Gilbert Spencer

Self-Portrait 1928 Gilbert Spencer 1892-1979 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1975

Gilbert Spencer RA (1892 – 1979) was born at Cookham, Berkshire, on 4th August 1892, thirteen months after his more famous brother Stanley, Gilbert Spencer was the eighth son and youngest of the eleven children of William Spencer, organist and music teacher, and his wife, Anna Caroline Slack. The family had little spare money and the formal education of their children was sketchy, but what they lacked in schooling was made up for by the talk they heard between their elders at mealtimes. His formative influences were his musical family (he too, played the piano and composed) , a childhood spent in observation of nature, the idiosyncrasies of late Victorian village life, making wooden models of farm carts, and his close relationship with the genius of his older brother Stanley.

Sashes Meadow, Cookham 1914-19 Gilbert Spencer

Gilbert first studied at the Ruskin School in Maidenhead then at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in 1911 before entering the Slade School of Fine Art. Gilbert followed Stanley to the Slade in 1913, remaining until 1915. At the Slade, Gilbert came under the powerful influence of Henry Tonks, an influence which remained with him to the end of his life. He won the coveted life drawing prize in 1914 and was runner-up for the summer competition prize, with a huge mural, The Seven Ages of Man (Art Gallery of Hamilton, Canada).

Spencer commented: In my early days I even attempted some religious paintings, but soon abandoned that, realising that I could get along better in other ways; though not before my brother had observed, after seeing my painting of the crucifixion, in which I had painted father as a model, “I don’t know what it is, but when G paints Pa his pictures seem to be alright. “

During the First World War, after pacifist misgivings on the part of both themselves and their mother, both Stanley and Gilbert served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, initially at the Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol. Gilbert was then drafted to the Macedonian front, serving in Salonika and later transferred to serve on hospital ships in the Mediterranean, and then to North Africa for the duration of the war. He returned to full-time studies at The Slade after the war (1919–20). Through fellow student Hilda Carline he became part of a circle of artists centred at her home in Downshire Hill, Hampstead and began to enjoy professional success.

Spencer painted portraits, genre scenes and murals but was primarily a landscape painter, focusing his attention on vistas of Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Dorset, and the Lake District. It was in 1920 that Spencer stayed with the painter Henry Lamb at Stourpaine in Dorset, and he returned there often.

Landscape in Dorset. Melbury Beacon – located near Shaftesbury, Dorset. Twyford, Dorset. Twyford Village. View of Egdon Heath from the Crest of Clouds Hill, Looking North.

Spencer became a member of the New English Art Club in 1919. That year, he met Hilda Carline, his brother’s future wife, and her brother Sydney Carline. When he became Ruskin Master in 1922, Sydney Carline asked Spencer to join his staff at the University of Oxford. Lady Ottoline Morrell, with whom Spencer was friendly since before the war found him a room in the village of Garsington near Oxford. She allowed him easy access to her own house, Garsington Manor, which was frequented by many illustrious guests including the Bloomsbury set. While living there, Spencer painted Trees at Garsington (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), Garsington Roofs and The Sheep Fold at Upper Farm.

Cotswold Meadows by Gilbert Spencer Date painted 1920–1930

In 1923 Spencer had his first solo exhibition at the Goupil Gallery, London. He also exhibited at the RA, he was elected Associate of the Royal Academician in 1960, NEAC, (of which he was a member), Leicester Galleries, RSA, Redfern Gallery, and many other venues.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Ursula Spencer. Burdens Farm with Melbury Beacon. The Artists Garden, Burdens Farmhouse..

Spencer married former pupil Margaret Ursula Bradshaw (1898–1959) on 31 December 1930 at Holy Trinity Church, South Kensington, London. The artist John Nash (brother of Paul Nash) was his best man. The couple lived at Burdens Farmhouse, near Compton Abbas, Dorset between 1931 and 1936. Spencer commented, ‘We loved the place on sight, and took it from the farmer, Ivor Day for 10 shillings a week, plus rates’

The Spencer’s daughter Gillian was born on 21 October 1936. During the late 1930s, after the move to Tree Cottage, Upper Basildon, Berkshire he began to re-introduce people into his paintings once more, focusing on small, intimate pictures of figures caught unaware, such as his Going to Market, and The Coalman. They lived at Tree Cottage from 1936–70.

A Cotswold Farm 1930-1.

Stanley Spencer, letter to Gilbert dated 13 February, 1932
Dear Gil, I feel obliged to write, really in order to raise my own status; to lift me from
the ‘gutter’ of ignorance and shame where —last night—in Annie Slack’s —I was ‘brother of’: I was brother of ‘ the painter of the farm picture Mr Shepherd said the Times and Morning Post are full of it…….Cookham rings with your fame; you o’er stride the place like a Colossus and I peer about to find myself a miserable grave with my coat collar turned up…

From 1934–6 he created a series of murals depicting the Foundation Legend of Balliol College for Holywell Manor, Oxford.

From 1932 to 1948 Spencer was Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art in London. When in WW2 the RCA was evacuated to Ambleside the Imperial War Museum commissioned a number of pieces of work from him. The first commission in 1941 was of Troops in the Countryside followed by a portrait of John German. Gilbert served enthusiastically in the Home Guard first in Basildon and then in Ambleside as a subsection leader.

Grasmere. Grasmere Home Guard 1943. Troops in the Countryside (3rd version).

Spencer was also Head of the Department of Painting at Glasgow School of Art, 1948–50 and, from 1950 to 1957, was Head of Painting at Camberwell School of Arts & Crafts under the Principal Leonard Daniels, serving meanwhile as an Official War Artist, 1940-3.

The Football Match 1950. An Artist’s Progress 1959.

Gilbert Spencer painted The progress of Husbandry when he was in his seventies.  He illustrates the history of farming, or ‘husbandry’, from an ancient Britain ‘scratching the earth’ to the introduction of the tractor. At the centre, two horses are lead away from a corn binder for the last time. The painting was commissioned to advertise a tractor for Massey-Fergusson.

He wrote an autobiography ‘Memoirs of a Painter’ in 1974 in which he stated, ‘Country sounds going on all around me put me in a happy mood and got me into my pictures.’

Landscape with Cows. The Converted Poacher. The Master Farmer.

Spencer was widely exhibited during his lifetime and examples of his work are held in major public and private collections, including the Tate Gallery and the Royal Academy.

Spencer died at Lynderswood Court, Black Notley, Braintree, Essex, on 14 January 1979.

Summer Evening, Hook End Farm; Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives.

There is a wealth of information re Stanley Spencer, indeed Gilbert wrote a book about his brother. There is a lot less info’ re Gilbert so Wikipedia has provided a fair amount of the text here. See also the Royal College of Art at Ambleside…..

Graham Bennison January 2022.

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