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Review | Keith Vaughan: On Pagham Beach, Photographs and Collages from the 1930s

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Keith Vaughan, Boy in Fishing Net, 1939 © the estate of Keith Vaughan, Courtesy of Austin : Desmond Fine Art

 

It is hard for those brought up in a world of gender fluidity, with debates about who has the right to use which bathroom, to imagine the veil of secrecy and repression that prevailed during the first half of the 20th century around sexual encounters between men. The Sexual Offences Act that decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men over the age of 21 did not become law until 1967. A full 13 years after the Conservative government had asked a committee, chaired by John Wolfenden, to look at legislation that related to homosexuality and prostitution. It had taken more than 80 years for the notorious Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, introduced by Henry Labouchère, in response to largely beefed-up tabloid ‘scandals’, to be repealed. Section 11 had prescribed 2 years hard labour ‘for gross indecency between males in public or in private.’ Oscar Wilde and the brilliant Enigma code mathematician Alan Turing were both tragic victims.

For the artist Keith Vaughan, as for most ‘ordinary’ homosexuals during much of the 20th century, life was lived between two worlds – the closet and that of fleeting, furtive, sexual encounters. Vaughan learnt early “the fear, tension and repression that surrounded everything to do with sex”. For a high-society set it was somewhat different. The ‘eccentric’ behaviour of those who were ‘artistic’ – the photographer Cecil Beaton and his circle, which included the actor John Gielgud and the composer Lord Berners, and the left-leaning group of poets and musicians who gathered around Auden, Isherwood, Spender and Britten – was largely tolerated. A love of the ballet was shared by many homosexual men, allowing a safe milieu for the contemplation of beautiful male bodies. ‘Is he musical’ became something of a code for assessing someone’s sexuality. Vaughan, an accomplished pianist, developed his love of ballet after seeing Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes production of Prokofiev’s Le Fils Prodigue at Covent Garden and becoming close friends with several prima ballerinas. Yet he never quite fitted into these homosexual elites, remaining something of a loner and an outsider.

Abandoned by his father at the age of eight and left with his convent educated mother and timid younger brother Dick, he was bullied and miserable during his time at Christ’s Hospital School. Later he would become openly attracted to younger working-class men with a rough edge (echoing Francis Bacon’s sexual preferences). Those such as Len and his brother Stan, the grocer’s boy Percy Farrant, and the small-time criminal and boxer Johnny Walsh, would become his photographic models.

After leaving school Vaughan joined Lintas (Lever International Advertising Services) the advertising department of Unilver which, during the depressed 1930s, attracted a number of talented artists, including Graham Sutherland, John Piper, and John Banting. Vaughan had already started to take photographs while at school with a medium-format reflex camera and by 1932 had set up his own dark room in the family home. As a trainee layout artist, he was persuaded by another member of the team, Reg Jenkins, to buy a Leica camera. It’s this he used over the years to shoot ‘hundreds of feet of camera roll’ of both the ballet and Pagham beach. It was his affair with Harold Colebrook, whose aunt had a converted railway carriage at Pagham, that led to this piece of West Sussex becoming his own prelapsarian playground.

Just before the outbreak of war, at the age of 27, Vaughan decided to keep a journal, which he did until his suicide some 40 years later. Edited by his close friend the painter Prunella Clough and the one-time editor of The London Magazine, Alan Ross, who published an edition of Vaughan’s Journals and Drawings in 1966, it gives insights into many of his concerns, though the diaries sadly postdate the period of the 1930s covered by this exhibition.

But what we do have in the Austin/Desmond exhibition is the photographs. Full of silver grey tonalities they exude a utopian sense of optimism and freedom. Often only of postcard size, they tap into a nostalgic sensibility that has all but been lost in our modern world; a mixture of childlike innocence and homo-eroticism. The boy standing on a rock with his back to the camera holding a shrimping net might, almost, be Christopher Robin. Reminding us of the complexity of J.M Barrie’s own relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys and the idealised, often repressed relationships between many other men of that era for whom the most ‘real’ relationships – in a world of public schools and the armed forces – were those with their own sex.

