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Workmen in the House

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Sir Stanley Spencer R.A., Workmen in the House\nOil on canvas\n113 by 91.5cm.; 44½ by 36in.\nExecuted in 1935.


The following work has been requested by Kunsthal Rotterdam to be included in their forthcoming exhibition, Stanley Spencer, from 17th September 2011 to 15th January 2012.

The most widely exhibited of the Spencer paintings in this collection, Workmen in the House is a superb example of the combination of form, narrative, evocation and incident that is at the heart of Spencer's best work. Chosen as the cover image for both the Tate 1955 retrospective of Spencer's work and for Evill's Memorial exhibition in 1965, Workmen in the House has also been included in virtually every publication on the artist and thus holds a position as one of the best known yet relatively little seen of Spencer's major paintings.

Painted in 1935, it was initially intended as part of a commission for two paintings from a Mr Boot, a commercial property magnate from Yorkshire. The rather loose theme for the commission was 'building' and the fee £400. It seems that Spencer originally intended to paint a single large canvas but this evolved into two separate paintings, the present work and The Builders (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven). However, on seeing the finished works, the commissioner refused to accept them, sending the artist what Spencer described as 'a rude letter'. Sir Edward Beddington-Behrens, who had introduced Mr Boot to Spencer, stepped in and purchased The Builders for £200, with Evill acquiring Workmen in the House in 1937 for £250. This was the highest price that Evill had yet paid for any painting in his collection.

The subject refers to a remembered incident at Chapel View, Burghclere, the house in which the Spencers lived whilst Stanley was working on painting the Sandham Memorial Chapel murals. A relatively minor starting point, a smoking kitchen range, becomes a springboard for Spencer that allows him to address a much wider range of topics, not least the element of intrusion and disturbance of the comfortable and settled home environment that the visit of the workmen entails. As with much of Spencer's best work, one detailed memory leads to a wider and frequently multi-layered remembrance, and in a letter of 1937 he outlined how this idea derived in part from the sense of excitement that he had experienced as a small boy when familiar rooms were redecorated and the furniture moved around. The feeling of the workmen as intruders in the home is inherent in the composition, with the bulky presence of the carpenter and his saw towering above the figures of Elsie, the Spencers' maid, and Unity, their daughter. The complex poses of these two 'home' figures suggest the turmoil into which the workmen's arrival has thrown the house, and their placement against the vivid geometric patterning of the rug forms a whole band of unrest across the painting. The jagged and angular planes within the composition ensure that the eye is never allowed to rest, and that fraught feeling is clear in the struggle that Elsie is having as she tries to put on her gaiters prior to taking Unity out for a walk. For her own part, Unity responds to the actions of the carpenter as she manipulates a wooden clothes peg with a marvellously observed level of mimicry of the actions of the men around her.

In order to perfectly evoke the disturbance to the rhythm of the house the workmen engender, Spencer has to make the prior state, the harmony and the warmth of the house, totally believable and understandable to us. By rendering each surface with a verisimilitude that comes from understanding every plane and object, not through pure photographic reproduction but by capturing the essential qualities that transmit the realism of the scene to us, we feel ourselves embroiled in the action too. From the transfer-printed tins on the mantelpiece to the Zebrite-gleaming cast iron of the range and the well-used canvas of the carpenter's apron stuffed with a variety of decorator's brushes (Evill noted that Spencer told him he was fascinated by the capacious bulging pocket of the apron), every movement, surface and texture feels completely convincing. Thus, a concept as elusive yet familiar to us all as the profession and technical self-importance of the tradesman is captured in the pose of the carpenter, checking the alignment of the teeth of his saw, whilst the metal of the blade, polished to a dull reflective shine by its years of use, brings both a bar of light into the composition but also, and perhaps more importantly, our own remembrance of such items and incidents.

The Spencer's maid Elsie Beckford (née Munday) was employed from 1928 until 1937 and became very attached to the family. She was the subject of portraits by both Stanley and Hilda. In Stanley's Country Girl: Elsie (Private Collection) and Hilda's Portrait of Elsie (Private Collection), both begun in October 1929, she is presented standing in front of the kitchen mantelpiece seen in Workmen in the House, and many of the same objects appear in all three paintings, even down to the string over the range on which socks are hung to dry. Spencer clearly found Elsie's conscientious dedication to the house and family an integral part of the sense of unity and harmony he hoped to evoke in his paintings of the household and she appears in many drawings, almost always involved in the execution of her chores, such as chopping sticks or polishing the doorknobs. Elsie was also accorded the honour of her own small side chapel in Spencer's plans for the Church House.

