Thu, 09 May 2019
OUR friends at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere, home to Stanley Spencer’s ‘visionary’ murals, have alerted the artsdesk to an interesting new book by Nicola Upson. Stanley and Elsie is a novel based on real life events as Stanley Spencer begins creating his paintings in the chapel at Sandham. The story is seen through the eyes of Elsie Munday, a local girl who took up the position of housemaid to the Spencer family when they moved to Burghclere. A moving and beautifully written account of the unique relationship between the painter and the woman in his service, Stanley and Elsie reimagines real people and events, given new insight from the perspective of a charismatic female lead.
In 1928, Stanley Spencer arrives in the quiet Hampshire village ready to create the commission of a lifetime. Hired as his housekeeper, Elsie becomes so much more as his muse and a friend for whom he develops a deep, lifelong affection.
A joy in the ordinary things bonds them, a simple love of life which is crucial to Spencer’s art, but which his wartime experiences and growing celebrity have all but destroyed. For the next five years, Elsie is a vital part of the Spencer family, sharing in the creation of Spencer’s masterpieces and the daily dramas of his life; his marriage to the painter Hilda Carline and theartistic rivalry between husband and wife, the continuing impact of the First World War on all their lives – the scandal over Spencer’s personal and artistic attitudes toward sex and his obsession with Patricia Preece, the woman who would become his second wife. Loyal to both Stanley and Hilda and an intimate witness to the pain, joy and inevitable destruction of their love, Elsie finds herself caught in the middle of a complex marriage. In life, neither would recover from its breakdown and Stanley and Elsie sets that personal tragedy against the national mourning of England between the wars, a backdrop of happiness and innocence irrecoverably lost, but typified in the chapel paintings that are at the heart of the novel.
Spencer painted the women in his life with a combination of ruthless honesty and nostalgic idealism, but their voices are tantalisingly absent from history. Stanley and Elsie turns the tables, giving full lives to four very different women: Hilda Carline, serious and thoughtful, a successful painter in her own right, the love of Spencer’s life even after her death, but subject to depression and destroyed by his betrayal; Patricia Preece, the woman who would marry Spencer and destroy him financially, but who never lived with him, choosing instead to remain with her lifetime partner Dorothy Hepworth, and Elsie Munday, unlikely friend and confidante, the one point of stability in the disintegration of Spencer’s personal life and the focus of many of his drawings and paintings. Through the eyes of these women, we see Spencer differently, too: kind, charismatic, funny and inspirational; obsessive, exhausting, selfish and naïve – neither visionary nor caricature, but painstakingly human.
Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson, was published last week by Prelude, priced £10.99.