (their 'down-to-earth') and their spiritual reassurance (their 'up-in-heaven') could be authorised. In Stanley's usage any paradigm he adopted had to be capable of having its symbols transferable into his own pilgrimage allegory. His choice of biblical content and language as his paradigm was inherent from his upbringing. It provided a totality of metaphor which paralleled his aspirations.

Looking back in the closing months of his life, Stanley summarized his creativity as follows: Religion (or love, I don't mind) brings happiness, and happiness brings gratitude, and gratitude brings aspiration - the wish to express it in the best possible way...And this brings passion, and passion brings and reaches to creative power. This is the way of Vision. It ends with me seeing this special, and to me crucial, meaningfulness in ordinary appearance. For Stanley, the mantra (it is circular: enter it at whatever point one wishes) was the powerhouse of his vision and of his most creative art.

Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, Stanley was wary of departing from his paradigm. He had no means of testing the validity of experimentation. The fracturing of traditional art taking place in his day was exciting, but the antithesis of his purpose. So were the academic schemes of art classification being introduced then : some of the greatest works of art were carried out at a time when the idea of  'art' or 'artists' was unknown, he argued. He preferred instead to venerate the mediaeval image makers who, although individual in their approaches, had worked within the totality of a common framework, their Christian iconography. It had provided a solid foundation for them - why not, then, a comparable paradigm for him in his twentieth-century approach? 

The Christian pilgrimage as paradigm

Christian symbolism extols pilgrimage as the vertical struggle of the soul to free itself from the material and to ascend, whatever the cost, towards its God. The concept became for Stanley a paradigm for his more metaphysical struggle from down-to-earth to up-in heaven. His was, like Bunyan's, a Pilgrim's Progress, an aspect of our archetypal myth in which a man searching to secure his soul must face and overpower earthly perils.

The pilgrim starts, as did Christ, from the material everyday and, facing perils, undergoes struggle and suffering - the passion and crucifixion - until the metaphysical, the heaven, is achieved. At that point a metamorphosis of the pilgrim's being from the one state to the other occurs. It brings redemption, resurrection. These latter are again two vertical Christian concepts which Stanley adapted to his art structures. His celebrated Resurrection paintings are not literal. They are not even simplistically symbolic. They each represent the triumphant attainment of a glorious entry into his thought-world after struggles against a potentially destructive peril, and by taking with him into the painting those who helped him get there, even if unwittingly, he 'resurrects' them into his glory. This is apparent in his 1923 Cookham Resurrection discussed in detail later in the website, but it pervades too his Resurrection of the Soldiers at the Sandham Memorial Chapel : in it, Stanley takes with him even those comrades who were indifferent to his ideas. They are not necessarily resurrecting from death in battle. They are being transported into Stanley's thought-world, new-born and standing about in wonder.

In Stanley's pilgrimage, the 'perils' he faced can be identified as those awesome experiences which threatened to block his creative energy. Although he stumbled across puzzles in his early thinking, he had been able to move forward freely in his Cookham paradise in an adolescent aura of creative elation. When the perils at last came, he felt so damaged by the struggles of coping with them that he became convinced he could never again recapture the artistic purity of his early work.

The first arrived in 1914 with the outbreak of the Great War. In studying Stanley's war experiences and paintings it is important to remember that for him struggle did not refer to physical distress. For him such suffering was incidental and even unimportant when compared with the emotional frustration of being unable to use his art to connect his down-to-earth to his up-in-heaven. That frustration was for him a form of hell.

The Great War over, an equally formidable disturber of the peace, as Stanley called these perils, arrived - the demands of adult sexuality. For years he lived in a frenzy of anxiety as to whether its uncontrollable associations would damage the cogency of his up-in-heaven thought. He found himself at times forced in his art to find redemption - purging - by modifying his Christian paradigm. There were times when he appeared to drop it altogether. His art took new forms, although the aim and process remained intact.

