Unity Spencer 'Lucky to Be An Artist' - Henley Literary Festival

If you get a chance to visit the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, you’ll be able to peer into the world of an artist with a unique vision. In many ways a difficult talent to place among his contemporaries, Spencer’s original take on the great themes of war, love and faith; incorporating them into his hometown world of Cookham, is as striking today as when it was painted. Part Giotto, part Modernist, Spencer’s work has a timeless and yet familiar quality, through a wide range of subjects.

He was a war artist who humanely expressed conflict; most notably at the Sandham Memorial Chapel commemorating WW1. From his early visualisations of religious subjects, through his many portraits and self-portraits, there is a clear element of humour present. It was a feature of his personality shared by his daughter Unity, very much on display at The Henley Literary Festival as she reminisced about her father. Unity Spencer was on stage with art historian Carolyn Leder, to discuss her book “Lucky to be an Artist” in an event hosted by Mike Read.

Unity treated her audience to many anecdotes about her parent’s complicated relationship; particularly in relation to their disastrous split. She appeared to have no illusions about her father’s infidelities and had only so much to say about his famous lover and muse. Instead, she talked about her childhood and her mother Hilda (herself a considerably talented artist with whom Stanley studied at the Slade). At one point, she revealed the doll she held in her father’s 1937 painting “Hilda, Unity and Dolls” to the delight of all assembled.

A striking feature of Unity Spencer was her self-effacing nature. This was in contrast to Carolyn Leder, who although encyclopaedic in her knowledge of Spencer and his life, tended to dominate proceedings. When the subject of religious faith came up in the conversation, Spencer mentioned her Quakerism and her quiet dignity stood out.

All in all, this event was an interesting look at the life of a famous artistic family. It was also a chance to learn more about a great artist and his motivations. As an additional anecdote, I found Mike Read’s comment about ‘Controversy being in the eye of the beholder’ revealing. This from the man who set the ban in motion of ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and did the UKIP song.

(c) Gideon Hall 2015


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