Workmen in the House was also part of an important incident in Spencer's career. Having been accepted as an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1932 and a full member in 1934, Spencer made five submissions for the 1935 Summer Exhibition, Workmen in the House, its companion, The Builders (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven), Scarecrow, Cookham (Private Collection), The Dustman (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne) and Saint Francis and the Birds (Tate, London). The last two of these were rejected by the Hanging Committee, a rare but not unprecedented rebuff. Spencer, who generally disliked hanging with other artists, took this very badly and demanded the return of all five pictures, to which the RA pointed out the terms of his membership that did not allow the return of the pieces already accepted. This infuriated Spencer, and he resigned from the Academy and published the correspondence in The Times. Opinion was split, with many artists, such as John and Sickert, supporting Spencer's cause, but the end result was that his resignation was accepted.


Oil on canvas


Stanley Spencer


London, Royal Academy, Summer Exhibition, 1935, cat. no.701;

Norwich, Norwich Castle Museum, Contemporary British and French Art, 1938, cat. no.47;

British Institute of Adult  Education, French and English Paintings, 1939-40, with tour to City Literary Institute, London (details untraced);

Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, English Life, 1942, cat. no.60;

Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne, UNESCO, Exposition Internationale d'Art Moderne, 1946, cat. no.53;

Leeds, Temple Newsam House, Paintings and Drawings by Stanley Spencer, 25th July - 7th September 1947, cat. no.29;

London, The Home of Wilfrid A. Evill, Contemporary Art Society, Catalogue of Part of a Collection of Oil Paintings, Water Colours, Drawings and Sculpture Belonging to W. A. Evill, Esq., December 1947 - February 1948, cat. no.8;

Hampstead, The Home of Wilfrid A. Evill, Contemporary Art Society, Catalogue of the Greater Portion of a Collection of Modern English Paintings, Water Colours, Drawings and Sculpture Belonging to W. A. Evill, March 1955, cat. no.4 (as Workers in the House);

London, Tate Galley, Stanley Spencer: a Retrospective Exhibition, 3rd November - 18th December 1955, cat. no.33, illustrated on the cover;

London, The Home of Wilfrid A. Evill, Contemporary Art Society, Pictures, Drawings, Water Colours and Sculpture, April - May 1961, (part III- section 1) cat. no.28 (as Workers in the House);

Brighton, Brighton Art Gallery, The Wilfrid Evill Memorial Exhibition, June - August 1965, cat. no.201, illustrated on the cover;

Brighton, Brighton Art Gallery, Stanley Spencer 1891-1959, 24th July - 22nd August 1976, cat. no.25, with Arts Council Tour to Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, Galsgow, Leeds City Art Gallery, Leeds, and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge;

London, Hayward Gallery, Thirties: British Art & Design Before the War, 25th October 1979 - 13th January 1980, cat. no.6.5, illustrated;

London, Royal Academy, Stanley Spencer RA, 20th September - 14th December 1980, cat. no.156, illustrated p.138;

New Haven, Yale Centre for British Art, Stanley Spencer: a Modern Visionary, 21st January - 22nd March 1981, cat. no.35;

New York, CDS Gallery, Stanley Spencer, 20th April - 28th May 1983, cat. no.16;

Washington DC, Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Stanley Spencer: An English Vision, 9th October 1997 - 11th January 1998, cat. no.22, illustrated, with tour to Centro Cultural, Mexico City, and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor.


113 by 91.5cm.; 44½ by 36in.


Royal Academy Illustrated, 1935, illustrated p.32;

The Studio, issue no.119, 1940, illustrated p.35;

Elizabeth Rothenstein, Stanley Spencer, Phaidon Press, Oxford and London, 1945, illustrated pl.45;

Eric Newton, Stanley Spencer,  Phaidon Press, Oxford and London, 1947, illustrated pl.19;

Bernard Denvir, 'Art Collectors and their Collections: 2. W.A.Evill',The Studio, vol. 137 no.671, February 1949, p.44;

Maurice Collis, Stanley Spencer, Harvill Press, London, 1962, pp.114, 118;

Louise Collis, A Private View of Stanley Spencer,  Heinemann, London, 1972, p.68;

William Feaver, Observer Magazine, 'Little Man Out,' 12th December 1976, illustrated p.48;

John Rothenstein, Modern English Painters: Lewis to Moore, MacDonald and Jane's, London, 1976, p.188;

Duncan Robinson, Stanley Spencer: Visions from a Berkshire Village, Phaidon Press, Oxford, 1979, p.42, illustrated pl.34;

John Rothenstein (ed.), Stanley Spencer, The Man: Correspondence and Reminiscences, Paul Elek, London,1979, p.97;

Duncan Robinson, Stanley Spencer, Phaidon Press, London, 1990, pp.53, 68, illustrated pl.53;

Kenneth Pople, Stanley Spencer; A Biography, Collins, London, 1991 pp.315-18, 338-9, 344, 375, 389, 507, illustrated p.317;

Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer: A Complete Catalogue of Paintings, Phaidon, London, 1992, cat. no.168, illustrated p.118.


Commissioned by Mr Boot, 1935, but not accepted

Acquired from the Artist (via Arthur Tooth & Sons, London) by Wilfrid A. Evill in 1937 for £250.0.0, by whom bequeathed to Honor Frost in 1963

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.