Of course, these photographs of boys wrapped in fishing nets, sprawling naked, except for ‘posing pouches’, on the shingle, doing acrobatics on folding deckchairs or standing godlike beneath the rusting hulks of ships were not taken in naïve isolation. Vaughan displays an obvious awareness of current contemporary social and artistic movements. During the 1930s nude photographs were often published in ‘respectable’ body building or naturist magazines such as Health and Strength and Health and Fitness. This interest in nakedness – as an expression and symbol of freedom from bourgeois social constraints – was not simply a homosexual obsession. It was just as much a cult among Rupert Brooke’s mostly heterosexual Neo-Pagan’s who saw nude swimming and sunbathing as a way of asserting their bohemian credentials. While in Germany naked gymnastics held in the open air was considered to be beneficial in alleviating the effects of urban poverty on children and young people. In1929 Adolf Koch organised the Congress of Nudity and Education. Though his work would soon be banned by Hitler, the cult of the body beautiful still infiltrated Third Reich ideology through the lens of Leni Riefenstahl and an obsession with the perfect Aryan Olympic athlete. Naturism had long been valued during the 19th century as part of traditional male bonding, a philosophy that was revisited by the Wandervogel – a back to nature movement – which exalted in the cult of body-building and mass displays of gymnastics. Without any sense of irony, the approval of these ‘homoerotic’ events, in which the male body was on public display, sat alongside more punitive views about degeneracy and sexual ‘inversion’ to create a complex binary tension.

It’s not possible to be sure whether Vaughan took these photographs simply for his own enjoyment or as part of his studio practice, as aides-memoire for future paintings. A standing nude posed as Michelangelo’s David, and the shot of a bather throwing a ball in which the angle creates a dynamic heroic image, suggest that Vaughan must have been aware of the photographic propaganda from the new USSR and the work of photographers such as El Lissitzky and Rodchenko. His use of collage, as well as his tendency to draw directly onto his photographs to create surreal spatial and perspectival contradictions, indicates an interest in the possibilities of the medium in its own right. What is clear is that his artist’s eye led him to experiment with different photographic genres: the close-up, the body in movement (which surely must have been influenced by looking at Eadweard Muybridge), the action shot, along with the occasional still life. But, above all, what the camera seems to have given Vaughan, the young man who found ‘fear’ ‘tension’ and ‘repression’ in ‘everything to do with sex’, was the chance to look, to be a voyeur. As a natural outsider the camera gave him protection, gave him permission to be an observer. As Prunella Clough commented: “when Keith had a camera fixed to his eye, it legitimized his gazing at another unclothed human being”.

What Vaughan presents in these photos is a kind of nostalgia. One that records the ‘pagan’ pleasures of sun-worship and nudity, the hedonistic delights of young men at play. They are extremely British. Nothing is really outrageous. Nothing is there to shock. Of Len, Vaughan would later reminisce: “I could only touch his body through the lens of my camera…he liked to know the importance of his body and sunbathed for this reason…Len stripped and moved about with his copper-varnished limbs. I followed with my camera obsessed with the colour and the intangible beauty of the scene.”

In these interwar years photographic portraiture was still largely portrayed in terms of class and status. The subjects of Cecil Beaton stood in obvious contrast to the working-class subjects of Brandt or Bert Hardy. But Vaughan’s youthful subjects, near naked and stripped of any identifying social accoutrements, offer something more classless and democratic. What they encapsulate is youth, desire and the freedom to be oneself; qualities that as the 20th century progressed would become the hallmarks of a more liberally permissive society.

by Sue Hubbard


Keith Vaughan: On Pagham Beach: Photographs and Collages from the 1930s at Austin/Desmond Fine Art. Free. From 25 October 2017 to 8 December 2017.

Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic. Her new novel, Rainsongs, is due from Duckworth in January 2017.

Talkin’ ’bout my Generation

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Karin Mack /DACS, London, 2016 / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

 

Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s, from the Verbund Collection at The Photographers’ Gallery, 7 October to 15 January 2017

The day after the American election that put Donald J. Trump in the White House and the morning I heard of Leonard Cohen’s death, I went to the exhibition of 1970s feminist avant-garde photography at the Photographers’ Gallery. What a difference forty-odd years makes. In the 1970s issues concerning gender equality, female sexuality and civil rights became part of the mainstream public discourse. We believed that with education and the breakdown of patriarchy the future would be equal and free. That women would be able to reach for the stars. Now more than forty years on we are to have an American president who boasts of grabbing women by the ‘pussy’ and surrounds himself with advisors intent on refusing abortion rights and dictating, once again, what women can and can’t do with their bodies And there’s to be a new FLOTUS in the White House; not the gracious first lady who fought for civil rights and encouraged poor communities to grow vegetables in order to beat childhood obesity, but a former glamour model more used to the accomplishments of the courtesan than to burning her bra in political protest over women’s civil liberties. History, it seems, is not always linear.

