Analytic attention to process is the British genius.

                                                                                               Hugh Kenner,  A Sinking Island.
 
 

Stanley's creative impulse

For most artists the creative impulse remains indefinable and the mental processes by which it becomes a picture mysterious. In the evolution of a painting the whirl of ideas surfacing from an artist's subconscious becomes integrated into an entity (defined here as a percept, concept, idea or emotion to which the thinker mentally imparts form) which is almost inexpressible in words, so much so that some artists - Bonnard or Klimt, for example - refused to divulge the inner life which prompted their art.

The resulting entities, made visual as pictures, may appear to viewers intriguing, even inspirational, inviting a wish to share the artist's thinking behind his painting. People discuss my art and pretend to understand it, Claude Monet once said, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love. Stanley too hoped that he might persuade us to love his pictures. A journalist who told him during an interview that she found his pictures interesting and was particularly impressed with the precision with which he painted bricks took the force of his sudden fury: You wouldn't have noticed the bloody bricks, he thundered at her, if you had loved my pictures.

Stanley sketching in Port Glasgow shipyard c.1942But to love fully is to understand fully, 'understanding' in this sense having no need of explanation. Although Stanley seldom found words to describe his paintings after their completion, he was always willing to offer sources for the impulses and processes which had occasioned them, usually in vivid and unexpected phrases. These accounts enable us, if we can interpret them accurately, to separate out the individual components of a picture, and to recognise the contribution of each by locating its source in his mind.

The procedure relies of course on the extent to which Stanley left records of his thoughts, in his case most generously. But then it has the drawback of evaluating each component in isolation, whereas its contribution only becomes apparent if grasped in its association with its fellows. Only when assembled together do the components energise the picture and help to provide its dynamism.

So although individual components of Stanley's art are laid out and discussed in sequence in the analyses which follow, it is important to appreciate that it was unlikely he thought them up in quite such a formulaic way. As with most artists, the components emerged slowly over time, and then, in his case, gradually assembled themselves in his mind as concepts, or notions as he called them. It was to meet his genius's inborn demand to make these concepts visual that Stanley's mind evolved instinctively - and even subconsciously at times - the systems proposed in this website.

And what concept-systems they were when rendered in paint! Not only do they surprise by their originality, but the procedure by which Stanley managed them remained consistent throughout most of his life. To fully appreciate the one, we need to master the other.

Stanley as a cautious thinker

Stanley's formative years over the turn of the Victorian era into the twentieth century spanned the period when the traditional in art was being confronted by the new modernism. One part of him joyously embraced its freedom of expression, while another insisted it be disciplined by the values of his upbringing. The paradox is apparent in many of his boyish drawings. In The Fairy on the Waterlily Leaf, for example, he draws a Cookham girl-friend as an all-too substantial fairy, and poses her impossibly on a floating leaf. In Paradise, his feelings for the security of his Fernlea home-life are honoured by a curious collection of boyishly-recalled domestic incidents. Such renderings, conveyed in the intimate minutiae of the self-referentialintrigued viewers, but also puzzled them. When Stanley carried the process into his more imaginative paintings by employing biblical symbolism, viewers split into those who admired him as a gifted 'religious' painter, and those who could not fathom why he found it necessary to limit his talent to Christian example.

But for Stanley the paradox did not exist. He did not see his paintings conventionally. If we are to see them as he saw them, we must get to understand his thinking. It is no easy task, but the purpose of this website is to offer indications which might help.

Let us begin by registering Stanley's claim that there were two of him, each existing simultaneously in a different life. One - his 'real' life - he referred to as his down-to-earth or secular life. The other - his creative life - he called his up-in-heaven life, or his life of special meaningfulness. The two lives can be thought of as corresponding to the terms 'present' and 'timeless' as mentioned in the home-page. The terms physical and metaphysical are used here in the same meaning, the metaphysical often being expressed by Stanley in the metaphorical terms of biblical paradigm or iconography.

Instead of Stanley's heaven, today's reader might prefer a phrase such as 'extended reality'. Indeed, the passing of the years since his death in 1959 suggests that he should more justly be viewed as a dedicated spiritual rather than a religious painter - it is for me to go where the spirit moves me, and not to attempt to ally it to some known and specified religion, he expostulated angrily during his 1935 quarrel with the Royal Academy. 'Religious painter' was an epithet he himself preferred for Tom Nash (on the right of the photo, with stick) a colleague from student days who painted with a Bible in one hand and my ideas in the other. Stanley's God was mistily defined - an echo of his creativity, perhaps, in which his father Pa played a substantial rôle - and his Christ was a very personal concept, I can imagine what Christ might love and I hope it would coincide with what to me is wonderful. If nowadays the term heaven has accrued notional, even sentimental, overtones, they have no place in Stanley's art. There is not the least touch of sentimentality in any of his work.

In common with the spiritual thinkers and metaphysical poets to whose writings he was so devoted from his student days, Stanley was convinced that not only were his two lives intrinsically linked - in my Flesh I see God - but could be understood as an integral reflection of one other. When mirror-imaged thus, the experiences in his perceptual down-to-earth life would become the comprehensions of his conceptual up-in-heaven life. When accurately connected, they expressed the 'truths' he felt impelled to convey by means of his art.

