Angels and Dirt

Robert Dingley

‘One can find,’ wrote Stanley Spencer, ‘interesting and very nice things in dustbins and incinerators.’ Ferreting about among rubbish heaps struck him as ‘a distinctly entertaining and elevating pastime’ and the beads, scraps of china and old books he disinterred ‘really satisfied my highest thoughts’. Sustenance of a less elevated kind was provided by the discovery, in an incinerator, of ‘a whole bevy of unopened tins of bully beef in good condition’ on which the artist feasted for a fortnight.

Spencer’s enthusiasm for garbage is not unique in English art. According to Ruskin, Turner ‘not only could endure, but enjoyed and looked for litter, like Covent Garden wreck after the market’. His pictures are ‘often full of it, from side to side’ and he ‘delights in shingle, débris, and heaps of fallen stones’. That the stones are fallen suggests the source of Turner’s interest. Litter and debris are for him emblems of the fallacy of hope, intimations of mortality. Rubbish attracts him because it is the favour to which we must all come, the condition to which time will reduce even our most monumental achievements. As the sun sinks on Carthage, that proud city seems already to be dissolving into what it must finally become: a pile of discarded rubble.

For Spencer, on the other hand, junk is instinct with the vitality of its former owners, a vital clue in the work of creative detection. ‘What is rubbish to some people is not rubbish to me.’ he wrote, for ‘these things were bits of the lives of people to whom they belonged and express their characters ... I resurrect the teapot, and the empty jam tin, and the cabbage stalks.’

The word ‘resurrect’ is central. Spencer is an eschatological painter, but one who, as his brother pointed out, has ‘avoided the Last Judgment’. In his 1913 ‘Resurrection’ diptych, the torments of Hell have been eradicated, and the only visible difference between the good and the bad is that the bad have to clamber awkwardly from their graves while the virtuous shoot out like space-rockets. Turner’s apocalyptic imagination concerns itself with the catastrophic end of all things: his ‘Angel Standing in the Sun’ emanates rays of fierce light that literally melt the evanescent human figures on the periphery. Painting ‘Angels of the Apocalypse’ in 1949, Spencer jettisoned their retributive role. His angels are plump aerial Cookhamites, and the vials they empty out over the arable fields appear to contain seed, not wrath. When Turner represented an avalanche in the Grisons, he painted a sublime cataract of snow and rock pulverising a wooden cottage: man and his works are impotent before the spectacular forces of Nature. Spencer, too, painted an ‘Avalanche’ (1935), but in his picture the human figures dwarf the landscape. The avalanche itself is already over and the fallen rock has stopped short of a mountain road and a wayside cross. People toiling up the slope (a small boy with a basket of loaves, women in national costume) don’t even bother to glance at the debris.

Spencer’s avoidance of the Last Judgment, and even of the judgmental aspects of Nature, can be traced, in large part at least, to the absence from his imaginative outlook of any real sense of evil. Only in the very late Aldenham ‘Crucifixion’ (1958), where the impenitent thief wrenches himself forward to deride Christ and the leering journeyman who nails Him to the Cross is actually lifted off the ground by the force of his hammer-blows, does Spencer come to grips with mankind’s limitless capacity for hatred and cruelty. For most of his life, however, he endorsed the compassionate universalism of the 1913 ‘Resurrection’. This reluctance to make any real distinction between good and evil, coupled with the cognate refusal to regard anything as rubbish, presents problems not only for the moralist but for the painter. After all, if everything and everybody is equally valuable, why subordinate one object or figure to another? Why select for pictorial treatment one subject in preference to the infinity of alternatives? One can, of course, paint vast canvasses and one can crowd them with figures and incidents: but, however vast and however crowded, they can only imply and never actually represent a vision comprehending the harmony of all things. And of course, the more vast and the more crowded the pictures become, the more risk there is that the priceless autonomy of each detail will be submerged.

The artist is forced, therefore, to compromise with the limitations of art. Spencer accepted those limitations grudgingly, and revenged himself by exposing them to his audience. In a painting of 1935, the naked Patricia Preece has been positively crammed into the picture-space, bent almost double in a strenuous effort to fit her whole body onto the canvas. Even so, a good deal of her has had to be omitted. The painting, among other things, ironically apologises for painting’s inadequacy.

Again, in his study for ‘Christ Overturning the Money Changers’ Tables’ (1921), Spencer represents a couple of usurers whose desk has just been pushed over, one clinging dazedly to the edge of the table and the other scrabbling on the floor to retrieve the scattered coins. In the finished picture this second usurer is represented only by the curve of his spine. His existence in the painting has now been reduced to a vestigial bump, incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t previously inspected the study, and denied identity by the edge of the canvas.

