Zwemmer Gallery, London
Sir Michael Culme-Seymour, by 1950
His sale, Sotheby's London, 2nd May 1990, lot 119; Private collection
On paper, squared for transfer
Executed in 1935.
We are grateful to Carolyn Leder for her kind assistance with the cataloguing of the present work and the below note.
Spencer was often newsworthy. In 1935 there was a furious controversy in the press over his resignation from the Royal Academy - after the jury rejected two of the five pictures he submitted to its ‘Summer Exhibition’. He turned in consequence to a more autobiographical, less contentious series of pictures, the ‘Domestic Scenes’ of 1935-6, to which this drawing belongs. They were exhibited with some critical and commercial success in his one-man exhibition at Arthur Tooth & Sons in 1936. The series featured an idealised version of married life with his first wife Hilda, as well as scenes from his childhood in Cookham. He had at first wished to make a continuous frieze of scenes depicting his marriage to Hilda, but financial necessity led to his painting a series of separate pictures.
On the left of the drawing, Hilda is seen undressing. In the centre she sits in front of Stanley, her right leg bent at the knee, as she removes his collar. Her face is hidden, but Stanley faces the viewer. This was the era of detachable collars on men’s formal shirts: it was easier to wash a collar than to launder an entire shirt! The motif forms the subject of the painting ‘Taking off Collar’, 1935. On the right, Hilda has taken her hair out of its bun as she sits on a stool to unpeel her stockings before going to bed. Spencer wrote of ‘the special joy and significance at Burghclere the moment just before Hilda joined me in bed’ (Tate Archive, 733.3.1). In the picture ‘Going to Bed’, 1936, Hilda sits in the same pose in the foreground, while behind her Stanley sits in bed and their young daughters, Shirin and Unity, scramble over the ‘mountains’ (733.3.1) made by Stanley’s knees under the bedclothes. Since the drawing contains two motifs that were made into separate paintings, it seems likely that the drawing was intended for his unexecuted frieze. The figures vary in scale and the whole composition is suffused with the rhythmic complexity of Hilda’s gestures. Using two hands she removes a stocking which retains the shape of the leg it recently clothed.
The ‘Domestic Scenes’ pictures celebrate marriage at a time, ironically, when his actions were leading to divorce. Four days after he was divorced by Hilda in 1937, he married another artist, Patricia Preece, although this proved a fiasco and they never cohabited. Spencer, it seems, had hoped to have two ‘wives’; he found himself, in practice, with none. Despite this he remained a firm believer in marriage, asking Hilda to remarry him. Sensibly she refused but he continued writing to her after their divorce and even after her death in 1950. The letters could be several hundred pages long.
The ‘Domestic Scenes’ are also linked to Spencer’s ‘Marriage at Cana’ series for his longed-for ‘Church House’ – the building planned but never built as a successor to the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere. In the ‘Marriage at Cana’ theme – in a conflation of the personal with the biblical - Stanley and Hilda get ready to go to the wedding feast where Jesus performed his first miracle. On their return they prepare for bed, as seen in this drawing and the pictures ‘Taking off Collar’ and ‘Going to Bed’.