The quest for these 'truths' or infinitenesses as Stanley described them  - the 'messages' of his major paintings - took place in what he called his
thought-world, or that part of his mind in which he tried to put his imaginative life into order. Like most artists, he could record down-to-earth feelings through his splendid landscapes and still-lifes, but if he were to express the unities formed from his felt experiences he needed to interpret them through more creative pictures.

Most artists employ a personal free-floating imagination to achieve creative composition ('imagination' in this sense being defined as the process of raising images in the mind.) But Stanley recoiled from such usage. In this significant respect he differed, for example, from artists like William Blake (with whom he is sometimes compared) who dismissed the material down-to-earth in his art and raised his images from a disconnected thought-world. Stanley admired Blake's radical poetry, but not his more esoteric art.

It is important always to bear in mind that Stanley's image-raising remained anchored firmly in his perceived down-to-earth experience.
Only when he was satisfied that his down-to-earth explorations were valid did he use images from them to reflect his metaphysical up-in-heaven concepts : or, to reverse the argument, his metaphysical up-in-heaven pictures are, surprisingly, constructed from his everyday down-to-earth imagery. The details and figures in them are recognisable as the actualities they were, but in Stanley's conceptualisation have been re-shaped into a metaphysical Stanley-world or, in his potent phrase, have become more intensely themselves. It is to these highly personal renderings in his paintings, and not to their apparently factual visualisation, that he expects us as viewers to respond.

Stanley's use of biblical symbolism
was an instinctive response to this process. It provided a frame - a paradigm - by which he could keep his more abstract explorations disciplined into a coherent order. He did not so much see biblical events as happening in Cookham, as is often suggested, but rather saw Cookham as a familiar and loved background from which to image the universalities he found so readily in biblical exposition.

Throughout his life Stanley exhaustively kept up his exploration. To help handle his ideas, he maintained multiple memoirs, notebooks, daybooks and letters. They run into millions of words. They were a valued possession for him. He continually read and re-read them. Occasionally he tried to catalogue them into order, but his mind moved too quickly to adhere to any system. Their confessional quality can strike a reader as solipsistic, that is, concerned self-centredly with himself. But such comments as the most exciting thing I ever came across is myself  or painting with me was the crowning of an already elected king are not pretentious - to him they were simple statements of fact, and a humbling astonishment, I have always looked forward to seeing what I could fish out of myself, I am a treasure island seeker and the island is myself. His writings are egoistic, but not egotistical.  For us today, their most important feature is that through them his art becomes his mind unpeeled for us. Usually, he once said, in order to understand any picture of mine, it means taking a seat and preparing to hear the story of my life. When judiciously connected, his writings tell the story of my life. In so doing, they direct us to an understanding of his vision. 

Stanley as a disciplined thinker

If Stanley's thinking was cautious, it was also disciplined. It was always exact, if not necessarily intellectual in an academic sense. This claim might strike a reader as surprising, given conventional views of his eccentricities, but coming webpages will justify it. Its precision gave order to even the most esoteric and baffling of his creative paintings. It especially embraced an Emersonian respect for the identities of things and their individual natures. This shows up, for example, in an incident in the 1920s when he was travelling with friends by rail from Vienna to Sarajevo. As the train approached the Balkan mountains, one of the party opined that the scenery is getting better now, only to be put down by Stanley's terse reply that the scenery is neither better nor worse, it is simply different.

The comment reveals Stanley's conviction that everything existed in its own nature and that we should aim to understand it
in that nature. Our imagination should not be used to assign to it characteristics it does not possess, unless we are quite clear what we are doing. Moreover, if it is a living thing it will instinctively seek a state of perfection in its nature if, as a plant, it finds itself in its ideal growing conditions or as a creature, it is located where the maximum of food and protection is available.

As one living thing among others, we humans also seek a state of perfection. But alone among nature we are blessed (or cursed, the sin of Adam and Eve?) with freewill consciousness. We can choose where our definition of perfection lies, as witnessed by the various world religions or political economies. Stanley, son of a professional musician and grandson of a master-builder responsible for erecting many of the big houses round Cookhamwas born to an instinct for technical precision and to the understanding that he had to be exact in his thinking if he were to reach the perfection most personal to himself 

A more prosaic effect of Stanley's precision of mind was that perceived objects, events and people remained imaged in the circumstance in which he first construed them. Their image established their identity. If they changed materially, the effect for him would be that they had become different things with a new identity which he had to master all over again. For that reason, although he accepted the inevitability of the flow of life, he was seldom comfortable with change until he had got the measure of it. He did not enjoy the disorientation of travel, for example, nor could he take an active part in political or social affairs where change is endemic, even though his outlook was liberal. The characteristic showed up too in his disinclination to comment critically on the work of other artists. His response was generally restricted to analysing their work to find meanings in it which expanded his experience (he only dismissed it if he could find none.) The trait was particularly evident on occasions he was invited to give teaching sessions at art colleges, where he seldom felt had the time to grasp each student's outlook as fully as he needed to comment on it validly.

