Stanley Spencer: Hilda and I at Burghclere
By Professor Keith Bell
In 1950, two important events occurred in Spencer’s life. The first was his highly successful return to the Royal Academy where he was elected R.A. and exhibited five of his well-received Port Glasgow Resurrection series in that year’s summer exhibition. As a result of this critical and financial success – he was the “best seller” at the 1950 exhibition - combined with the skilfully orchestrated promotional campaign by his dealer Dudley Tooth, Spencer now had greater freedom to choose the subjects he wanted to paint, without the pressure to produce only the “easy sellers” that paid the bills. The second, much sadder occurrence was the death from cancer of his first wife, the artist Hilda Carline, whom Spencer had rather optimistically hoped to remarry. In place of this now thwarted desire, Spencer substituted the vision of a spiritual union with Hilda, in which she acted as a supportive, ideal companion. All the differences that had often obstructed their relationship when she was alive were to be set aside.
Compelled by this notion, Spencer turned his attention to producing a series of paintings that celebrated events both from their actual lives and from his imagined ideal of a perfect marriage. “My desire to paint,” Spencer once explained, “is caused by my being unable – or being incapable – of fulfilling my desires in life itself.” This was particularly true of his experience in marriage: “Half the meaning of life,” he wrote on another occasion, “is in my case what the husband and wife situation can produce.” (Tate Gallery, Spencer Archives 733.3 1).
Of the works in this series, one of the most successful was his painting of Hilda and I at Burghclere, exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1955. This scene celebrates a time when, at least in retrospect, Spencer and Hilda were enjoying a period of domestic bliss, with the artist, his wife and daughters all living together. Later, increasingly complicated issues between Spencer and Hilda would lead to the breakup of the marriage and ultimately divorce. Spencer sometimes complained that his family duties interrupted his painting, but this work, at least, suggests that such objections were not always to be taken too seriously.
In the painting, Spencer recalls family life at “Chapel View,” the red brick cottage built by his patrons Mr and Mrs J. L. Behrend to house the artist and his family at the village of Burghclere between 1928 and 1931, while he was working on the paintings in the Sandham Memorial Chapel. In the composition, Spencer appears from the right carrying the baby’s bath. His daughter Unity (born in 1930) lies in Hilda’s lap, while the elder daughter Shirin (born 1925) drags in the bath mat pursued by the cat. Unity Spencer recently recalled the bathing ritual in her memoir, Lucky To Be an Artist: M[other] used to give me a bath in a tin tub in front of the fire in a corner of the cosy dining room, when it was chilly outside. I had some beautiful toys in those days: my little metal black and white pigs and a doll in a tiny wicker cradle. Many years later in 1955, my father resurrected this scene in his painting Hilda and I at Burghclere. M. is holding me, a baby, and D. is bringing the bath in, a great round tub; my sister Shirin, is hauling in the rolled-up bath mat' (U. Spencer, op. cit., pp. 23-24).
Hilda and I at Burghclere forms part of Spencer’s ‘Apotheosis’ series, for his projected ‘Church House’ in Cookham. This work was destined to adorn the walls of the Hilda Memorial Chapel, augmented by the nine ‘Domestic Scenes’ from 1935–36. This series was to hang upon the side walls of the chapel, while on the end wall would have been the monumental and unfinished Apotheosis of Hilda. The subject of Hilda and I at Burghclere appears in a small drawing from the 1935–36 ‘Domestic Scenes’ series, but is developed for the first time in the early 1940s, in a large drawing from the first volume of the Astor Scrapbooks. This sheet of paper is squared for transfer, thus further suggesting that it was used in the planning of Hilda and I at Burghclere.
This phase of Spencer’s work begins the progressive veneration and idealisation of Hilda, and after her death in 1950, he elevates his wife to the status of a saint-like figure: she becomes, more than ever, his embodiment of spiritual love rooted in domestic harmony and unspoken mutual understanding. Hilda and I at Burghclere possesses this sense of simple domestic chores becoming a quiet symbol of spiritual union. A familiar bath time routine unfolds, but one that must have taken place – a scene from a previous life when times were simpler. Spencer carries in the womb-like bathtub, while his older daughter, Shirin, struggles with a mat on which to put it. Our eye is drawn in through the packed, intimate composition to Hilda – here elevated to a Madonna figure – cradling their younger daughter, Unity, on an armchair in the corner. Even the cat, caught in mid-air, plays its part in this harmonious depiction of bath time. Spencer’s meticulous attention to the textures of the rough herringbone tweeds, the stiff rush matting and the cat’s silky fur and his use of warm earthen colours, set in front of an open fire beyond, further intensify the compelling intimacy of the scene.
A remarkable work in many ways, not least because Hilda and I at Burghclere is one of only two oils by Spencer to portray Hilda, Stanley and their daughters. The other, Going to Bed, was painted in 1936 and is in a private collection.
We are very grateful to Professor Keith Bell for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.
Hilda and I at Burghclere
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY OF A LADY
Stanley Spencer , 20th Century, Paintings, England, Modern, portrait
London, Royal Academy, Summer Exhibition, 1955, no. 602.
London, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, Stanley and Hilda Spencer, September – October 1978, no. 33.
London, Royal Academy, Stanley Spencer, R.A., September – December 1980, no. 270.
New York, CDS Gallery, Stanley Spencer: Heaven on Earth, April – May 1983, no. 15.
Cookham, Stanley Spencer Gallery, Images of Hilda, May – September 1985, no. 34.
London, Barbican Art Gallery, Stanley Spencer – The Apotheosis of Love, January – April 1991, no. 67.
Cookham, Stanley Spencer Gallery, Stanley and the First Mrs Spencer, April - October 2010, no. 4.
Modern British & Irish Art
30 x 20 in. (76 x 51 cm.)
M. Collis, Stanley Spencer – A Biography, London, 1962, illustrated, n.p.
E. Rothenstein, Stanley Spencer, London, 1962, pl.22.
R. Carline (intro.), exhibition catalogue, Stanley and Hilda Spencer, London, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, 1978, n.p., no. 33, illustrated on the cover.
J. Rothenstein (ed.), Stanley Spencer – The Man: Correspondences and Reminiscences, London, 1979, p. 129, illustrated.
D. Robinson, Stanley Spencer, Visions from a Berkshire Village, Oxford, 1979, pp. 30-31, pl. 22.
Exhibition catalogue, Stanley Spencer, R.A., London, Royal Academy, 1980, p. 220-221, no. 270, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, Stanley Spencer: Heaven on Earth, New York, CDS Gallery, 1983, no. 15, n.p.
D. Robinson, Stanley Spencer, 1990, Oxford, pp. 53, 113, pl. 91.
J. Alison (ed.), exhibition catalogue, Stanley Spencer – The Apotheosis of Love, London, Barbican Art Gallery, 1991, p. 90, no. 67, illustrated.
K. Bell, Stanley Spencer – A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, London, 1992, pp. 219, 507, 508, no. 414, illustrated.
U. Spencer, Lucky to be an Artist, London, 2015, pp. 23-24, illustrated.
Purchased by Mr and Mrs G. J. ff. Chance at the 1955 exhibition; their sale; Christie’s, London, 28 February 1975, lot 94.
Private collection since circa 1975.
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.