Double vision

Stanley Spencer's Shipbuilding On The Clyde paintings are not only documentary works, but reveal his extraordinary vision. Words: Helen Monaghan

The heat is intense. There is no escape from the cacophony of noise. The clank of metal against metal rings out as the shipworkers hammer. drill and weld the vast steel structures of the ship. They forge the metal in the ardent furnace. sparks flying like exploding fireworks. illuminating the shop floor. Like an army of soldiers. they sweat. toil and obey orders. crawling in and out of their trench-like constructions. When Stanley Spencer arrived at Lithgow's shipyards in 1940 to document the war effort. he felt tremendous admiration for these ordinary. working-class men. ‘1 was as disinclined to disturb them as I would be to disturb a service in the church.’ he said.

Born in (‘ookham. Berkshire in l8‘)l. Sir Stanley

Spencer (l8‘)l—|95‘)). a graduate of Slade School Of Art. was commissioned to produce a series of

commemorative paintings of Lithgow‘s Kingston

Yard in Port Glasgow. Working from hundreds of

sketches of the individual shipworkers. he produced these monumental. compositional paintings. These eight frieze—like paintings. some as long as twenty

foot. are not purely documentary. The subject matter

certainly presents us with a working-class. industrial scenario. the spacial depth kept to a minimum to emphasise the cramped and noisy conditions. but what Spencer does is to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. (ireatly influenced by the religious frescos of Renaissance painters (iiotlo and lira

76 THE “ST 6- 20 Jul 2000

‘I'm seeing flying angels all over the place.’ Curator, Julie Lawson

Detail from Shipbuilding On The Clyde: Welders, 1941

Angelico. these works are intensely spiritual. the faces of the workers are angelic and serene. Spencer's use of a central light source. and the poise and grouping of the men within the composition. conjure tip these holy works.

‘I feel very strongly that Spencer was essentially a religious painter and that was the way he saw the world.‘ explains the exhibition‘s curator Julie Lawson. ‘l‘m seeing flying angels all over the place and l defy anyone to come out of the exhibition not having seen them.”

Showing alongside Spencer’s .S'lii/)_\'ru'rl paintings. are his Rr'surrr'r‘Iirm series which he carried out after the war. He felt a strong sense of community in (‘lydeside which was very much like his hometown of (‘ookham. As he did in his R(’.\‘lll‘l‘(’(‘ll()ll. ('rmk/iam painting of l‘)23—l‘)27. Spencer placed traditional biblical scenes in contemporary settings. They are often described as Spencer‘s personal tribute to the people of Port (ilasgow.

‘Port (ilasgow came to mean something very special to Spencer which is why he did the Resurrection paintings at the end of war.‘ says Lawson. ‘l-le was not commissioned to do them but they became a very personal thing for him; his encounter with the people of Port (ilasgowf

Bringing these two bodies of work together for the first time in Scotland. along with William MacQuitty‘s celebrated photographs of Spencer in action at the shipyards. perfectly illustrates the National Portrait (‘iallery‘s millennium theme of honouring the heroism of everyday life. And for Lawson ‘they’re not only documentary photographs. they are his vision‘. A very wonderful vision indeed.

Men Of The Clyde: Stanley Spencer's Vision At Port Glasgow (1940—1947) is at the National Portrait Gallery, Thu 6 Jul—Sun 1 Oct.


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Market Cross, Cambeltown by Archibald M. MacKinnon