This precisionist aspect of Stanley's thinking applied equally to situations - physical or emotional - in which he found himself. His first instinct on meeting a new situation was to test its implications for his artistic integrity. Would it further his creativity or frustrate it? The circumspection showed up in his personality as fastidious restraint and as a disregard for the shallow or the excitedly fashionable. This was particularly so of his reaction in his earlier years to his normal male sexual urges, about which his studiously chaste approach (he remained celibate until his thirties) contrasted with that of less inhibited colleagues like the predatory Augustus John or the impetuous Henry Lamb. Only when Stanley could see his way into any new situation, so to speak, would he adapt his thinking or behaviour to it. He would then dutifully concur with its disciplines. 

This austere approach Stanley applied even to the inevitable matter of death, his own or others. His mother occasionally performed the village service of laying out the dead, and in their late teens the Spencer boys were sometimes expected to accompany and assist her. To the onlooker, Stanley's undemonstrative acceptance of this conventionally traumatic situation could appear to verge on indifference. But it was not the deceased's physical extinction he mourned, so much as their imaginative-creative loss, their 'soul' - Donne's for whom the bell tolls. As will be suggested, he had other ways of dealing with death's emotional impact.

Stanley's observed paintings

Stanley in Switzerland © Estate of Dorothy HepworthStanley's instinctive precision of mind - or literalness of approach if one cares to see it in that light - was reinforced by four years' study between 1908 and 1912 at the Slade School of Art, part of University College London (he commuted by train each day from Cookham.) It shows up particularly in his observed drawings and paintings. In observed work, and especially in his many down-to-earth landscapes and still-lifes which he sometimes called his potboilers because they provided ready income, he trained himself to record what he saw in exact detail, whether it was a glorious tree in full blossom or a dismal heap of scrapiron in a shipyard (both had equal identity in his view.) Moreover he did so with intense absorption, displaying a notice asking not to be disturbed when painting in the open.

An anecdote about the novelist Barbara Cartland's daughter Raine, then Lady Lewisham but later the Countess Spencer who became stepmother for a while to Princess Diana, illustrates both Stanley's intense concentration and his accuracy in rendering detail. In April 1959 his dealer had encouraged him, despite his still being convalescent from a major cancer operation, to accept a commission to make a portrait of Lady Lewisham, and he was, he complained, having difficulties with her eyelashes. For her part, Lady Lewisham, sitting to a preoccupied Stanley, could not understand his unexplained spells of leaving his easel, coming closely up to her face and staring long and hard into her eyes. Finally she plucked up courage to ask why. I am counting your eyelashes, he explained. 

It can be cogently argued that Stanley's instinct for graphic exactitude, linked to that other dominant family characteristic, a strongly humanistic interpretation of Christian ideals, dovetails easily into his lifelong devotion to the characteristics of Renaissance art. The pre-Raphaelite instinct for exactitude similarly prevailed for him, even when a task lasted over a period. If working on a landscape, he would aim to revisit the scene at the same time of day and hopefully in the same weather. If a portrait, no detail of the surroundings was to be changed for the next sitting. If by mischance any were, he insisted they be restored exactly.

Once absorbed into his experience, a subject thus became a fixed, unchangeable entity for Stanley -
eternal, in his vocabulary. Nothing of it could be removed or altered after his initial received impression. When painting landscapes, any objects or figures which might present themselves, however lawfully, would be excluded. My landscapes, he once wrote, are places waiting for their figures - that is, he could insert figures only if such figures had an eternal association equivalent to that which the landscape gave him, a situation which could occur in an up-in-heaven or metaphysical interpretation, but not in an observed scene once sealed in memory. So his landscapes are empty of figures (see note on Southwold.) 

None of this should be taken to imply that Stanley's observed work was photographic. In fact, in one important aspect, it was often unphotographic. Most artists look straight ahead when composing their landscapes and begin their subject some distance in front of their easel. But not so Stanley. To him, close-up detail seen by looking down to his feet was as integral to a scene as detail in the far distance. So he saw no reason why he should not only include it but render it equally sharp. To the eye, or to a standard camera lens (which covers a normal eye field-of-view) this is impossible. Only the close detail or the distant would be in focus. By making both sharp, Stanley is in effect imposing a foreground wide-angle perspective on the expectedly normal eye view, a presentation which can intrigue, if unsettle, a viewer. Hockney later used the technique in some of his acclaimed photo-collages, in his case with deliberation, but instinctively in Stanley's.

Stanley's imaginative paintings.

Such precision of eye and mind worked well for Stanley in his down-to-earth thinking. But how could the same precision, when carried into into his up-in-heaven thinking, be expected to convey the infinitenesses of his conceptualisations?

The answer will take us into the heart of Stanley's creative imagination. The first step is to appreciate the significance of another personality characteristics which so defined his approach to art, his prodigious visual memory.

All artists use memory for their purpose. But there must be few, if any, who used it Stanley's way. It was the well-spring of those paintings which he regarded as his important work, his imaginative compositional 'up-in-heaven' pictures. In an observed painting he was able to image his feelings solely in the setting, the location of the scene. But in an up-in-heaven picture he had to image his feelings in both the setting and the 'message' of the picture. It had to convey the concept he wanted to express which might or might not have obvious relevance to the scene through which he chose to depict it. 

