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A Painter Who Welds Industry to Art

Stanley Spencer captured on canvas the teeming shipyards of Port Glasgow in World War II

TO separate Sir Stanley Spencer from Cookham would be a little like trying to separate St. Francis from Assisi. Cookham is the Berkshire village, by the River Thames, where this English painter (1891-1959) was born and lived and painted most of his life. He once wrote, ``A place is incomplete without a person. A person is a place's fulfilment, as a place is a person's.''

Each corner and cranny of Cookham - and, one might add, of its inhabitants - was Spencer's fulfillment to an extremely unusual degree even for an artist obsessed with a feeling for one place. The village provided not only the subject matter of most of his paintings, but it was also the context in which his strange and visionary imagination took wing.

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There were, however, one or two exceptions to his absorption in Cookham, as an exhibition in Glasgow effectively shows. West of Glasgow is a town on the Firth of Clyde called Port Glasgow, and this was perhaps the most notable place to claim his attention outside his home village. It was a shipbuilding town. His first visit there was in May 1940 for a few weeks. He had been commissioned as an official war artist to paint the shipyards.

The drawings he made in those weeks became the basis for a series of ambitious oil paintings produced over the next six years. Normally housed at the Imperial War Museum in London (where an appointment made three weeks in advance is usually required for viewing), these intensely engaging pictures are all at Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery for the current show.

But it is not only an art exhibition. Spencer's works are presented alongside tools and equipment that were used in the Clydeside shipyards, an array of photographs, and a video about shipbuilding. Even the floor is covered with a replica of a ``mould loft floor'' where, in a shipyard, sweeping chalk lines are drawn exactly the size of various parts of the ship being built. All this is history or even nostalgia for days when the Clyde shipyards were active. During the war they reached a peak of productivity.

There are also recordings of workers in the yards who remember Spencer's visit, documentary photographs of him at work (he sketched rapidly on rolls of toilet paper), and many drawings by the artist in preparation for the paintings.

All of the paintings were done after he returned to England. Nevertheless, Glasgow and Port Glasgow, for various personal reasons, continued to attract the artist back again for a number of years, and Port Glasgow as a community insinuated itself into his vision and art not so much as some kind of rival to his loved Cookham, but rather as an extension of the sense of ``home,'' which he said he looked for wherever he was.

Spencer endowed everything he drew and painted with his distinctive, even odd, view of the world. By his own account, this view, or vision, was a mixture of the religious and the sexual. However, these long panoramas depicting the various shipbuilding trades are actually among his least religious, and least overtly sexual paintings. They are busy and fascinatingly complex descriptions of working men (and a few women), wholehearted celebrations of rigorous skills and craftsmanship, intricate depictions of the contortive physical intertwinement of the workers with their tools and the intractable materials they cut, shaped, bent, joined, riveted, and welded.

These paintings do not have much to do with the war, which Spencer was probably commissioned to record for posterity. They are hardly propagandist. The exhibition catalog characterizes them as expressing ``a passionate vision of a busy shipyard.'' Certainly they are far more touching and genuinely felt, as images of workers employed in the war effort, than some kind of socialist-realist heroics or dispassionately precise documentary painting. Spencer was not a social commentator.

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These pictures, if not as central to him as his Cookham paintings, are still unmistakably Spencer. They come from his own interest in people and place rather than responding to expectations, real or imaginary, of the government agency employing him.

FROM the evidence, the painter seems to have been much less touched by the second world war than the first. As a youth during World War I, he was taken away from Cookham for several years, serving as a hospital orderly in Bristol before seeing some action in Macedonia. Out of that war experience came some of his most astonishing paintings, many of a decidedly religious (but highly individualistic) bent.

Spencer's experiences are always filtered through a kind of familiarity. He saw the welders and caulkers of Port Glasgow with just the same kind of persnickety affection that he saw the villagers of Cookham. In one painting, he shows the townsfolk rising out of their graves in the churchyard at the Resurrection, or ``Christ Carrying the Cross'' down Cookham High Street. Spencer considered that ordinary places had at the same time religious mystery and no mystery all.

His own words about the shipyards reveal his approach to them: They were ``dark and cosy and full of mysterious places and happenings, like a vast Cookham blacksmith's workshop interior.''

He even introduced himself as a worker among the workers in some of the paintings, like the self-portraits some of the Italian Renaissance artists inserted into their frescoes. He thought of himself as an insider, and his work in the shipyards as a collaboration between him and the workers. He thought the burners, who could draw chalk lines on the steel with great confidence, could have been made into artists. The workmen seem to have had no difficulty tolerating this oddity from another world, though he found them a little too curious.

One welder - a woman who posed for Spencer to draw her welding a rudder - in an interview for this exhibition last year is quoted as remembering the artist as ``quiet, no brash, no push. He was more or less like a scared wee man. He was very small.''

For Spencer, Port Glasgow and the shipbuilders fascinated him so much that he said later: ``I hardly knew how to tear myself away.'' His paintings are a kind of memorial to previously unfamiliar working practices. He turned them into his own art form.

* The exhibition continues in Glasgow through Aug. 7.

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