Chrissy Rosenthal, co-lead in this project, introduces the Stanley Spencer Gallery.
The SSG is a small but beautifully formed art gallery housed in a converted Wesleyan chapel in Cookham, Berkshire. That statement doesn’t do justice to the importance of this vital institution devoted as it is to one of Britain’s foremost artists.
Sir Stanley Spencer RA (1891 -1959) was the YBA of the first half of the 20th century – a very individual visionary artist with a wide oeuvre of work. He was prolific – creating over 450 oils and thousands of delicate and beautifully crafted and observed drawings. For Spencer each creation contained elements of himself, and his desire to join together the secular and the divine – what he called his ‘up there and down here’ feelings. A graduate of the Slade School of Art he was the stand out pupil of his year group, which included such luminaries as Christopher Nevinson, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, David Bomberg and Dora Carrington. He had the distinction of being an official war artist for both world wars.
He became an early victim of the celebrity culture because of his honestly felt and naive attitude to the women in his life – married to Hilda, the mother of his two children, but infatuated by the lesbian Patricia. Following a divorce he married Patricia, only to be left virtually destitute and impoverished financially after he professed to wanting both women in his life, and being labelled as the man who wanted two wives. The Sunday Express of 1937 was outraged and public opinion scandalised.
He was however much loved, if not always understood, by the community of his native Cookham and the Gallery was opened just three years after his death as a place not only to house a collection of his work, but as a lasting memorial to their local genius. It is now, 50 years on, an institution of national importance as a centre for Spencer studies, and a destination for international art lovers. A look in the visitors book will show scholars and enthusiasts from around the globe.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about this institution, which on average welcomes more than 15,000 visitors a year, is that it is run totally by volunteers. Actually that is not quite true – a cleaner is paid to come in once a week. Today a team of about 50 do everything from organising exhibitions of loan paintings from other galleries and private owners, commissioning the printing of postcards and framed prints, collate archives, host conferences and lectures, run education and access programmes as well as maintain the building, plant and security. All this is done on a self financing model – with only occasional and very recent assistance from outside bodies. In 2006 Heritage Lottery Funding enabled a complete overhaul of the building and the old chapel became a beautiful 21st century gallery space. One special exhibition was assisted with grant money from the Foyle Foundation and recently small grants have allowed two important education projects to employ specialist practitioners to involve local school groups.
Chrissy’s next post introduces the Gallery’s iMuse project.