Gilbert Spencer: The Life and Work of a Very English Artist by Paul Gough (ed) - review by Peyton Skipwith

Peyton Skipwith

Bristling with Rage

Gilbert Spencer: The Life and Work of a Very English Artist


Yale University Press 400pp £30

I knew Gilbert Spencer during the last decade of his life and had the pleasure (mixed with some pain) of curating his only London retrospective, at The Fine Art Society in Bond Street, five years before he died in 1979. I can’t say I embarked on it in all innocence, as I was well aware that the Spencers as a family were mercurial and unpredictable. Gilbert had taught my daughters to play happy families and, according to his rules, if you did not say ‘thank you’ on gaining a card, you had to give it back. I was equally aware of his touchiness, especially with regard to his brother Stanley. Occasionally, he would draw himself up to his full height and say, ‘Of course, I was more of a man than Stanley.’ I was – and still am – an admirer of the work of both brothers, and in my bachelor days had the privilege of owning Stanley’s Leg of Mutton Nude and Gilbert’s The Crucifixion, both now in Tate Britain.

Trouble struck when plans for the exhibition were far advanced and loans had already been arranged. The Daily Telegraph made the mistake of omitting the word ‘London’ when describing the exhibition as Gilbert’s first retrospective. Gilbert rang me up to say the article was an insult to his friends in Reading, where he had been honoured with a retrospective ten years previously. He announced that he was making the New Grafton Gallery his agent and that we would have to pay them a commission on sales of the works he was contributing. I went for a walk through Hyde Park and resolved that, since I had embarked on the project aware that the Spencers were difficult, there was no point feeling aggrieved when Gilbert behaved true to form.

In this new biography, Paul Gough sets Gilbert’s quirks in the context of his extraordinary family circle. The Spencers were both practical – Pa Spencer found patrons to sponsor Stanley’s education while playing the organ in the parish church – and mystical, believing that Christ had preached in Cookham’s meadows.

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