My life is not about me. I am about life. 

                                                                                       Richard Rohr : Everything Belongs.



A psychological interpretation of Stanley’s personality, although beyond the resources of this website, would make for a fascinating enterprise. The originality of his art was the product of an innate nervous sensitivity far more acute than most of us are blessed with. We have to push ourselves hard to keep pace with it at times. One can see glimpses of an embryonic split-personality in the dichotomy between his down-to-earth and up-in-heaven, plus a hint of autism in his retentive powers of detailed observation, in his caution about embracing new sensation, in his overriding search for the reassurance of his Cookham-feelings and in the eternal attributions he gave his imagery, with perhaps an added touch of the manic-depressive - the 'manic' in his handling of the overload of creative ideas to which he was subject, and the 'depressive' in his dread of the frustration an interruption
to them would cause him (one of the stated functions of close friends at times was to keep Stanley on an even keel by offering diversions from the excesses of his enthusiams, a kindness not always welcomed when he was in rampant creative mode.)

Stanley's use too of paradigm and archetype as tools of universal insight suggests the Jungian, in which his interests had been expanded in the 1940s by his Glasgow lover Dr Charlotte Murray who had studied psychology with Jung. Through her influence Stanley was persuaded in the 1950s to offer himself for analysis to his late wife Hilda’s pyschiatrist Dr.Bierer, himself a Jungian war refugee, who was conducting research into ways of using art in psychotherapy as one among his many social projects.

But these are matters no doubt best left to specialists in their field.Stanley in the 1940s 

Whatever its psychological origins, Stanley’s imaginative art consistently reflected a form of metaphysical thinking current in his Victorian boyhood and couched in language seldom used now, but the truths of which are as valid now as they were then.

All art is imitative in its effort to refashion for display the reality the artist perceives, or the amalgam of concepts he decodes from experience. But all great art - visual, musical or literary - is also concerned art. It enshrines the artist's endeavours to justify the stories he tells himself as he stands before the universe, naked and alone. Each work is a chapter in an ongoing comfort-myth he has adopted or concocted. It is a bedtime story invented to deflect the nightmares or to welcome the joys of those approaching hours we call reality. It reverses the world we think we know, turns it upside-down, inside-out and back-to-front to evoke a self-comprehensible even if non-material construct, a process which lay at the heart of Stanley Spencer's art and at which he was highly adept.

As an artist, Stanley appeared in the limelight in that early twentieth century changeover period in the history of ideas we usually know as modernism. In art, it became a requirement that it should expand and convey the artist's overall experience, rather than simply image a specific event, emotion or sensation, as prevalent in the essentially narrative art of the nineteenth century. First applied to the freer perspectived but architecturally patterned visual styles adopted in nineteenth-century France by Cézanne and Matisse, the modernist movement aroused contemporary hostility because its more abstract forms startled viewers, and needed to be interpreted in ways with which they had not learned to empathise. Some thirty years were to pass before its impact was felt in Britain and began to challenge the representational art so publicly admired at the period.

Stanley, meeting up after the Great War with the more progessive of his Slade friends, was for a while tempted to test their advocacy of one of modernism's new visual dialects, that of Cubism/Vorticism - and to good effect, as in his The Paralytic of 1920, in which he relocates to Cookham High Street the bedridden biblical villager so determined to see Christ pass that he has himself hoisted on to his roof. But Stanley soon failed to find in the style the universality he sensed. He needed a more fulfilling approach, one which would sublimate his experience (refashion it intuitively from the continuum of his experience to reflect as accurately as he could the patterns of experience he discerned as common to humanity.) 

Others at the time felt the same need. In literature, for example, a 'stream of consciousness' movement developed, literally so in the writings of Gertude Stein, but with James Joyce using the paradigm of the Odyssey for his Ulysses, Proust reaching into social experience for his A la recherche du temps perdu, Ezra Pound into his classical and Chinese interests for his Cantos, or T S Eliot for his then-startling The Waste Land and Four Quartets.

