Crossing the Road signed with initials and dated 'S S. 36' (lower right) and inscribed with title 'Crossing the road' (on the canvas overlap) oil on canvas 76 x 51 cm. (30 x 20 in.)
Provenance: with Arthur Tooth & Sons, London, 1947, where purchased by Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, U.S.A., 1949 with Agnew's, London, where purchased by the present owner
Exhibited: London, Arthur Tooth & Son, Stanley Spencer, June-July 1936, no.5 London, The Leicester Galleries, Stanley Spencer: Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, November 1942, no.40 Leeds, Temple Newsam House, Paintings and Drawings by Stanley Spencer, July-September 1947, no.41 Brussels, The British Council, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Contemporary Painting in Britain, 1948-49, no.54, pl.23 (ill.)
Literature: Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, Phaidon, London, 1992, no.203, p.139 (col.ill)
Sir Stanley Spencer's love of his home village, Cookham, was immortalised in his series of paintings for the 'Church-House' scheme that he began in 1932. Crossing the Road belongs to this extremely ambitious and important project. The 1930s are considered by many to be Spencer's master years, during which his imaginative and painterly abilities excelled, earning him a place in history as one of Britain's most talented and inventive artists of the 20th Century.
The 1930s were for Spencer a decade of sexual as well as artistic awakening. However, they were also a decade of turmoil on both professional and personal levels. In 1935, the year before the present work, Spencer resigned from the Royal Academy, where he had been elected an associate in 1932, after it rejected two of his paintings, The Dustman (or Lovers) (1934, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne) and St Francis and the Birds (1935, Tate, London), from the summer exhibition. In 1937 Spencer divorced his first wife, Hilda Carline and married fellow artist, Patricia Preece, a week later. Spencer had embarked on an extended and expensive affair with Patricia Preece, since 1934, and was under considerable financial pressure while trying to keep both the women in his life happy. The marriage to Patricia however, was a disaster; it was never consummated as Patricia Preece left Spencer for her lover, Dorothy Hepworth. Spencer soon found himself trying to win Hilda back. It is against this background of personal crisis that Spencer created some of his most important work, including Crossing the Road.
Essentially, the Church-House project enabled Spencer to pursue his more unorthodox ideas about love and devotion, as well as painting his beloved Cookham. Although the project was never completed, Spencer worked on paintings for this highly imaginative scheme until his death in 1959. Inspired by Giotto's Arena Chapel in Padua (c.1304-1313), Spencer had proved his ability to paint complex mural scenes with the memorial chapel, the Oratory of All Souls, in Burghclere, which he worked on from 1927 and completed in 1932.
Spencer's idea with the Church-House scheme was to fuse both the secular and religious worlds in one building by creating the vision of an earthly paradise. By fusing the domestic realm with the spiritual world, the building itself would literally become a Church-House. Although Church House was never built, and no plans exist, it is thought the structure was to house not only an altar, but a kitchen and bathrooms as well. Spencer's home village and birthplace, Cookham, provided the inspiration for this paradise on earth.
The overriding theme of Church House was The Last Judgement or The Last Day as it was also known. Spencer worked on three series of paintings within this theme, which were The Pentecost, The Marriage at Cana and The Baptism of Christ. Spencer planned for his masterpiece, The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-7), now in the Tate, that he had painted in the previous decade, to be given a prominent position on the east wall of a barrel vaulted chancel.
The Last Judgement is clearly the inescapable meaning underpinning Crossing the Road. Here, the old man, with the young girl at his side, is assisted in the simple act of crossing the road. Standing in the middle of the road, off the edge of the pavement, clothed in contemporary clothes, the scene is one rooted in Spencer's experience of everyday reality in Cookham in the mid 1930s. Spencer's realism here is typically uncompromising. Spencer seamlessly imbues this scene with a subtle Christian message. Here, it is as if the young girl is a disciple, leading the old man through the streets of Cookham to the gates of St Peter, and to enter heaven itself. With works such as Crossing the Road, created with the Church-House in mind, Spencer is following in the great tradition of Italian masters such as Giotto and Masaccio in their chapel decorations. In tackling the subject of the divine and firmly placing it in a recognisable, everyday context, Spencer has earned, alongside these masters, his place in art history as a true pioneer and visionary artist.