Thursday, September 16, 2021

My hero / Stanley Spencer by Howard Jacobson

Stanley Spencer . . . 'In painting after painting he made a paradise of Cookham, which in reality is no such thing.'
Photograph: John Pratt


My hero: 

Stanley Spencer

 by Howard Jacobson

Saturday 16 October 2010


loved Stanley Spencer's work from the moment I saw two nude studies of himself and his second wife, Patricia Preece, on show next to a number of more familiar Lucian Freuds. Freud had obviously learnt from Spencer, but he is too aloof and knowing ever to make you feel you are seeing a woman's body with the blazing eyes of a lover, as Spencer does. Spencer stares at the woman's flesh – "like an ant crawling over her body", in his own words – as flesh has never been stared at before.

Thereafter I made regular pilgrimages to Cookham, the Berkshire village where Spencer was born, where there's a gallery devoted to his work, and where much of what he painted – meadows, moors, magnolia trees, graves and gardens, though not Preece – can still be found. In painting after painting he made a paradise of Cookham, which in reality is no such thing; but there's the greatness of art for you. When the dead awake in his wonderful The Resurrection, Cookham it is in the local graveyard, and the new life they wake to is bathed with the light of the absolutely everyday. Heaven for Spencer is right here. He could be a pain in the neck about the wonder of it all. "Painting is my way of saying 'Ta!' to God," he once declared. Not that he had much to say "Ta!" to God for. Preece, for whom he left his first wife, did not requite his passion. That is what those double nude studies record, an eroticism felt by only one party, the unbearable desirability of a woman who does not desire you, the overwhelming sensuality of her nakedness, and the painter – a fool to his obsession – trapped in an eternity of looking.

His genius is of a peculiarly English type – provincial in the best sense, rooted in a particular place, queerly innocent, mystical and yet in love with what's before his eyes, over-sexed and yet somehow chaste, art-religious. Like Blake and D H Lawrence, he was an artist who new-created all he saw.


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002 My hero / Harley Granville-Barker by Richard Eyre
003 My hero / Edward Goldsmith by Zac Goldsmith
004 My hero / Fridtjof Nansen by Sara Wheeler 
005 My hero / Mother Mercedes Lawler IBVM by Antonia Fraser

007 My hero / Ernest Shepard by Richard Holmes
008 My hero / JG Ballard by Will Self
009 My hero / Alan Ross by William Boyd
010 My hero / Ben the labrador by John Banville

011 My hero / Vicent van Gogh by Margaret Drabble
012 My hero / Franz Marek by Eric Hobsbawm


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018 My hero / Francisco Goya by Diana Athill
019 My hero / Max Stafford-Clark by Sebastian Barry
020 My hero / Arthur Holmes by Richard Fortey

036 My hero / Robert Lowell by Jonathan Raban
037 My hero / Beryl Bainbridge by Michael Holroyd
038 My hero / Charles Schulz by Jenny Colgan
039 My hero / Oliver Knussen by Adam Foulds
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041 My hero / David Lynch by Paul Murray
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043 My hero / Anne Lister by Emma Donoghue
044 My hero / Jane Helen Harrinson by Mary Beard
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047 My hero / Christopher Marlowe by Val McDermid
048 My hero / Gwen John by Anne Enright
049 My hero / Michael Mayne by Susan Hill
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051 My hero / William Beveridge by Will Hutton
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053 My hero / Alexander Pushkin by Elaine Feinstein
058 My hero / Cy Twombly by Edmund de Waal

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087 My hero / Alberto Moravia by John Burnside
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097 Lucian Freud by Esi Edugyan
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190 My hero / Iris Murdoch by Charlotte Mendelson
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