We need a telling adjective to describe the character of these paintings. The adjective 'conceptual' would fit, but it is already in use to describe a different form of postmodern art. 'Conceptualised' might do, as would 'compositional', except that as adjectives they lack the element of vision so important to Stanley in his art.

So throughout this website the term visionary will be used to refer to these imaginative paintings, with the word 'vision' to be understood in its meaning of reaching out to some glimpsed ideal, and not in its eidetic, Blakean, meaning of something illusory, fantasised, or allegorical.

Stanley's approach to visionary work.

For Stanley, the process of evolving a visionary painting worked as follows.

A scene, idea, or event which caught his attention (a 'light-bulb' moment, however minor) would settle into his memory as an image prompting the possibility of comprehending a new concept. The comprehension would not always be immediately clear, but if he could later connect it with other relevant memory-images, he might be able to assemble a composition which would clarify the concept. If he had time, he would make a quick sketch of the experience.

Because the 'light-bulb' moment - the perception - happened to him in the real world, that is, in his down-to-earth life, it could raise emotions for him. They might be of joy, of exultation, of bewilderment, of anger or even fear. But unlike most artists, Stanley preferred not to record their immediate impact or emotion as, for example, Munch used a sensation on a fjord walk to paint his versions of The Scream, or Picasso his Guernica from anger at news of the bombing there. Instead, Stanley kept the memory of the experience by him in the hope of later finding the means of transforming it - and importantly, redeeming any hurts it had given him - into the reassuringly-tranquil universal feelings of his up-in-heaven world. Always highly sensitive to atmosphere, his instinct was to transform the actuality-plus-emotion of the experience into a state of imaginative thought.

The resulting picture-making process thus became one of metaphysical transformation or metamorphosis. For Stanley the most significant metaphysicalities were those which reveal the communal or coming-together aspects of our existence, those areas of life and thought in which we are in his term liked with our fellows, that is, made 'alike' (conscious of our collectivity or universality) while at the same time retaining our individual identity. He saw our altruistic instinct to be liked with our fellows as a product of what he called the Love of God, manifested in each of us by our desire to love in all its varied aspects. The polarity between our universality (Freud's 'superego', indicative of our imaginative desire for the collective) and our self-regarding instinct for our own identity (Freud's 'id', which tends to settle for the prosaic) formed the kinetic of much of Stanley's most valued visionary art. Whenever a picture had successfully replicated a down-to-earth experience in an up-in-heaven form for him, then he felt it had revealed a comprehension as a part, even if only a microdot, of our universality.

This can help explain why Stanley thought of himself as two different people. However joyous, exultant, bewildering or infuriating an experience was in his practical everyday existence, he had the gift of seeing it at the same time as offering universal (up-in-heaven) insight. He conveys this duality in some paintings by inserting himself as part of the experience. Or else he shows himself - not necessarily in his own person but in some equivalent form - as undergoing the experience which is being transformed by his picture from down-to-earth to up-in-heaven.

Making the switch

The key to making the switch from the prosaic impact of a down-to-earth experience into the majesty of an up-in-heaven comprehension lay in Stanley's use of memory, and especially in his powerful episodic memory. He would begin by quietly settling to see if he could recall past experiences in which the feelings corresponded to those needed for the new project. He came to call these recollections his memory-feelings, and the procedure contemplation - the Spencerian equivalent of Wordsworth's emotion recollected in tranquillity. Being recalled from memory, they were eternal for Stanley (that is, he saw them as permanently available in his mind even if only thought about when needed.)

Sometimes Stanley's contemplation was sterile, or would offer only inept - what he called incompetent Patricia with dogs, graticuled- memory-feelings, and he would complain bitterly of frustration. His recalled memory-feelings were truly effective when they replicated for him creative moments associated with aspects of love in his spiritual meaning.

When such contemplation generated apposite images, Stanley would record them as detailed pencil drawings, or sometimes as ink-and-wash sketches to test their compositional tonality. He generally used Imperial-size (30 ins x 22 ins) paper for this task, and left many thousands. If any did not convey quite the feeling he wished, he would set them by until more suitable examples cropped up. But on those he decided to use he would pencil a grid with a draughtsman's accuracy in readiness for enlarging it to a (usually) primed canvas either as the basis of a single painting or as a component in a composite work. The attached drawing, one of a series called Patricia with Dogs, is an example.

Stanley's memory-feelings.

The importance of his memory-feelings in Stanley's visionary art cannot be over-emphasised. They were more than a mere jumble of recollections. His mind worked so associatively that while keeping each memory-feeling clear-cut (eternal), it continually chain-linked them as strands in a pulsating web of metaphysical significance for him (discussed when we reach the webpage on his Vision.) This web of thought was so complex that when in 1938 he was approached to write his autobiography, he was adamant his book would have to take the form of a stream-of-consciousness in which all his life's memories would combine and associate. He would allow nothing to be omitted or edited out, an uncompromising attitude which reflected his conviction that everything that had happened to him was linked, and that nothing of it could be stressed as more significant than any other. On that reef the publishing venture foundered. Stanley remained unabashed and impenitent.