The ground-breaking work in this exhibition by artists such as Cindy Sherman, Judy Chicago and Martha Rosler (who found a platform alongside the writing of Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and other second- wave feminists) illustrates how they extended the late twentieth century debate beyond issues raised by the first wave of feminists around voting and property rights, to focus on matters of identity, domestic violence and rape. The photographs, collages, videos and performances produced during the 1970s show female artists galvanised into political engagement. A 1961 report from the American Presidential Commission on the Status of Women had found discrimination against women in every aspect of American life.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Lucy), 1975/2001 / © Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of Metro Pictures, New York / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna
Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Lucy), 1975/2001 / © Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of Metro Pictures, New York / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

The exhibition starts with a series of photographs by Helena Almeida, born in Portugal in 1934. Hands, many decked with  wedding  rings,  reach from behind metal railings and locked gates, through grills and half-open windows, emphasising the sense of isolation felt, particularly, by creative women, during Salazar’s political dictatorship but, also, by many women trapped in suffocating or unhappy marriages. Over and over again the same questions are raised though out the exhibition: what does  it mean to be a woman, what are the limits of that role within society?   Are these roles dictated by nature or nurture? Can a woman be an artist and a mother and have a sex life without being a sex object? Many artists such as Cindy Sherman and the Italian, Marcella Campagnano, play with multiple identities, swapping from bride to prostitute, from cleaning lady to professional, from pregnant mother to female geek like children trying out various disguises from the dressing up box. The overriding question at the time seemed to be: could women have it ‘all’ and what, in fact, did that ‘all’ actually mean? And were these perceived freedoms just for white college- educated women and if not, how would they be achieved by women of colour and those living in poverty in the developing world?

Many of the artists included, here, such as Teresa  Burga, born in 1935,  are themselves from developing countries (in her case Peru). Her practice revolves around themes of representation and mass culture that explore  the construction of a superimposed feminine ideal. Her drawing Sin Titulo (Untitled 1979) borrows from an advertisement for Cotelga toothpaste that features an attractive model and critiques the flawless beauty unobtainable by so many women (particularly those with very little money) that is being promoted. A sense of not being heard, of not having a voice, of being repressed – something that Tillie Oulson so graphically expressed in her wonderful collage of voices Silences, published in 1978 – is given visual form by the German artist Renate Eisenegger in her eight-part photo series Isolamento (1972). Here she’s seen sticking cotton wool and tape over her mouth, her nose, her ears and eyes before covering her head completely.

Housework is shown to be a vexed political arena. In 1957 Betty Friedan was asked to conduct a survey of her former Smith College classmates for their fifteenth anniversary reunion. What she found was, that despite comfortable financial circumstances, many were deeply unhappy, a situation she would describe in The Feminine Mystic, as ‘the problem   that has no name.’ Freidan described the typical 1950s suburban family   as a ‘comfortable concentration camp’ in which suburban housewives were encouraged to become ‘dependent, passive, [and] childlike’. One of her solutions was that women should be paid for housework. In Martha Rosler’s celebrated grainy grey video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) the artist challenges the prevailing attitude that a woman’s place was primarily in the home. Wearing an apron in front of a table full of kitchen utensils, the artist stands like a primary school teacher before her class re-defining each object in alphabetical order – from apron to tenderiser – though a lexicon  of feminist anger and despair. Elsewhere Letícia Parente, born in 1930 in Salvador, introduces a racial as well as gender perspective in her 1982 video Tarefa (Task) where the black hands of a faceless maid iron the body of a white woman lying passively in a cotton dress on an ironing board. While Karin Mack, an Austrian artist born in 1940, presents Destruction of an illusion (1977), a series of photos that underline the drudgery of domestic work. In the first image we are shown a neatly coiffed woman cradling a jar of bottled fruit next to her face, against a backdrop of floral wall paper – the perfect homemaker. Yet as the series progresses her image is stabbed with an array of roasting skewers and is gradually destroyed, so that by the last one she’s been completely obliterated and there is nothing left except torn paper and bent needles.