There is no evidence that Stanley read deeply - if at all - these innovative writers of his day, or that his visionary art was intended to be literary in any meaningful way. But there is strong evidence that the more intellectual of his friends - Desmond Chute and Jas Wood for example - were aware of the new trends and did their best to introduce them to him. Either there was something intangible in the air then, or, more probably, the scientific discoveries of the late Victorian period - and especially developments in the new field of psychology to which the young Stanley was introduced through his brother Sydney's Divinity studies at Oxford - were making strong impact on creative minds and opening up new sources for construction and fresh ways of expression.

From Stanley's writings and letters, it is clear that these new ideas caused him concern, for he found himself having to adjust to them from a background of Victorian idealism imbibed through his father's Ruskinian outlook. Unlike most of his young fellow-artists, who seized on the new excitedly, Stanley was cautious. He was always deliberate where his approach to art was involved. Progressive though his early paintings were to critics, a residue of historical religious cohesion still coloured them, and was to persist through all his life and work.

For an artist like Stanley, insight hung on how he was able to handle the impact of reality, and to what extent he could extract 'truth' from it. The painstaking accuracy of detail in his work does not indicate a loss of creative imagination, as some have suggested, but rather a continual search to match the 'down-to-earth' details of his experience as precisely as he could to their valid definitions - their universal meanings - in his 'up-in-heaven'.

One way of understanding Stanley's process is to ask ourselves how we normally cope with the multitudinous daily stimuli of the senses which constitute our perceptions of reality. As we become conscious of them, we mentally categorise them by defining their perceived boundaries

The boundaries we give them map their form or properties for us, so that they become mental patterns or images (shapes as Stanley called them.) In sympathy with our fellows we allocate each shape an identity, give it a name, a 'dog', say, or a 'cat, even though we are aware that every dog or cat is individual and different from every other (Stanley used a tree or a rabbit for explanation in his 1934 Sermons by Artists published by The Golden Cockerel Press.)

In effect we use the scientific method of dividing the world into recognisable constituent parts and identifying them in their differences. Such compartmentalisation is essentially the method of seeking accuracy which Stanley refers to as the intellectual approach, and to which he was so respectful, both in striving to understand his down-to-earth life and in defining the memorised detail he assembled into his paintings. But to concentrate exclusively on such categorisation, however justified in down-to-earth terms, could, he asserted, divorce its adherents from their true search - the human instinct to associate their individual categorisations into an ultimate totality or unity, in effect a world-frame or life-meaning by which we steer our lives.

In Stanley's view, such a search can be undertaken - if with effort - because our perceptions are not limited to objects. Many percepts, especially those accompanied by strong stimuli, will give us sensations, feelings or emotions which can take us by surprise and occupy our attention to the extent that we feel we must try to make conscious sense of them. They become the material by which we form concepts. Whereas the immediate percept delineates for us what we think of as 'reality', the concept provides us with a less material dimension which we can persuade ourselves is 'truth'. At what point reality becomes 'truth' is the artist's essential preoccupation, and indeed ultimately of us all. 

The arbiter of 'truth' is the accuracy with which we map our concepts. Get the boundaries wrong and we get our world wrong.

As our stock of entities (our percepts-plus-concepts, our 'shapes') accumulates, it becomes clear that at deeper levels differences can fade and similarities substitute. Cats and dogs, for example, have different categories as animals but share similar characteristics when classified as mammals. DNA reveals that the human existence we once thought unique in fact links us with many less-advanced forms of life. The initial boundaries by which we first delimited our entities have to be expanded and redefined, and these wider boundaries given new categories. Each new entity is revealed as a more meaningful grasp of things or ideas on our part and as a stage in our expanding consciousness. They seem to advance us towards a conviction that we are in the grip of a compulsion which is impelling us towards some dimly-glimped totality. They certainly did so for Stanley, who decided that the most apt incentive for such totality was the concept he knew as God : I keep trying to get with [my notions] to where some all comprehending notion will great-grandpa the lot. These notions seem ....to be parts of one thing. What is the one thing? I concluded that God was the grand-daddy of them all....

