A Century of Giving
oil on canvas, 39.7 x 55.2 cm
The Fitzwilliam Museum: 2506
This is one of a series of deeply self-scrutinising images by Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), one of the most original British painters of his generation.
A compelling, bespectacled figure, in coat, collar and tie, Spencer gazes intently over a loaded palette, holding up a paintbrush in his left hand. As the artist was right- handed, we know he was staring into a mirror as he painted. The rumpled bed behind him locates him firmly in the mundane domestic world.
It was painted in 1939, at a time of crisis in Spencer's life as well as in the wider world. Spence had recently resigned from the Royal Academy after the rejection of his paintings. Divorced from his first wife Hilda, he had married the artist Patricia Preece, who had left him to live with another woman.
Spencer's self-portraits, begun in 1914, document and explore his personal isolation and convoluted relationships with his mistresses and wives. The series ends with the poignant image of 1959, when he was dying from cancer.
This painting was bought by Cockerell for £75 in the middle of the war. In 1930, he had used the Friends' fund to buy Spencer's Cottages at Burghclere. Today, the collection also includes his Self Portrait with Patricia Preece, painted in 1937: a frank, revealing image of emotional and physical intimacy.
Until the 1970s, this painting was among the most modern art in the Fitzwilliam collection. It's currently displayed on the balcony in Gallery 3, alongside a series of self portraits by leading contemporary artists which were commissioned by Sydney Cockerell.