My hero Stanley Spencer

By Howard Jacobson

I loved Stanley Spencer's work from the moment I saw two nude studies of himself and his second wife, Patricia Preece, on show next to a number of more familiar Lucian Freuds. Freud had obviously learnt from Spencer, but he is too aloof and knowing ever to make you feel you are seeing a woman's body with the blazing eyes of a lover, as Spencer does. Spencer stares at the woman's flesh – "like an ant crawling over her body", in his own words – as flesh has never been stared at before.

Thereafter I made regular pilgrimages to Cookham, the Berkshire village where Spencer was born, where there's a gallery devoted to his work, and where much of what he painted – meadows, moors, magnolia trees, graves and gardens, though not Preece – can still be found. In painting after painting he made a paradise of Cookham, which in reality is no such thing; but there's the greatness of art for you. When the dead awake in his wonderful The Resurrection, Cookham it is in the local graveyard, and the new life they wake to is bathed with the light of the absolutely everyday. Heaven for Spencer is right here. He could be a pain in the neck about the wonder of it all. "Painting is my way of saying 'Ta!' to God," he once declared. Not that he had much to say "Ta!" to God for. Preece, for whom he left his first wife, did not requite his passion. That is what those double nude studies record, an eroticism felt by only one party, the unbearable desirability of a woman who does not desire you, the overwhelming sensuality of her nakedness, and the painter – a fool to his obsession – trapped in an eternity of looking.

His genius is of a peculiarly English type – provincial in the best sense, rooted in a particular place, queerly innocent, mystical and yet in love with what's before his eyes, over-sexed and yet somehow chaste, art-religious. Like Blake and D H Lawrence, he was an artist who new-created all he saw.


Howard Jacobson

The GuardianTramp

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