However, we can now we can see why Stanley's writings are so helpful in understanding his visionary art. If we can track down from his memoirs the memory-feelings he used, we can begin to appreciate what they meant to him at the time of their origin and so gain a clue to their intended function in establishing feeling in the new project. Examined now, the memoirs are so honest in their self-revelation that they need to be read with empathy. There was a moment during Stanley's last illness when he wondered if his writings should be burned : mercifully they weren't. But they can be cruelly misinterpreted - as he suspected they might - and on occasions unfortunately have been.

Resist such sensational 'exposures'. They can fascinate, amuse, even shock. They often make good after-dinner yarns. Stanley never greatly minded, provided they did not promote the scaffolding of his paintings in place of the edifice (a particular public temptation, it seems, when dealing with their sexual content.) But art-wise such comments, however titillating, are vapid, because they are restricted to his down-to-earth life, and for him that part of his life had no meaning if not set against his up-in-heaven life. Whoever seeks them out but fails to make that connection is wasting his time - and ours - as a critic of his art.

Stanley's large visionary paintings.

For his large composite visionary paintings - invariably those which had major significance in his outlook - Stanley would kaleidoscope his selected drawings into a master-composition. Once satisfied with this master-composition, he would use his pencilled grid-system to transfer it, section by section, to a full-size canvas ready for painting. These assemblies could thereby became 'modernist' complexes of multiple or mixed perspectives, and his adjustment of them in the interests of overall composition, achieved instinctively as he worked, was always consummate. The task was usually undertaken in such high creative excitement that he would refuse or postpone uncongenial social invitations in order to work undisturbed for hours or days at an end until he had achieved the effect he wanted.

The whole process was so important to Stanley that when it operated effectively, he felt transported into a state of happiness, that is, to a state of such creative imperturbability that the physical problems of existence, however pressing, had no influence. The effect was sometimes such that he could continue producing up-in-heaven paintings while apparently behaving in a contrary way in his down-to-earth life. But when both lives coalesced, his happiness was complete. The supreme example of these states was related by him to the creative ecstasies he had experienced in his adolescent days at home in Cookham. He knew them as his Cookham-feelings. For him it was the glorious period of his most inspired exploration and his most fruitful contemplation. Its impact coloured the whole of his life.

The final application of paint - often postponed for weeks, months or even years - was normally done thickly in dark tones, but, when time pressed, so thinly in light tones that the pencil lines showed through. Being right-handed, Stanley usually worked diagonally from the top left corner to avoid smudging. He knew he was a great artist, but never claimed to be a great painter in the traditional sense, although his techniques were invariably adequate for his intentions.

Throughout his life Stanley's compositional procedure was remarkably consistent. Visionary projects sourced from his memory-feelings were always studio-painted. Imagery drawn from the memory component would be adapted for the setting of the picture, and would normally reproduce a location where Stanley had undergone the experience (we have to use qualifying words like 'usually' or 'generally' or 'normally' because inevitably there are modifications in detail.) If the experience was not based on an actual event, Stanley would select a location he felt had an appropriate association. In his early visionary paintings, the chosen setting was often painted with considerable exactitude, at times almost like one of his observed landscapes. This would be so even when he was only a short walk from the location he was using to set his scene. Sometimes he would go to the location afterwards and pride himself on how accurate his memory had been. But in adapting the memory-location for his purpose in the quiet of his studio, subtle differences in perspective and emphasis would occur. Sometimes he would add associative details from other locations if he thought them relevant.

The feeling element of the memory-feeling, on the other hand, would be sought by augmenting the setting with images of remembered objects and people, often physically unrelated, but which recalled emotions Stanley associated with the overall concept he wished the picture to convey. Since these images too came from Stanley's memory, they were eternal, and because their now eternal  'atmosphere' matched the 'eternal' atmosphere of the setting - unlike his procedure in observed landscapes where only the location was 'eternal' - they could be introduced as pictorial forms. This applied especially to the people - figures - he could now depict.

The figures in Stanley's visionary paintings form an integral part of the concept. His precision of mind - or lack of inventive 'imagination', whichever one prefers - meant that normally they reproduced real people he had seen or known. In this respect he acted like a playwright or novelist who, needing to motivate his story through the use of characters, creates them by modifying the personalities of people he had come across. Sometimes the figures represented the original people of the observed scene or experience, but especially in his later paintings he would happily import from his memory people who held associations appropriate to the feeling he wanted. When he needed legendary or more symbolic figures, he liked to persuade people he knew to model for them, so that a 'real-life' Hilda Carline stood in for the figure of Christ in his 1923 The Betrayal, or Patricia Preece for the Virgin Mary in his 1934 The Crucifixion.

Because Stanley's visionary paintings were constructed to convey a concept rather than depict a narrative, his figures were not meant to be viewed as 'real'. They were essentially metaphors in his up-in-heaven interpretation of the emotion. So he would modify them from their physical originals and transfigure them into what he called shapes. Sometimes, like most painters, the forms and attitudes of his shapes could be influenced by those used by past artists, especially those from the mediaeval and early renaissance period with which he was so familiar.

Thus Stanley's figures emerge on the canvas in their transfigured form.  His down-to-earth feelings about them might or might not have any relevance. For him, they were no longer in their down-to-earth personalities. Yet for those who knew them in real life they invariably remained recognisable as the actual people they were, in the same way that his settings are generally identifiable.