A significant feature of our search is that the structure of our minds prevents our entities from ever being lost. They will all eventually become absorbed into the subconscious mental storage of our long-term memory, from which we can usually retrieve them when required. Some will sink deeper into our unconscious, as Freud called it, and appear to be 'forgotten'. But the chances are that even these can be made to surface in appropriate, if sometimes involuntary, circumstances. For most of us, the problem with unearthing such entities is that in sinking into our memory they will have become mixed up with earlier memories already in store, and then submerged by further incoming experiences. So when we try to extract them again, voluntarily or not, we may find that they cannot be reconstituted in their original exactitude. 

In order to retrieve the 'reality' or 'truth' of the original entities we need to discard the irrelevant associations they acquired while in our memory and retain only those which strike us as pertinent. An artist will make his assembly through a process of simplification, modification and, where necessary, distortion. He leans towards the use of inventive imagination rather than reasoned logic.

When the artist feels that his assembly has effected an apt reconstitution, he will be persuaded he has correctly recaptured the essence ('truth') of the original, even though the result, if a painting or sculpture, may not always look very like the initial 'reality'. To manage the process he uses not pure intellect as such but intellect-plus-inventive imagination - 'intuition'. Its operation becomes the use of the 'intuitive'  - the instinctive in Stanley's terminology - essential in his view to revealing meaning, and more relevant for him than the purely intellectual when striving for his 'up-in-heaven'.

The procedure forms much of the art we have come to expect of the great names we admire. But in Stanley's case we have to ask ourselves why his intuition does not offer the freely imaginative element used by most artists to recapture their experiences. 

The simplest answer is that the exactitude in Stanley's nature, inherited from his master-builder grandfather and his professional-musician father, made him distrust what he saw as the indiscipline of free inventive imagination. Throughout his life he made splendid use of his instinct-to-accuracy in painting his highly-observed landscapes and portraits. But when he wished to reconstitute a memorised scene into visionary imagery, it did little for him, as he found it difficult to prevent himself anchoring its detail in such photographic accuracy that it overrode recourse to imaginative invention.

The resulting pinpoint detail in Stanley's visionary pictures appears initially to lean towards factual representation rather than pictorial inventiveness. But his view was that such accuracy was essential if he were to validly define the settings of a visionary picture. It gave him the parameters against which he could bring his feelings into play to reach vision. It committed him to the principle know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you, as expressed by the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas. If he were to abandon precision of detail in the interests of free invention he might get his premise wrong. His visionary reconstruction would be invalid and he would have wasted his time.

To compose his visionary pictures Stanley's usual procedure was to recreate the imagery he wanted from his memory-feelings. These were remarkably crisp, for had the gift of episodic memory. They were pulled up from his subconscious (and sometimes from his deep unconscious) in the process he called contemplation. The point of the demanding exercise was that the memory-feelings he recalled should have feelings comparable to those he wanted to convey in the new picture (I think therefore I am, said Descartes, to which Rousseau riposted I feel therefore I am.) When a suitable match of feeling occurred, physical detail of the recovered memory-feeling would be converted into the location or setting of the new picture (and thus used in effect as a proxy and not intended as 'real') while the feeling would be imparted by choosing objects or figures apposite to the mood of the memory and metamorphosing them into associative shapes.

The shapes Stanley derived from these feelings were mostly of human figures, because people with whom he associated the required emotions were to him the most apt visual source. His figures usually remained recognisable as the people he had chosen but, as with the detail of his location or setting, they were not intended to represent them in their actuality. They were again proxies, on which he could lean as representative of the emotions he was now expressing and so would need to be modified or even distorted where necessary to that end.

