Donation of Five Works by Stanley Spencer to the Fitzwilliam Museum

1. Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)
John Donne Arriving in Heaven, 1911
Oil on canvas - 37 x 40.5 cm
Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam Museum
Photo : DACS, London

10/1/14 - Acquisition - Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum - The English countryside takes on an air of Paradise, at least as seen through the eyes of Stanley Spencer in an early work showing the poet and preacher John Donne Arriving in Heaven (ill. 1). He walks past men praying, their hands joined together and their eyes raised in various directions, expressing the universal nature of heaven, set in a landscape which resembles the outskirts of Cookham where the artist grew up ; in fact, he painted several views of the surroundings there. As a young man, Spencer, who owned Donne’s Sermons, a gift from Gwen and Jacques Raverat, produced this painting in 1911, when he was still at the Slade School of Art. He presented it in the second, post-Impressionist exhibition of 1912 at the Grafton Galleries, next to works by Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso as well as some young British painters seen as the heirs of the French movement : Bernard Adney, Vanessa Bell, Frederick and Jessie Erchells, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry... A drawing which can be directly linked to this painting came up for auction at Sotheby’s on 11 November 2009 in London. This scene of a religious event in a rural English setting can be found in other works executed before the war, such as Zacharias and Elizabeth (London Tate Gallery).
This canvas is part of an ensemble of five works by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) which were donated (through acceptance in lieu) and joined the collections at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge last November. They belonged to Gwen Raverat, a wood engraver and wife of the painter Jacques Raverat, granddaughter of Charles Darwin. The works were passed on to their daughter, Sophie Gurney who died in 2011, before joining the museum. Since their total value is higher than the tax owed by the heirs, contributions were provided by the Art Fund, the V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum to round out the price.

2. Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)
Scrubbing Clothes, 1919
Oil on wood - 18 x 23 cm
Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam Museum
Photo : DACS, London

3. Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)
Making a Red Cross, 1919
Oil on wood - 17 x 21.5 cm
Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam Museum
Photo : DACS, London

Far from Paradise, two oil studies (ill. 2 and 3) bear witness to WWI in which the artist served in the medical corps : Scrubbing Clothes and Making a Red Cross. They were produced in 1919 after Spencer returned from the front. The Ministry of Information asked him to produce actual paintings but he used these studies rather for inspiration in decorating the commemorative chapel at Sandham in which he painted frescoes narrating the daily lives of the soldiers. He did not however repeat these two compositions which describe men in his unit - the Field Ambulance Unit - washing their clothes in the Struma river or placing stones and broken tiles to form a cross, a reconnaissance signal for the air force.

4. Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).
Builders of the Tower of Babel, 1933
Pencil and oil on paper - 30.5 x 53 cm
Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam Museum
Photo : DACS, London

5. Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)
Making Columns for the Tower of Babel, 1933
Oil on canvas - 54 x 50 cm.
Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam Museum,
Photo : DACS, London

Finally, in 1932, Gwen Raverat suggested to Spencer that he paint semi-circular panels to place over the doors in the reading room of the new library at Cambridge University. Unfortunately, there was not enough money and the commission was cancelled. The only remaining elements of this unfunished project are the studies representing the Tower of Babel (ill. 4 and 5) : one shows a complex composition, illustrating men who use different architectures, not languages - Gothic porches and Greek columns, stones and bricks ; the second one is a detail of the first : it repeats and develops the scene on the right, representing a worker busy on a column.
These five works are a welcome addition to the painting collection at the Fitzwilliam which already holds four drawings and eight paintings by Spencer, among which famous canvases such as Love among the Nations (1935-36), Self-portrait with Patricia Preece (1937) and Love on the Moor (1949-1954).

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Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, vendredi 10 janvier 2014

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