02_PressImage Feminist Avant Garde l Renate Eisenegger
Renate Eisenegger, Hochhaus (Nr.1), 1974, Renate Eisenegger / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

Perhaps the most important site of debate during the Seventies was the body as exemplified by the publication in 1973 of Our Bodies Ourselves. Originally put together before mainstream publication by the Boston Women’s Health Collective, it went on to become a bestseller and a how- to manual for women trying to understand the mechanics of their bodies and emotions. Judy Chicago’s Red Flag (1971), a close up of a bloody tampon protruding from a luxuriant bush of pubic hair (hair was a political statement, no self-respecting feminist would go for a Brazilian, let alone shave their legs) seems to align feminism and self-determinism with the red  flag  of  Marxism. While  the  Cuban Ana  Mendieta  and  the Serbian artist Katalin Ladi both broke with traditional modes of representation by pressing rectangular panes of glass against their faces in order to distort them. Not only did these performances question ideals of western female beauty but they suggested – by their use of the frame – a critique of the normal presentations of the feminine within western painting. Aging is tackled in the work of Ewa Partum. In Change (1974), which took place in front of a gallery audience, she had a makeup artist transform one half of her body into her older alter ego, declaring that her body was now an art work. This prefigured the more extreme surgical interventions on her own body in the 1980s by the French artist Orlan.

Francesca Woodman, Self-deceit #1, Rome, Italy, 1978/1979 / © Courtesy George and Betty Woodman, New York / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna
Francesca Woodman, Self-deceit #1, Rome, Italy, 1978/1979 / © Courtesy George and Betty Woodman, New York / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

‘One is not born but rather becomes a woman’, Simone de Beauvoir  wrote in The Second Sex, but the questions remain: are women physically autonomous or constrained by the rules laid down by religion and patriarchy? Masquerade, parody, and many forms of self-representation are employed, here, to deconstruct preconceived notions about identity, to discuss whether it is constructed by social convention or imbibed with our mother’s milk. What so many of these artists illustrate is that identity is multi-faceted and multi-layered and that the roles assigned by society do not have to leave us in a state of conflict. Their work shows that we have choices, that we can be what we want to be. Yet looking back, now, over forty years, what seems to have been lost is a sense of common cause. That collective spirit has dissolved. Individualism has become more blatant and identity just as likely to be constructed through surgical intervention and Botox as sought through shared political goals.

So will Clinton’s failure to shatter that glass ceiling, despite the hopes and expectations of many, be the end of the feminist dream? Will we be forced back into the role of Hausfrau, mindful only of the demands of Kinder, Kuche, Kircher? Now Trump is to be president there’s a danger that his misogyny will give permission for a more general abuse and hatred of women. Suddenly this exhibition looks very pertinent indeed.


Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic. The Poetry Society’s only ever official Public Art Poet, she has published three collections of poetry: Everything Begins with the Skin (Enitharmon), Ghost Station and The Forgetting and Remembering of Air (Salt), a book of short stories, Rothko’s Red (Salt) and two novels, Depth of Field (Dewi Lewis) and Girl in White (Cinnamon Press). Her third novel will be published by Cinnamon in 2017. Art critic for many years on The Independent and The New Statesman, her Adventures in Art, a compendium of essays on art, is published by Other Criteria. She was recently invited to record her poems for the National Poetry Archive. 

Hell in Arcadia

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Stanley Spencer, Self-portrait By Gaslight Looking Downwards, 1949, oil on canvas / © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images

Stanley Spencer – Of Angel and Dirt, The Hepworth, Wakefield, until 5 October 2016

‘To be a great artist one must first be a natural everyday human being.’
Stanley Spencer in May 1915

 

Although Stanley Spencer attended the Slade School of Art where he was a prizewinning student among other gifted students who included Dora Car­rington, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash and David Bomberg, and though his tutor, Henry Tonks, claimed that he had the most original mind of any student he had taught, Spencer’s four years at the Slade were not, according to his biographer, Fiona MacCarthy, altogether happy:

He was marked out as a misfit by his physical appear­ance: his diminutiveness (he was only 5 feet 2 inches), his heavy fringe, and pudding-basin haircut. His aura of other-worldliness…enhanced by the fact that he commut­ed daily by train from Berkshire. He was known jeeringly as Cookham (a name given him by C.R.W. Nevinson) and terrified by being put upside-down in a sack.

