"Art is where I can find peace."
Stanley Spencer was one of the leading artists in England during the early 20th century. Religion, sex and war were topics he often painted. While Spencer’s preoccupation with sexual imagery in the 1930’s alienated his colleagues, contemporary critics now see his work as a precursor to the late 20th century revival of figure painting.
Spencer grew up in the picturesque village of Cookham, 30 km west of London. Later, the village would be the exclusive setting for both his landscapes, Landscape with Magnolia, Odney Club, and his religious paintings. Though Spencer was well respected as a landscape painter he felt these types of images were a distraction from his more imaginative figure compositions.
Homeschooled by his father, Spencer’s early education was supplemented with watercolor classes taken with a local painter. In 1907 Spencer enrolled at the Maidenhead Technical Institute in Berkshire but left later that year for London to study at the Slade School under Henry Tonks.
He served in World War I in the Royal Army Medical corp. and later in the infantry. These war years left a heavy impression on the young artist. From 1927 – 1932 he would draw upon these memories both real and imagined to complete murals for a privately commissioned war memorial, the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, in which he highlighting the daily lives of soldiers.
In 1929 Spencer, by then a husband and father, met Patricia Preece who would soon become his second wife. His infatuation with Preece coincided with his growing preoccupation with erotic imagery. It was during this time that he conceived of the Church-House. It was to be a celebration of the joys of peace, and sex and serve as a counterpart to his war memorial in Burghclere. While he was never able to find a patron to support the Church-house’s construction he continued working on the project until his death. In World War II Spencer served as a war artist on the shipyards in Glasgow while continuing to earn his living from the sale of his landscapes and portraits.
An elected member of the Royal Academy (though he resigned in protest between the years of 1935-1950) Spencer travelled to China as part of a British cultural delegation in 1954, and the following year he was honored with a retrospective of his work at the Tate gallery. In 1958 Spencer was knighted. Three years after his death the Stanley Spencer Gallery was opened in the village of Cookham.