Stanley's father was Christian in background, but veering strongly towards Ruskinian and Unitarian precepts. His mother was dedicated Methodist. So during his pilgrimage Stanley gradually absorbed whatever of each he needed to adjust his thinking  Later he flirted with Roman Catholicism for a time, then Eastern religious thought, even the Christian Science of his wife Hilda. He was something of a chameleon in adapting himself to others' views, which he would then modify as he switched allegiance to new thinkers. But he invariably kept what he needed from each, even if discarding the rest. He wanted to feel sure.

From this procedure Stanley evolved not a specific philosophy nor even a deeply held system of beliefs, but rather an assembly of notions which he could use as he thought fit, some of which he was not always sure about. I never know what to say to  people when they ask me if I believe in God, he frequently admitted. Yet he often feared that Hell, for example, might in fact be true, and for years wanted to paint a picture of it, although he could never bring himself emotionally to do so. His difficulty was that, because his picture-people were 'real' to him, any he sent down to Hell would be despatched by his own hand, a fearsome thought. Salvation he could accept, but not damnation.

One highly significant notion seems to have originated from Stanley's father's proto-Unitarian views - his disavowal of the divinity of Christ. For Pa and for Stanley, Christ remained a humanistic if sanctified figure who had long ago shown how the pilgrimage Stanley and Hilda dancing Stanley was now launched upon should be undertaken, I can make no claim that what I show as to me being lovely and lovable is what Christ loves, but I can imagine what he might love and approve, and I hope it would coincide with what to me is wonderful. So Stanley could without blasphemy regard himself in the up-in-heaven aspects of his thinking as partaker with Christ in the same pilgrimage. It made him in his thought-world an alter-ego of Christ. His creative activities when in that mode linked him in feeling to the spirituality he called God.

It was a concept Stanley did not care to make too public in his day. But he certainly made use of it in his art. In the adjacent up-in-heaven drawing showing him dancing with his wife Hilda, for exampleStanley's God-symbol in the person of a memory-feeling of Pa sitting - or dozing under a newspaper - in a Fernlea armchair vouchsafes by his spiritual presence the integrity, the 'truth', of the universality of their mutuality.

Pa was only one of the figures Stanley used in this way. They were intended to convey atmosphere in a painting or to imply approval of its content. The small boy in St Francis and the Birds or the Christ-like figure in Two Girls and a Beehive are examples. Stanley referred to them as disciples, meaning that they echo the up-in-heaven feelings which he felt the God-element in his thinking, variously termed Christ or the Holy Ghost or a deputy for God, would have had in overseeing the circumstance shown in the picture. At other times, especially in works like the above drawing in which Stanley is arguing that his physical sex with Hilda conjoins their two separates selves into an up-in-heaven 'unity' (an aspect of Love in his definition), he sometimes referred to the figure as a revealer of ourselves together. Whenever the figure appears in his work it is in effect acting as the eternal element in a counterpoint which provides the picture's dynamism. Without the figure, the drawing would be simply a representation of Hilda and him dancing, with no meaningfulness for him or us.

Stanley's pilgrimage proceeds

Stanley's pilgrimage proceeded picture by picture, most being constructed by his compositional method by which the 'message' of each picture was evolved as the unifying element in a counterpoint. But if only to maintain variety and to handle the more difficult comprehensions, he had increasingly to ramify the method. Some of these ramifications can be discerned as follows:

* combining the 'separates' of his counterpoint into a single figuration (The Centurion's Servant or St Francis in St Francis and the Birds) in which the physical actions of the figures encapsulate both the before and after.

* composing his counterpoint 'separates' as two paintings which lack 'barriers' but are meant to be hung in opposition to each other (Workmen in the House and The Builders, or Love on the Moor and Love Among the Nations.) Stanley sometimes used contrasting styles to emphasise the different feelings of the counterpoint opposition.