There were times when Stanley's feelings about an experience or concept grew so intense that he could match them visually only by exaggerating his shapes beyond normality. He would find himself subconsciously elasticizing them and the spaces between them - in other words, distorting themSuch figures, scorning spatial subtleties and seemingly shouting, 'Look at me!' - as no doubt they did to Stanley on the day he conjured them - frequently force themselves boldly on the canvas and thus take on their so-called 'funny' appearance. They and their detail become more quirky to the eye, and the paintings acquire the character of a 'Stanley Spencer'. As a general rule we can say that the more distorted the detail in a picture, the more intense the feeling (and often, unfortunately, the more bizarre and 'ugly' its imagery to an uncomprehending viewer.)

Because of this shape-changing, Stanley found it difficult to explain his figuration without sounding odd or embarrassing their prototypes, and usually refused to do so. But more important was the fact that his figures in their new up-in-heaven shapes became more real to him than in their down-to-earth forms. He used to say that his picture people were my loves. They populated his thought-world and were there permanently. He had created them. They were to him his children. Like the paintings in which they appear, they were the product of his creative loins, so to speak, and like real children, once brought into existence took a life of their own, becoming independent entities from him but now separate from him. Moreover, unlike human children, they could never change their form or suffer decay. They were eternal. In the biblical terms imbibed from Pa, he, Stanley, as a metaphysical Stanley-Christ had symbolically resurrected them through his art into a perfection fashioned from his comprehension. He had put them in a setting, a Paradise, of his making where they were granted immortality. In the rolling biblical phrases of St.Paul, the corruptible had been made incorruptible. 

Stanley's unifying mind

To briefly recapitulate. So far in this webpage attention has been drawn to the dialectic of Stanley’s dual lives - his perceptual down-to-earth and his conceptual up-in-heaven - as they reflected one another to convey individual identity merged into universal perfection. Whereas most artists express such feeling through highly-imagined form, Stanley was curbed in its use by his innate caution and disciplined precision of thought. So to achieve a comparable effect he used contemplation, going back in his mind to earlier states from which he retrieved past detail - memory-feelings - which matched the emotion and atmosphere he felt he needed for the new painting. The memory component provided the picture's setting, and the feeling was conveyed by the shapes of the associated detail, mainly figures of people. 

So far, so good. But then Stanley faced the problem mentioned earlier.
Viewers coming across one of his visionary pictures for the first time could suppose it to represent a narrative situation. Even those perceptive enough to realise that the detail in the painting was highly personal to Stanley could be disconcerted by its apparent irrelevance. It would not immediately be clear that the picture's detail was intended to be linked by equivalence of feeling, and not by that of time, place or situation. Nor might first-time viewers appreciate that the apparently factual imagery was intended to be metaphorical and in process of undergoing transformation into an up-in-heaven. How could Stanley, in attempting to explain a picture, put that into words? He couldn't, and usually didn't try, so that whereas he was eloquent about the planning of a project, he was generally silent afterwards about its accomplishment.

Sometimes, if pressed, Stanley would politely try to help viewers by outlining the
metaphysics behind a painting, but then his listeners would often find themselves unable to grasp a connection between the visuals he described and those they saw. The result would be viewer mystification, or even dismissal. Misinterpretation of Stanley's paintings haunted his life, and can still.

Stanley's difficulty was that his compositional procedure, effective though it was at picture-making, appeared to deprive his paintings of the connection between the actual and the invented which unfettered imagination so generously offers other artistsTo amalgamate his apparently disparate detail into a coherent unity, Stanley needed to find a dynamic means whereby it could be interpreted in its associative aspects. His remarkable solution was to use his instinctive process of reflection or mirror-imaging or reversal by turning it into the forms of visual counterpoint

Stanley's counterpoints in operation

Stanley's use of the counterpointing principle is apparent even in early work, such as Apple Gatherers which can be interpreted as based on the 'separateness' of the two sexes coming into the mutuality - 'unity' - of adult understanding, and in Zacharias and Elizabeth where the separateness of husband and wife is gloriously 'married' into their cosmic unity as Elizabeth announces to the disbelieving Zacharias that she is to give birth to John the Baptist. 

But Stanley's counterpoint usage is especially evident in his 1912 The Nativity (University College, London.) We can use it as a template.


 
The title - the Nativity - was the subject set for the Slade Summer Composition Competition for 1912. The students were free to interpret it as they wished. In Stanley's version, reproduced here in black-and-white, the right background shows a chestnut tree ringed with its blossom 'candles'. In the top left background, a meadow slopes down to the Thames (below view), and beyond are the wooded slopes of Cliveden.

It is apparent that Stanley's picture is not a direct re-working of the traditional original. The season is spring or early summer. Patently the concept - the 'message' - sources from an amalgam of Stanley's feelings about his Cookham locality, his depiction of nature, and the annual period of animate rejuvenation.

Unravelling The Nativity .

The figures in the painting meet on a path, recognisably Mill Lane in Cookham. The location shows the spot where the public lane ends at a detour round one of the big houses of Cookham and becomes a path through a private park. In Stanley's day there was a right-of-way access across the park to a rowboat ferry across the Thames to the grounds of Cliveden. Stanley's choice of the setting is intriguing in that it images the point on the Lane where the switch from 'public' to 'private' reflects a change in atmosphere, to use Stanley's terminology, always suggestive in his visionary art as the two 'separates' of a potential counterpoint.