Parochial, idiosyncratic and visionary, Spencer was a quintessentially Eng­lish painter, though his work looked back to Giotto and the Italian Primi­tives while, in his unflinching, flesh-revealing nudes, foreshadowed the confessional intimacy of Lucian Freud, as well as the mind- altering ‘spiri­tuality’ of the 1960s counter-culture.

But it was his beloved Cookham, the small village on the banks of the Thames in Berkshire where Spencer grew up and lived most of his life – ‘avillage in Heaven’ as he called it- that proved his major source of inspira­tion. With its red-brick houses, neat gardens and Wind in the Willows atmo­sphere it became the backcloth for his religious visions where lumpen pro­vincials re-enacted the Bible as fireside narratives in local churchyards and back gardens. The Betrayal, which takes place in Cookham High Street, behind the gardens of the two Spencer family homes, shows Peter raising his arm to the High Priest’s servant, while the disciples cower behind a wall like curious village gossips. These biblical scenes of neighbours and fellow villagers were a visual expression of Spencer’s unconventional Christian faith and the desire to make his eccentric feelings ‘an ordinary fact of the street.’

As with William Blake, whose mantle he in many ways adopted, life and art were seen as sacred and entwined. Like Blake he believed that the divine was to be found in the everyday and the ordinary; that the world could be seen in ‘a grain of sand, and…heaven in a wild flower’. Writing from Twe­seldon Camp, near Farnham in May 1916 where, during the First World War he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps (his puny physique prevented him from enlisting) he gave a clue to this philosophy:

I think there is something wonderful in hospital life… the act of doing things to men is wonderful. Now I am sweeping…now I am cleaning dishes…now I am polishing. There is such unity and yet variety in it. I think this feeling is in those things (bas reliefs) in the Giotto Campanile.

The world that shaped Stanley Spencer has long since disappeared and with it a certain kind of Englishness embedded in the comforting coherence of cosy village life. His local home-spun bohemianism was part of an ‘is there honey still for tea’ nursery innocence that saw Englishness as a sort of pre-lapsarian utopia that was dismantled by the horrors of the First World War. The eighth surviving child of William and Anna Caroline Spencer, Stanley’s father, affectionately known as Par, was a church organist and music teacher who gave lessons at home. The family villa, Fernlea, on Cookham High Street, was built by Stanley’s grandfather, Julius Spencer. His parents were what, today, we’d call ‘de-schoolers’, with reservations about the local council school. Unable to afford private fees they arranged for Stanley to be taught at home by his sisters. As a result his education was fairly patchy, a fact illustrated by the odd stream-of-consciousness prose that proliferates his copious letters. He and his brother Gilbert also took drawing lessons from a local artist, Dorothy Bailey. When Gilbert was, eventually, sent to a school in Maidenhead the family didn’t feel this would be right for Stanley, a solitary teenager given to long walks, with a passion for drawing. So Pa Spencer arranged with local landowners, Lord and Lady Boston, that he should spend time drawing each week with Lady Boston. In 1907, she arranged for him to attend Maidenhead Technical Institute. His father agreed, on condition that he did not sit any of the exams.

The exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield celebrates the 125th anniver­sary of Spencer’s birth and brings together more than seventy significant works spanning a forty-five year career. One of the highlights is the number of rarely seen self-portraits where the fresh-faced boy can be seen slowly transmuting into the bespectacled eccentric of popular myth. Presented thematically the richly detailed paintings reveal the apparent conflicts be­tween Spencer’s slightly off-the-wall religious beliefs and his sexuality, his relationship to nature and his passion for the domestic. Biblical allegories filled with bulbous figures with big bosoms and ample thighs that echo Georg Grosz or Otto Dix’s caricatures (but without their satire) are shown alongside evocative pastoral landscapes and studies of shipbuilding on the Clyde, executed while Spencer was a war artist at the Kingston shipyard Port Glasgow, in which he celebrates and mythologises the dignity and heroism of work.

