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
words, so much so that
some artists - Bonnard or Klimt, for example - refused to divulge the
inner life which prompted their art.
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
thought them up in quite such a formulaic way. As with most artists,
components emerged slowly over time, and then, in his case, gradually assembled
themselves in his mind as concepts,
or notions as he
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 Cookham, was 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 himselfA 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 austere approach Stanley applied even
to the inevitable matter of
death, his own
or others. His mother occasionally performed the village service of
out the dead, and in their late teens the Spencer boys were sometimes
and assist her. To the onlooker, Stanley's undemonstrative acceptance
conventionally traumatic situation could appear to verge on
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
Stanley's observed paintings
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
still-lifes which he sometimes called his potboilers
because they provided ready income, he trained himself to record what he saw in
detail, whether it was a
glorious tree in full blossom or a dismal heap of scrapiron in a shipyard (both had equal identity
view.) Moreover he did so with intense absorption, displaying a notice
asking not to be
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.
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.
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
infinitenesses of his conceptualisations?
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.
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.
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 switchThe 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 - 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
them by until more suitable examples cropped up. But on
those he decided to use he
would pencil a grid with a
accuracy in readiness for enlarging it to a
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.
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
invariably those which had major significance in his outlook -
Stanley would kaleidoscope
selected drawings into a
master-composition. Once satisfied with this
master-composition, he would
use his pencilled
to transfer it, section by section, to a full-size canvas ready
for painting. These
assemblies could thereby
'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
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.
application of paint - often postponed for weeks, months or even years
thickly in dark tones, but, when
time pressed, so
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
artist, but never claimed to be a great painter in the
traditional sense, although his techniques were invariably adequate for his intentions.
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
interpretation of the emotion. So he would modify them from their
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
artists, especially those from the mediaeval and early renaissance
with which he was so familiar.
Thus Stanley's figures emerge on the canvas in
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.
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
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.
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
have been a metal railing there originally, no doubt with a gate or
stile, but Stanley has imported his garden fence from
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
sister on the other side of the fence. He
reinforcing the prison-wall
tapping he so desired in his outlook and metaphysically
personal feeling into
the basic process of his visionary work.
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
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.
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.