Like many artists of this period, Spencer was taught, and was highly influenced, by Henry Tonks, the surgeon turned artist, who depicted facially-disfigured soldiers of the First World War waiting to undergo reconstructive surgery. 

The present work, by British artist Gilbert Spencer, echoes a significant post-War sensibility towards the increasing return to nature as a source of spiritual clarity and strength.[1] Unlike the traditionally popular settings of landscaped gardens or cultivated woodland, Spencer’s untamed and naturalistic wooded landscape celebrates the disobedient overgrowth of rural England. A close observer of rural life, Spencer was known to spend hours admiring the rural landscape in which he frequently immersed himself. 

Art Historian Duncan Robinson notes the ‘familiar themes of retreat into the landscape and communion with nature’ which were becoming increasingly prolific within the British arts and particularly resonated with Spencer himself.[2] Although he explored a variety of different painted subjects in both watercolour and oils, Spencer became primarily a landscape painter, focusing on the traditional British countryside of Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Dorset and the Lake District.[3]

This painting is thought to depict the rural countryside of Oxfordshire, where Spencer spent much of his time admiring the...

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The present work, by British artist Gilbert Spencer, echoes a significant post-War sensibility towards the increasing return to nature as a source of spiritual clarity and strength.[1] Unlike the traditionally popular settings of landscaped gardens or cultivated woodland, Spencer’s untamed and naturalistic wooded landscape celebrates the disobedient overgrowth of rural England. A close observer of rural life, Spencer was known to spend hours admiring the rural landscape in which he frequently immersed himself. 

Art Historian Duncan Robinson notes the ‘familiar themes of retreat into the landscape and communion with nature’ which were becoming increasingly prolific within the British arts and particularly resonated with Spencer himself.[2] Although he explored a variety of different painted subjects in both watercolour and oils, Spencer became primarily a landscape painter, focusing on the traditional British countryside of Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Dorset and the Lake District.[3]

This painting is thought to depict the rural countryside of Oxfordshire, where Spencer spent much of his time admiring the beautiful British landscape. Whilst his style is undeniably idiosyncratic, the influence of his brother, Sir Stanley Spencer, CBE RA, is here evident. The grass and branches, foregrounded in Spencer’s characteristic bold lines, allude to the careful implementation of contrasting colours and textures found in Stanley Spencer’s landscape works. Spencer’s ability to create a balanced arrangement with wild, unmanicured vegetation demonstrates his superb skills in composition and linear control.

Spencer was born at Cookham in Berkshire and was the youngest of eleven children of William Spencer, an organist and music teacher, and Anna Caroline Slack. Spencer attended the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts and the Royal College of Art, before enrolling at the Slade School. Like many artists of this period, Spencer was taught, and was highly influenced, by Henry Tonks, the surgeon turned artist, who depicted facially-disfigured soldiers of the First World War waiting to undergo reconstructive surgery. 

At the Slade, Spencer won the life-drawing prize in 1914 and came second in the summer competition with his mural titled The Seven Ages of Man [Hamilton Art Gallery, Canada]. For the duration of the First World War he was part of the Royal Army Medical Corps and was sent to Macedonia. Returning to the Slade in 1918, he met Hilda Carline the following year, who would become his brother’s wife, and her brother Sydney, who invited Spencer to join the teaching staff at Oxford.

Spencer joined the New English Art Club in 1919 and through his first solo exhibition, at the Goupil Gallery in London in 1923, he became well-acquainted with members of the Bloomsbury Group. In 1930 he became a tutor at the Royal College of Art on William Rothenstein’s recommendation and married Ursula Bradshaw. This was also the year that he painted his best-known work, an almost two-metre wide canvas titled A Cotswold Farm, in the Tate collection. 

In 1934, Spencer was commissioned to paint a set of murals for Balliol College, Oxford which took him two years to complete. He then moved with his family to Tree Cottage in Upper Basildon, Berkshire and spent the summer holidays away from the Royal College of Art in their Dorset farmhouse. Between 1948 and 1950, he was the head of department of painting and drawing at the Glasgow School of Art and in 1950 was elected an associate of the Royal Academy. The year that he was made a Royal Academician, in 1959, both his wife and his brother Stanley tragically died.

Retrospective exhibitions of Spencer’s work took place in 1964 at Reading and 1974 at the Fine Art Society in London. In 1970, at the age of seventy-eight, Gilbert Spencer moved to a farm cottage in Walsham-le-Willows in Suffolk where he spent the remainder of his life. Spencer’s work is in several public collections including the Tate, Victoria and Albert Museum, Imperial War Museum, Manchester City Galleries, Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield and Belfast City Art Gallery.

[1] D. Robinson, Stanley Spencer (London, Phaidon Press: 1994) p.49.

[2] D. Robinson, Stanley Spencer (London, Phaidon Press: 1994) p.49.

[3] © 2020 Estate of Gilbert Spencer

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500 Years of British Art