If the purpose of a counterpoint is to show a 'marrying' between 'separates' - a unity from duality - it will help the viewer if it contains imagery indicating the separation point or 'barrier'. In Stanley's early paintings the barriers were sometimes symbolised by the property walls which so affected his boyhood (Zacharias and Elizabeth) or by the steep banks of the Thames where he swam, as in John Donne Arriving in Heaven.

In The Nativity a fence of a design common then in Cookham gardens marks the division between the 'public' and 'private' sections of the Lane. There seems to have been a metal railing there originally, no doubt with a gate or stile, but Stanley has imported his garden fence from some other Cookham spot as a substitute 'barrier'.

To the right, in the 'public' or 'universal' part, is the Holy Family, the up-in-heaven group, the subject  of what will become his fugue. To the left, in the 'private' or 'personal' part, are two couples embracing. They are the down-to-earth group, the episodes. They make sense if we surmise they are lovers modelled on Stanley's older siblings who had recently wed or were about to do so. Visually the separateness of the two groups is further emphasised by distinction of costume.

How then does Stanley 'marry' them? He does so by asking us to see the barrier as metaphysical, not as the actual metal railing it probably was. When we, the viewer, comprehend - or at least glimpse - what the painting is 'about', then the garden fence, the barrier, will 'disappear'. We will have been transferred into Stanley's thought-world. We will have expanded a 'private' percept to 'public' concept. We will be 'listening' to his fugue. So let's follow his associations.

In real-life Stanley's brothers and sisters were, like himself, well-versed in the Bible. Ma, a convinced Methodist and local secretary of the British and Foreign Bible Society, insisted on daily Bible reading by her children when young. So they were all familiar with the meaning of the Virgin Mary in her Christian rôle as Mother of God. But, through Pa's more searching humanistic outlook, they also knew her as emblematic of the Creatrix, the archetypal Great Mother.

So it is odd that here, in Stanley's painting, the lovers do not see Mary, although she is gazing at them intently (one of his cousins, Amy Hatch, was persuaded to model for her.) They cannot recognise her beyond the fence because Stanley is presenting her as an abstraction; that is, she represents an invisible entity in our conceptualisation, counterpointing his corporeal brother and sister on the other side of the fence. He is reinforcing the prison-wall tapping he so desired in his outlook and metaphysically morphing 'private' personal feeling into collective 'public' concept  - the basic process of his visionary work.

Since Mary is an abstraction, most artists might depict her imaginatively. But we know that Stanley cannot or will not do this. She must somehow be given a palpable down-to-earth form to match that of his siblings and the rest of the physical detail from which he has constructed his composition. So he tells us elsewhere that he has given her the form of a public monument, a statue to someone important standing in a public place. This maybe is why she appears so masculine, for such statues in Stanley's day were mostly of martial or political heroes. His reasoning is that as a public statue she offers a characteristic of most monuments in that they are permanently there but unnoticed by those who pass preoccupied in their down-to-earth lives. In other words, in the ethos of the painting she is a prototype for something ethereal or spiritual  - the recurrent eternal of the visual fugue he is composing - which, like the air we breathe, is always accessible as part of our existence, even if only intermittently thought about. If we can begin to appreciate the implications of the imagery Stanley is using here, we can begin to draw near the heart of his painting.
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There is, however, one figure in the composition who can see Mary and the Babe, a strangely ecstatic figure kneeling by the fence in worship. Stanley once described him as the third of the Three Wise Men who are worshipping baby Jesus (the lovers no doubt represent metaphysically the other two.) For that figure, the barrier does not exist. The figure must surely be Stanley himself in a visually odd - and therefore pinpointedly significant - up-in-heaven persona.

It is noteworthy that Stanley even at a young age had already realized that few viewers or questioners would understand his ideas unless he set them in a form within their experience. The Three Wise Men they could grasp. But if he said the kneeling figure was himself in awe of the spiritual atmosphere he discerns beyond the fence, most would probably have thought him 'peculiar'. So it was less wearing to prevaricate. The habit was to persist throughout his life.

By means of such images we at last arrive at the threshold of Stanley's thought-world (as we are expected to do in all his visionary pictures.) The 'marrying' in his counterpoint has taken place. Through his assembly of relevant down-to-earth percepts, the circumstantial in our lives is revealed as linked metaphysically to the eternal in our existence. His concept has been transfigured into the up-in-heaven for him - and, hopefully, for us. 

Stanley does not tell us in his writings what was the 'master' experience or notion from which the painting sprang. The picture - the comprehension - originated as an epiphany in circumstances personal to himself. Its specific associations lie outside our own background, but the whole is offered in the hope that we might be able to recognize the message from within our own experience.

Because each viewer will interpret the concept - the 'message' of the painting - from his own experience and in his own way, there will be as many 'meanings' to the painting as there are viewers who respond to it. But the meanings will tend to cluster into categories which we can call, as Jung did, archetypes, because they have the property of illuminating the evolutionary emotions, feelings and comprehensions common to the universality of humanity.