 

Stanley Spencer, Self-Portrait, 1923, oil on canvas. Stanley Spencer Gallery Collection / © The Estate of Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images

The Resurrection was, for Spencer a reoccurring theme. After his first solo exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in 1927 The Times art critic wrote ‘What makes it so astonishing is the combination…of careful detail with the mod­ern freedom of form. It is as if a Pre-Raphaelite had shaken hands with a Cubist.’ Spencer repeatedly referred to the war as his inspiration for these paintings: ‘I had buried so many people and saw so many dead bodies that I felt that death could not be the end of everything.’ This melding of lived experience with biblical story telling is there, also, in his 1912 The Nativ­ity, inspired by his walks at Cliveden ‘along the path skirting Sir George Young’s fisheries’ with its deep grass and bent garden trellis, while a Cookham malt house provided the setting for the elongated figures of The Last Supper, seated around a U–shaped table, their legs and big bare feet poking beneath the white cloth. Started before the war, Spencer added the legs on his return. A detail with which he was particularly pleased. While Sarah Tubbs and the Heavenly Visitors, is based on a story told to him by his father. In 1910 the tail of Halley’s Comet created an exceptional sunset that caused old ‘Granny’ Tubb to fear that the end of the world was neigh, so that she knelt by her gate in the High Street to pray. Spencer’s painting shows her comforted by ‘heavenly visitors’ who present her with cherished items including a papier mâché text and a postcard of Cookham Church held by Stanley’s cousin Annie Slack, who worked in the village shop. Spencer claimed, rather mysteriously, that the fact he was now ‘sexually conscious added and increased the illusion.’

On his home-coming from Macedonia with the Berkshire Infantry he drew up plans to create a memorial chapel based on his war experiences and in 1919 met the artist Hilda Carline, with whom he settled in Cookham and had two children. But the marriage was sexually fraught, affected, perhaps, by Carline’s Christian Science beliefs and in the 1930s he began to pursue fellow artist, Patricia Preece, a lesbian who lived in the village with her partner Dorothy Hepworth. Naively Spencer wanted to be married to both Carline and Preece.

Although this exhibition is missing the infamous Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife of 1937 (often known as The Leg of Mut­ton), his 1935 Nude shows what he described as ‘the passionate intensity and meaning in her [Preece’s] loveliness’, and highlights the peculiarly sa­domasochistic flavour of their relationship. With her cold blue eyes, white skin and pendulous breasts, her pert mouth and look of disdain towards the artist, there can be little surprise that she left him to return to Dorothy.

Was Spencer simply a Holy Fool, a quirky Edwardian eccentric who went on painting his beloved Cookham until his death in 1959 – well into the age of rock n’roll, Jackson Pollock and Pop art – out of touch with the modern world? A man unable to move on beyond the consolations of childhood? ‘Mentally,’ he wrote, when in his forties, ‘I have been bedridden all my life,’ and ‘I wish all my life I could have been tied to my mother’s apron strings. It would have suited me, mostly in the kitchen or the bedroom…a long talk and plenty of cups of tea.’

Love for Spencer was a melding of the sexual and the domestic. Not for him the great romances of Troilus and Cressida or Abelard and Heloise. ‘The joy of this eternal home-coming,’ as he described the erotic, was de­picted in his archetypal lovers – the dustman and his wife – where the in­fantilised dustman is carried Pietà-like in his wife’s strong maternal arms. A teapot, an empty jam jar, and some cabbage stalks all provide an esoteric link to the mystery of the Trinity. ‘Nothing I love is rubbish,’ he said. ‘I am on the side of the angels and dirt.’

Although Spencer’s language is original and uniquely idiosyncratic it chimes with the mood of the English religious revival of the interwar years explored by Graham Sutherland and Eric Gill, by Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson in their Christian Science, and in Tom Eliot’s poetic flir­tations with high Anglicanism and Buddhism. Heaven, for Spencer, was always the village of Cookham, a sort of nursery limbo for his Peter Panish character. Yet despite his claim that ‘Sorrow and sadness is not for me’ there is a deep dysfunctional loneliness and existential alienation within his paintings. Looking at the crowds gathered on The Hill of Zion or escaping from their tombs in the Resurrection of the Good and the Bad it’s hard to decide whether his cast of characters have found their way to an eternal paradise in Berkshire or some Cookham version of Dante’s circles of hell.


Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic. The Poetry Society’s
only ever official Public Art Poet, she has published three collections of poetry: Everything
Begins with the Skin (Enitharmon), Ghost Station and The Forgetting and Remembering
of Air (Salt), a book of short stories, Rothko’s Red (Salt) and two novels, Depth of Field
(Dewi Lewis) and Girl in White (Cinnamon Press). Her third novel will be published by
Cinnamon in 2017. Art critic for many years on The Independent and The New Statesman,
her Adventures in Art, a compendium of essays on art, is published by Other Criteria. She was
recently invited to record her poems for the National Poetry Archive. www.suehubbard.com