Inevitably the result was that Stanley became convinced that the only trustworthy means of expressing such visionary impact lay in recreating highly self-referential imagery, even if at times with a candour that was too easily misinterpreted as a lack of sophistication. The impression of unworldliness sometimes ascribed to Stanley derived from an ongoing curiosity which remained almost childlike in its intensity. In his early days it intrigued - and sometimes amused - many of those who crossed his path.

But Stanley's strong sense of enquiry was tempered by the even deeper instinct to formalise his discoveries into a framework which provided an overall life-meaning. Each major discovery would cause a displacement in the assembly of notions which until then had constituted his life meaning - his world-frame. A disquieting period of creative uncertainty would follow, even temporary bewilderment. Gradually contemplation would absorb the new discovery into a re-formation of his life-frame, evidence to him of the redemptive function of Love. Joyously he was able to return home again, to evoke another of his visionary paintings in celebration.

This evolving life-meaning was the justification of Stanley's art, distinguishing him from his more secular contemporaries. His disciplined search for it was not always appreciated, in spite of his constant efforts to explain. But he was far from being the 'innocent' he was often thought to be, nor was he the impractical dreamer he sometimes seemed - an artist such as he who so resolutely pinned his vision to the reasoned facts of his everyday existence was never in danger of seducing his imagination with the fluff of fantasy. What he saw, he saw straight, even when he turned it inside-out or back-to-front in the interests of art.

The imagination traditionally used by artists is intended to take them - and us - 'beyond' their subject, so that we become aware of a 'universal' element in their work. Viewers are moved by it. But when they first come across one of Stanley's visionary paintings, they tend to exclaim, 'Fascinating, but surely Stanley's expression is grounded in such precise detail that we cannot discern the universality in the painting he claims when so eloquently speaking of it?'

It is a valid question. The answer is that Stanley's 'universal' is in fact in his picture, but in a form initially unfamiliar to most viewers. It lies in the tension, the dialectic, the mirror-reflectivity, the counterpoint, in which he set much of his imagery, at least until the last decade of his life.

Counterpoint in Stanley's usage was an extension of the counterbalance of form, colour, tone and so forth which is such a necessary component in all worthwhile visual composition. He adapted the concept from the triptych form of mediaeval altarpieces with which he was so familiar, although its physicality sourced from childhood wonder at finding the layout of his neighbouring semi-detached house to be exactly the same as his own, but the other way round. He saw it as a 'spiritual' device in which the imagery of the two wings 'amalgamated' to honour the central theme, as exemplified initially in a drawing of the neighbours gossipping over the party hedge, and then in a 'visionary' painting as The Neighbours, 1936 (Bridgeman SSG 135078)

The traditional device subsequently dropped out of use, although there are echoes of it in renaissance art such as Botticelli's Primavera, and there is a case for arguing that the two differing halves of the face of Mona Lisa - one side smiling, the other not - together with the two distinct background rivers (now known geographically to join to become the Arno) could be a subtle use of such counterpoint by da Vinci.

Because Stanley's imagery in his most profound paintings reflects many of the psychological stresses he was undergoing at the time, it is tempting to interpret it directly into meaning, in the way most artists work. But in Stanley's case, such assumptions should be made with caution. His imagery is seldom there simply to express the everyday difficulties he was suffering, but rather to permit him to honour - glorify - a transcendence of them he has achieved which in turn has opened up a new enlightenment for him. Such a miracle demanded from him a pictorial technique less direct than normal. His intuitive habit of attaining vision through reversing the actuality of experience leant towards the creative impulse (the élan vital) as reflected in Bergsonian philosophy, and even aspects of theistic existentialism if labels have to be invoked. But it is especially apparent in his use of compositional counterpoint.

The significance of counterpoint is Stanley's visionary art can be best appreciated if it is accepted that unlike most artists, who box up a segment of experience directly into relevant visuals, Stanley constructed his visionary paintings from his intuitive stream-of-consciousness. In each painting, the continuum of experience continues to tick away in the background to act as the eternal element in his counterpoint, while a momentary halt in the continuum is used as the counter element. This 'halt-point', usually an emotively powerful down-to-earth experience, is sometimes depicted in accurate detail as a central 'barrier'.