Perhaps the imagery tells that the lovers' unions are part of cosmic destiny, the animate will to procreate and renew. Or maybe it tells that human love and physical sex are sacred and that marriage metaphysically reflects the historic unity of dual gods into a monotheistic unity, a single Godhead. Alternatively it may offer no 'message' at all, but a viewer will be intrigued by the superlative composition of the painting, or by the sense of mystery it conveys. In fact it can provide whatever meaning we wish to find in it, surely the sign of a masterwork.

Subconsciously Stanley has superposed so many levels of meaning - as he did in all his visionary paintings - that although we can deconstruct the imagery by the linear thought processes we use to define our down-to-earth lives, we can best distinguish its levels by using a vertical up-in-heaven thought process which invokes our feelings from our experience, our intuition. Reliance on intuition rather than intellectual logic became a major element in Stanley's artistic thinking and output, as will again be apparent in coming webpages.

Stanley's retrieved associations - his memory-feelings - are ingeniously used to construct the painting. For example, he felt the need to convince us that we should see his image of Mary as having the characteristics of a monument. Statues have plinths or pedestals, so in his precise mind she cannot be a monument without one. None existed at that spot in Mill Lane. But at the river end of the Lane path, where at that time it met the ferry, the ferryman had strengthened the bank with sacks of mixed sand and cement left to dry to concrete. What better association to import for Mary to stand on, seeing that the ferry was called My Lady Ferry?
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The watermeadow by the Thames seen in the picture (one of young Stanley's adored Cookham marsh meadows) was in earlier times flooded in winter but lushly grassed and wild-flowered in summer. The two tall stones Stanley shows (gone now) formerly marked allocated village hay lots (the Haywarden is still a fossil Cookham parish office.) The Lane had such a powerful meaning for Stanley that he once took the unexpected step of 'marrying' himself to it by burying a tin of his precious drawings there (where, alas, enthusiastic tries at metal-detecting have failed to find it.)

Was Stanley perhaps using his 'marriage' of himself and the Lane to honour an ancient Rite of Spring, linking it with a highly personal experience which overcame him there?

It is possible. Joseph on the right (imaged from a drawing Stanley made of a Slade male model) is shown as a virile young man, not the old man beyond the possibility of fatherhood who would in traditional terms have been more accurate. Some commentators have seen him derived from the image of Mercury in Botticelli's comparable Primavera, others as the figure of Joseph picking fruit in Gerard David's Flight into Egypt. He is, said Stanley, doing something to a chestnut tree. Stanley later confessed his boyhood guilt about defying Victorian prohibitions and yielding to masturbation, his woeful habits as he called them, perhaps for their physicality but also because they dredged up fantasy associations which seemed to him to have no relevance to the stringency of his thinking. Maybe he was using that detail in the painting to exculpate his bewilderment, or in his words, to help redeem it into his up-in-heaven thought-world.

Look, for example, at the kneeling figure of Stanley in his thought-world. He is almost masked by a tall plant. It appears to be a sunflower which, because of its profusion of seeds, can traditionally represent the fecundity of the sexual, but which is also known for its habit of turning to face the sun. In Stanley's picture it faces the Baby Christ, a figure which he mentioned in one account he came to as an afterthought. It is entirely possible that already in these early years Stanley was touching on one of his links between Christ - today's conflation of the ancient Sun God with light in the form of the Light of the World - as a symbol of the 'up-in-heaven' in our existence, with the sexual instinct as the 'down-to-earth' which sustains it, a theme he was to develop powerfully in later paintings, such as Sunflower and Dog Worship.

In this Nativity painting the sunflower is not yet fully grown. Is Stanley telling too of his uncertainty about the implications of his adolescent urges? If so, his lovers, his older siblings, are entering a state of awareness as yet denied his youth. He is still an onlooker, with an over-the-wallish feeling about their anticipations. Their sexual expectations are sanctioned by the universality of humanity. They are holy. But are his? Could this be yet another of his personal confusions awaiting elucidation?

The mind begins to reel with the profusion of implication. No single layer of meaning can be more significant than any other. Each chases another's tail. They begin to intermingle in our minds into a rotationary form, a poetic thought-form once called a vortex. It is as though we are being battered by a tempest of ideas and feelings. Then, with luck, we reach a comprehension. The effect, if we manage it, is as if we had reached the calm eye at the centre of a storm. All around us is the roaring of the whirlwind, the vortex, but we are suddenly becalmed into the peace of an understanding. We have reached that moment when the two dynamic themes of Stanley's counterpoint achieve for us what has felicitously been called the 'stillness of synchronicity'. The artist and his imagery disappears, and only his product, his concept, emerges in our mind as pure emotive sensation, often beyond the power of language to contain. The experience provides us with dramatic catharsis, a momentary glimpse of timeless universality, an aspect of the identity of God for those who see it in that light.

There is a salutary lesson here in our analysis of Stanley's method. Although detail is skilfully used for compositional effect in his visionary paintings, little of it is random or inserted for infill. Nothing can be ignored. Every detail contributes.

For a ninteen-year old art student such a combination of art, poetry and drama was a remarkable achievement. It won him a deserved Slade prize.

As with all geniuses, Stanley appeared on the artistic stage already fully-formed, so to speak. And like all geniuses, he continued throughout his life not so much to develop his early promise as to amplify and fulfil it.