* combining the 'separates' into what appear to be straightforwardly illustrative paintings without 'barriers', but which, if analysed from his recorded memory-feelings, reveal the most subtle counterpoints. Most of the sixteen panels in the Burghclere Chapel showing his military service are examples. Thus Tea in the Ward can initially seem a nostalgic moment in hospital routine, but is in fact a complex counterpointing of deeply-held memory-feelings, the creative of his up-in-heaven life set against the steriltity of his military service (this counterpoint is described in the next webpage on Burghclere.)

* using the actuality of a place, photograph or illustration but inserting the 'barrier' to turn it into the up-in-heaven by reversing it left to right and making it a mirror image, so forming a unity by combining its perceptual actuality with its conceptual reversal (Knowing, or Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill.) In this intent, Stanley echoes the reversal of images in mirrors used in paintings by masters like Velasquez and Van Eyck to impart a sense of duplication and mystery. The reversal in Stanley's case was based on his boyhood feelings of entering his uncle's next-door semi-detached house where the layout was the same as his but the other way round. The mysteriousness of his then feelings represents the mystery of the present painting's metamorphosis.

* repeating similar images from time to time as symbolic of the same notion. For example, animals in a visionary painting can usually be interpreted as exemplifying human activity - dogs at one period as symbolic of sexual arousal, cows at another to represent the female characteristics of receptivity, responsiveness and nurturing.

* replicating figures in a picture to show them in their twin states, both down-to-earth and up-in-heaven (Zacharaias and Elizabeth, or his wife Hilda as several Hildas in the unfinished Litter on Hampstead Heath.)

* switching to new symbolism if his biblical paradigm did not suffice. This applied particularly to his so-called 'sex-pictures' of the 1930s (the dustman in The Lovers or The Dustman, or the rubber tyre-tubes in Girls Returning from a Bathe.)

 * painting individual pictures in each of which the two 'separates' have achieved unity, but designing them to be hung in planned association. These became the series of his later years, grouped under titles such as The Marriage at Cana or The Domestic Series which glorified the effect for him of his marriage to Hilda, or The Beatitudes of Love which transfigured the many facets of human love.       
Stanley's greatest series constitute major accomplishments. In examples like the 1920s Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, every picture is not only its own counterpoint but becomes an element contributing to the total counterpoint of the whole scheme. This is so too with the 1940s Shipbuilding at Port Glasgow scheme which was meant to counterpoint with the associated but uncompleted Port Glasgow Resurrection scheme, and so too with his 1958 unfinished Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta with its several supporters, Dinner on the Hotel Lawn, Girls Listening, Punts Meeting, Conversation Piece between Punts, Listening from Punts. These great schemes are intended to take us to a second level of understanding.

T
he Church-House

Tate Archive sheet 53 : © Stanley Spencer Estate Was there to have been a third level? Indeed so. It was to have been the project he called his church-house, a secular chapel built as the conclusion of his pilgrimage. It was intended to contain all the paintings extolling the up-in-heaven meanings he attached to life.

The accompanying photo shows a preliminary draft, probably first devised in the 1930s, and hinting at influences of both his Cookham Methodist Chapel (now the Stanley Spencer Gallery) and his Burghclere Chapel scheme. But as the years went by and his output increased, this first plan expanded unrecognisably, sprouting aisles and 'chapels' devoted to specific topics, and with detailed plans showing how his accumulated paintings were to be hung in them.

Stanley never achieved his church-house. He knew, of course, that fulfilment of such a project was unlikely. But for him the design of the scheme had to be worked through because only so could he reach the end of his search for his Holy Grail. He - and we through his art - would have caught a glimpse of the identity of his God, the ultimate 'epiphany'.

To what extent we accept Stanley's ideas today will depend on our view of contemporary attitudes. Even if we are unwilling to cloak them in the 'religious' paradigm or the old-time language he used, it is difficult to deny their comprehensiveness and universality. Many of his values were far ahead of their time. Then again, whether we question the use he made of the art influences he absorbed, or whether we admire or dismiss his styles of presentation - and surely at their best they are the equal of any - may rest largely with prevailing fashion in art. But whatever our reaction, we ought at least to confess ourselves grateful for the thinking and art that Stanley did achieve. He remains unique.