Spencer’s acute consciousness of art’s incapacity for more than partial representation is closely related to his preoccupation with walls and hedges and fences. ‘Cottage Garden’, painted in 1939, in fact shows a wall with a garden behind it, while ‘Landscape in North Wales’ (1938) is dominated by the wooden fence in the foreground. Each of the ‘Gardens in the Pound, Cookham’ (1936) is the realisation of its owner’s private fancy, and each is scrupulously defended from adjacent gardens by an iron railing. The function of the dividing wall in ‘The Boatbuilder’s Yard, Cookham’ (1936) is duplicated by a fish-tank, jealously insulating its aquatic occupants from contact with the world outside their narrowly defined territory. For Spencer, such barriers are profoundly ambivalent signs. Inasmuch as they defend the integrity of their inhabitants, walls and fences provide an essential service: but because they also tend to exclude whatever is beyond them, they can with fatal ease become the agents of solitary confinement. It is, of course, in the grave that womb-like protectiveness and claustrophobic incarceration are most drastically united, and that is why Spencer so repeatedly paints the Resurrection. Only on the Last Day when the dead arise from their tombs and the dustmen struggle free from their dustbins, will the ideal co-existence of personal autonomy and universal harmony cease to be an unresolved paradox and become a joyous reality.

Eschatology, however, provides only a conceptual answer to the problem of boundaries and divisions. The painter (even the painter of the Resurrection) must still resign himself to the confinement of the work of art, to its inability to incorporate what is going on outside itself. In the foreground of ‘The Resurrection, Port Glasgow’ (1947-56;), an old man has been bisected by the cutting edge of the canvas. He is left, Spencer commented sympathetically, ‘without a world of his own’. Half of his body has been resurrected by art, but the other half has been consigned to oblivion by art’s limitations.

From most of the completed paintings of ‘Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta’ (1953-56) Christ himself has absconded. We scour the pictures in vain, for the Messiah lacks even the minuscule presence of Bruegel’s Icarus. If the paintings had been left untitled, we need never have suspected Christ’s participation at all, but as it is we are cunningly encouraged to extend our inquiries beyond the scenes Spencer has represented, to project his pictures forward or sideways into our own space so that they will include their nominal protagonist.

Most painters readily accommodate themselves to the confined, selective nature of painting precisely because it enables them to construct a coherent order out of the clamorous infinitude of available data. Spencer’s ‘Gardens in the Pound’, with its strongly particularised patterns defensively cordoned off from one another, is superficially reminiscent of those contemporary paintings by Kandinsky which divided the canvas into discrete symmetrical units, each enclosing some sharply characterised and quite unique zoomorph or arabesque. Kandinsky’s intention is, of course, to reconcile formal diversity with a decorous aesthetic harmony, to create a self-sufficient whole. Appropriately enough, one of his paintings from this period, ‘Fifteen’, was selected by the Gobelins factory as the design for a rug.

Kandinsky’s introspective patterns exclude the encroachment of a world outside themselves which might upset their delicate balance. Spencer, on the other hand, is for ever peering beyond the picture-space, as absorbed by what has been left out as by what he has managed to crowd in. His paintings, indeed, persistently threaten to break their own bounds and have to be forcibly restrained, as the woman in ‘Cows at Cookham’ (1936) forcibly restrains two children who are trying to crawl out of the picture. The cottage in ‘The Betrayal’ (1923) bulges out in an attempt to make itself three-dimensional, and the foreground of ‘Swan Upping at Cookham’ (1915-19) is seen as though in a convex mirror or through a wide-angle lens – precariously compressed into the rectangular space that the picture-frame encloses.

Spencer’s impatience with formal restraint is intimately related to, indeed is largely occasioned by, his passion for detail. Unprepared to confess the dispensability of any person or object, the business of discrimination and exclusion was alien to his sensibility, and he continually chafed at it. ‘John Donne Arriving in Heaven’ (1911) sees four people ‘praying in different directions’. When Heaven is all around, there is no single direction in which to turn, no focal point on which to concentrate. If a world resides in one grain of sand it must also reside in every grain, and there is consequently no reason why one grain should be preferred to another. The dynamic tensions of Spencer’s art are the result of his unremitting awareness that art is, by its very nature, a limiting activity; that, bounded in space, a painting always excludes more than it can contain. ‘I am,’ he once wrote, ‘on the side of the angels and dirt.’ But that means that he is on no side at all, or rather, on all sides at once.

Being on all sides at once, Spencer was naturally open to stylistic influence from the art of any age. He looted other painters with the same magpie voracity that characterised his forays among the rubbish-heaps, and extended Fuseli’s maxim on Blake (‘damned good to steal from’) to cover the whole range of Western art. Consequently, his paintings Constitute an irresistible temptation to the art historian, and Andrew Causey and Keith Bell, in the opulent and informative catalogue that accompanies the current exhibition at Burlington House, set to with a vengeance, turning up a dazzling hoard of plunder from sources as diverse as Giotto and Gainsborough. They perform their necessary task with scholarship and discrimination, but it’s an exercise from which Spencer’s irreducible idiosyncrasy emerges quite unscathed. For all the allusions and reminiscences, his perception of the material world remains essentially his own, a mode of seeing akin to that detected by Charles Lamb in the comic actor Joseph Munden: ‘A tub of butter, contemplated by him, amounts to a Platonic idea. He understands a leg of mutton in its quiddity. He stands wondering, amid the commonplace materials of life, like primaeval man with the sun and stars about him.’