Although painted right at the end of his life, The Bathing Pool, Dogs is a superb example of Spencer's vision and artistic ability. Set at the Odney Club in Cookham, Spencer draws together the real and the imagined as part of his vision of the miraculous events of the Baptism of Christ taking place nearby. As with many of his paintings, in Spencer's mind they formed part of a series painted over a long period, attesting not only to the expanse of Spencer's vision but also the consistent retention of that idea over several decades. For example, one painting in the group, Girls Returning From a Bathe (Private Collection) dates to 1936, whilst the central painting of the group would not be executed until sixteen years later.
The location, where Spencer himself had bathed as a young man, provides the backdrop to a number of paintings which form a group around the events of the Baptism of Christ. Feeling that the witnesses would then have been able to come back after this and begin the preparations for the wedding feast of the Marriage at Cana, Spencer linked some of the imagery, and the two subjects were intended to be considered together in his 'Church House', with The Baptism (Private Collection) of 1952 acting as the centrepiece.
Spencer's gift of being able to create astonishing imagery whilst fitting this into a larger overall plan is remarkable, especially when one sees how self-contained each painting appears. In The Bathing Pool, Dogs we see a riot of movement, the viewer's eye winding through the composition as if we were ourselves having to step carefully through this mass of dog-kind.
Like the earlier Sunflower and Dog Worship of 1937 (lot 16), the artist's rendering of the animals and his exalting of their unrestrained natures gives the painting a sense of both riot and joy. In marked contrast, the girls' poses and presentation seems intentionally contrived and artificial. The tension in the leads wrapped around the hand of the main figure helps to add to the dynamic interplay of forms across the composition, but overriding the whole painting is the sense of sheer doggishness. The two girls, based on Phyllis and Delphis, local girls who Spencer knew, are clearly very pleased with their shapely figures and stylish haircuts and as they promenade along the river bank with their dogs the contrast of their apparently well-bred animals with the rather more motley selection at large around them is striking. Indeed, the three central animals seem a little disturbed by the untrammelled actions of their less noble brethren who, like the dogs in Sunflower and Dog Worship, simply carry on with their natural habits.
In amongst the dogs we have two further figures, a reclining Stanley-type figure lazing by the water, apparently blowing a kiss at the approaching leashed dogs, and a 'disciple'. The 'disciple' figures make many appearances throughout Spencer's paintings and seem to represent a form of heavenly visitor to Cookham, their presence being entirely beneficent, and they are often presented as helping an earthly figure towards the achievement of some aim. For instance, in Adoration of Girls (Private Collection) the 'disciple' figure at the lower left assists the Stanley-type figure in his courtship.
Oil on canvas
London, The Home of Wilfrid A. Evill, Contemporary Art Society, Pictures, Drawings, Water Colours and Sculpture, April - May 1961, (part I- section 3) cat. no.11 (as Dogs);
Brighton, Brighton Art Gallery, The Wilfrid Evill Memorial Exhibition, June - August 1965, cat. no.213;
London, Royal Academy, Stanley Spencer RA, 20th September - 14th December 1980, cat. no.274, illustrated opposite p.161.
92 by 61cm.; 36¼ by 24in.
John Rothenstein (ed.), The Masters 80, Stanley Spencer, Jarrold and Sons Limited, Norwich, 1967, cat. no.XV, illustrated p.8 and pl.XV;
Louise Collis, A Private View of Stanley Spencer, Heinemann, London, 1972, p.111;
Carolyn Leder, Stanley Spencer: The Astor Collection, Thomas Gibson Publishing Limited, London, 1976, p.25 (as Dogs);
William Feaver, Observer, 'The Last Pre-Raphaelite,' 14th September 1980, illustrated p.29;
Duncan Robinson, Stanley Spencer, Phaidon Press, London, 1990, illustrated, pl.88;
Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer: A Complete Catalogue of Paintings, London, Phaidon, 1992, cat. no.427, illustrated p.231.
Arthur Tooth & Sons, London, where acquired by Wilfrid A. Evill 23rd April 1958 for £200.0.0, by whom bequeathed to Honor Frost in 1963