If correctly assembled, the effect of such a construct on the mental receptors and identifiers of a spectator's brain is to produce an unexpected alternation of ambivalent imagery. Gradually the viewer's mind adjusts to synchronise the ambivalence (marry or fuse it in Stanley's terms), maybe by finding a pulse in the synchronism, a rhythm which only our creative inner ear can hear or a neuroscientist identify. This synchronism effects a transformation. A mysterious unity, a new and otherwise inexpressible third entity, is magically evoked.  

This third or master entity constitutes the crux of the counterpoint. It conveys the transcendence the artist wishes to present (is this why da Vinci kept his Mona Lisa with him all his life, or why onlookers have been known to burst suddenly into tears in front of the panels of a Rothko abstract in which the tones or forms resonate for them across the zones - the 'barrier' - dividing them?) In Stanley's usage this third element usually demands empathetic understanding from the viewer, and its purpose as a creative enlightenment may not immediately be apparent. It may help to regard it not merely as the product of the interconnecting of the two 'halves' of the counterpoint, but of a coupling - a virtual sexual experience, in fact - in which some power of the mind (Stanley's Love of - from - God ?) is acting through the up-in-heaven segment to impregnate the down-to earth element, restoring it to its eternal identity and authenticating by its action a newborn entity, a spiritual comprehension.

When this happens, a metamorphosis will occur. The visualisation initially seen as specific to Stanley's experience will have become de-personalised and will have taken on a mantle of universality.The painting will energise, come alive and take whatever meaning the viewer's responses decree. Since each of Stanley's counterpoint-metamorphoses is an element in the time-continuum of experience, its embrace of a 'before' and an 'after' can express feeling in motion, as Stanley's fellow Slade student Isaac Rosenberg implied when he perceptively said that Stanley's pictures were everlasting, having no beginning and no end. (Rosenberg, as sensitive a poet as a painter, was killed in action in April 1918, and Stanley's comradely sympathy -  his suffering must have been terrible - was deeply felt.)

Not only were Stanley's shapes so assembled on the canvas that they provided the required counterpoint, but they were designed to extol the emotional or dramatic or cathartic or reclamatory or revelatory or even redemptive energies inherent in the 'perpetual motion' between the counterpoint's oscillating elements. These are the effects which give his depictions such powerful overtones.

These longed-for unities, these metamorphoses, which Stanley so vividly described in trying to explain his visionary paintings, were the mysterious ecstasies which raised him into new thought-worlds, his up-in-heaven. Each counterpoint reflected a new concept, a comprehension, an enlightenment, usually beyond words. However impalpable, it existed in Stanley's mind as a permanent entity - eternal - and can hopefully attach to ours. It was feeling distilled and justified.

Only after Hilda's death in 1950 did Stanley modify this procedure. Solitary by then in his Cookham cottage (a local daily, Mrs Price, 'char'd' for him) he remained publicly as outgoing as ever, enjoying visits to and from family and friends, and accepting invitations to functions, talks and broadcasts. His reputation was by then so established that he was in constant demand for landscapes, portraits and the occasional 'religious' commission, which he enjoyed doing and which helped sustain his financial account with his dealer Dudley Tooth. But in his visionary work (which to his dismay did not sell as readily as he had hoped) he had passed into a sort of purdah, concentrating on intense ideas which he described in letters to sympathetic correspondents, the most moving of which he secretly addressed to the now-dead Hilda (his Dear Duckie) and kept by him. From these ideas, he crystallised out the final visionary paintings for his intended church-house, most sadly unfinished at his death.

One result of Stanley's change of approach is that it is no longer as practical as before to deduce a counterpoint 'reading' for these post-1950 visionary paintings. They are better understood if seen as a series of Stanley mini-resurrections, purging him from the traumas of his now Hilda-less atmosphere, and empowering him to continue on his metaphysical way. In such masterpieces, his settings - the Thames riverfront in Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta Cookham Moor in Love on the Moor,  Hampstead Heath in The Apotheosis of Hilda - re-create proto-Paradises with their figures in rapture, now redeemed to a Last Day state of perfection.

In his early days, Stanley had excluded sexual imagery from his work, other than in terms of the conventional family-marriage context of the time. He recognised the personal demands of sex, of course, but was baffled as to how relevant they were to his art. Not until his relationship with Hilda during the 1920s was he persuaded that they must have significance. But then he faced the difficulty of reconciling their imperatives with the equally joyous but basically sexless creativity of his early Cookham-feelings. To me, he wrote about 1930, there are two joys, the joys of innocence and religiousness [as in his early Cookham-feelings], and the joys of change and sexual experience [as in his marriage with Hilda and his Patricia feelings], and while these two selves seem unrelated and irreconcilable, still I am convinced of their ultimate union.

Stanley's Patrica-marriage scheme of the late 1930s had been intended to unify the dichotomy, but it was not until his creative recovery from it during the 1940s that he managed a solution. He did so by becoming convinced that the down-to-earth aspects of our sexual instinct, when metamorphosed in their up-in-heaven aspects, become the basis of the creative universalities of existence. His ecstatic figures in his 1950s paintings are honouring this insight, as in Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta : in Love on the Moor they are empowering Sex=Love as our escape from the limitations of our prison-wall tapping : and in The Apotheosis of Hilda they are rejoicing in its gift of unity from the bipolarity of existence.

To bring these transcendencies to visual life as paintings, Stanley turned to the memory-feelings of his Cookham boyhood, such as those of summer days spent at his open bedroom window, hearing the distant shouts of children enjoying hop-scotch in the National School playground while he sat reading his big Bible, his imagination resonating the story of the baptism of Christ with his own sensation of swimming underwater in the Thames toward the light of the sun, so that his painting of The Baptism morphs the River Jordan into Cookham's 'Bathing Place', with his Spencerian self 'baptised' into a moment of rebirth by a John the Baptist figure : or of recollections of brother Will's village choir singing on the old ferry barge to the holiday crowd by the Thames, and reverberating the memory with those of Pa declaiming his humanistic ideas at Fernlea to evoke, fifty years later, a buoyant Christ Preaching the same values, not now by the Sea of Galilee, but at Cookham Regatta : or, as a solitary sixty-year-old in his Cookham cottage, again going back in his mind to Pa in Fernlea proclaiming his life's ideals but, like Stanley himself now, confronting a world largely indifferent to his message, and thus darkening their joint-selves into a Christ in Cookham, the closing of their missions foreshadowed by a Cookham sunset or by the autumn apple harvest of a coming winter, sombrely awaiting their destiny in a Cookham-Jerusalem, the calling together of disciples suggesting even the possibility of a Cookham-Gethsemane.

In these works, Stanley has become his own counterpoint, a coincident down-to-earth Stanley-Christ cross-linked to a coincident up-in-heaven Christ-Stanley, anxiously, even desperately, striving to fulfil the last paintings which will complete his church-house concept, his Holy Grail. Pa has become a paradigm for the unity, and Stanley in his male inheritance from Pa sees himself as coincident with a Christ in His concept of His Father, but with no personal implications of divinity in Stanley's interpretation of the link.

Stanley's quest in his visionary pictures for a totality of unity climaxed his art. The motivation was surely that absorption of himself into everything in his surroundings, material or human, which attracted him, and which he came to call Love. New entities always intrigued him even if at first he did not fully understand them. But far more fascinating to him was the realization that he had within him a power to make them comprehensible to himself through his art. His contemplation of them ordered the selection of images from his memory and his creative energy transfigured them into meaningful shapes. Their composition manifested a new unity through the organisation of their shapes on the canvas. The result was a precisely-worked construct, as classically formal in Stanley's stringent procedure as any architect's design in stone or glass or concrete, a metamorphosis into visual language of another in his series of unified comprehensions.

The procedure raises, of course, the crucial question as to which of the two 'truths' - that of the initial 'reality' Stanley shows or that of his visionary reconstitution  - is the true 'truth'. Or is one definition of 'truth', say the memory-reconstituted 'truth', of a higher order than the other? Or indeed is 'truth' itself definable as an absolute? Might it be no more than an instinctive resolution of the contradictions we encounter in a world of fluid change in order to permit us the most comforting adaptation we can find, a metaphysical Heraclitan rather than a more absolute Sophoclean view?

We have argued throughout this website that Stanley's position in the debate is absolute. For him truth was the product of a lifetime's assiduous effort to discover, understand and make visual the links he was able eventually to express as his mantra : religion (or love, I don't mind) = happiness = gratitude = aspiration = passion = creative power. How many of us in our own lives, we have to ask, possess the determination to sustain throughout our years  the power to manage such a self-imposed task as Stanley undertook in his - and to achieve a result as memorable?

It is not difficult from Stanley's writings, or from an understanding of his visionary paintings, to appreciate his joy when he felt he had achieved a new 'truth' he was able to image. But was he the 'onlie-begetter', alone, unaided or was there deeper within him some more powerful creative impulse for which he was merely the vessel? Other artists - da Vinci, Picasso for example, even a scientist like Galileo - have indicated this sensation, and there is evidence that Stanley certainly felt the mystery.

It has already been proposed in this website that the terms Stanley used - 'God', 'Christ', 'Heaven', 'Resurrection', 'the Holy Spirit' - were the accepted 'sign-language' of the paradigm through which such ecstasies were expressed in his milieu, as they still are in many today. But for those who no longer accept such codes, Stanley's use of them in his visionary writings should not be taken so literally as to diminish his meanings. His terms can readily be transposed into such sign-language or semiology the involved reader finds appropriate. 

Stanley at his last exhibition in 1959. His brother Gilbert is on the left with his back to us, Tom Nash on the right. Photo Peter Spencer Coppock.In whatever forms Stanley conceived his ultimate life-frame, his 'God' - and for him they may have had to do with his classic concept of universal Love - he believed that everything he found himself under compulsion to undertake was done to the honouring of that indefinable concept. In that sense he was convinced he was empowered when in visionary mode as an Imitation of the Christ of the Bible he was familiar with from childhood or as a disciple of those other figures, such as the Buddha, whose spiritual outlook he came to appreciate in later years.

In the great dialectic of Life between Eros (the life-force, energy, creativity, hope) and Thanatos (the death-force, decay, destruction, despair) Stanley trumpeted Eros, even to the very hour of his passing. He was its advocate, its disciple, a true son, like Christ, of his God.

Today the principles of modernist art to which Stanley adhered no longer prevail to the same extent. Postmodern artists tend to favour more realistic visual emphasis on immediate emotion or sensation, a reversion, however unintended, to the representational art of the nineteenth century ; or they compose their concepts into less metaphysical universalities from associations expressed in plastic formats more startling than the pictorial of Stanley's day. But whatever direction art may take in the future, there is every reason to remain awed by the vision Stanley Spencer offered us. It was a profound vision, conceived in systems of thought we may find ourselves incompetent to explore as deeply as he did, conveyed often in modes of expression no longer in fashion, although not to be dismissed for that reason. But it was above all a joyful vision, compounded from delight in our ability to wonder and in our gratitude at being human and alive, and this we are fully able to understand.

Sir Stanley Spencer stands at the end of the long line of great English poets of transcendence. He may even be the last, there have been none like him since, and no apparent prospect. His art, insistently flickering the afterglow of Victorian idealism into an increasingly disillusioned twentieth-century, is surely inviting us, without the least attempt at flourish or virtuosity, to value an equivalent joy in our own lives, however diverse our circumstance.
 
 

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