Portrait of Rachel Westropp oil on canvas 60.9 x 55.8 cm. (24 x 22 in.) Painted in 1959
PROVENANCE: The sitter Thence by family descent
EXHIBITED: Cookham, Stanley Spencer Gallery, 1979
LITERATURE: Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, Phaidon Press Ltd., London, 1992, p.519, cat.no.355 (ill p.355)
The present work was painted as a birthday present for Michael Westropp in 1959, while Spencer was convalescing at Cookham Vicarage with the Westropps after cancer surgery in late December 1958. The first sitting took place on the afternoon of the 24 February and the work continued for approximately six weeks. The sittings were usually short in duration because Mrs Westropp was very busy.
Spencer chose Mrs Westropp's dress because he liked the "texture," and insisted she wear an old cardigan, probably because of the contrast between the two textiles and because they formed her normal daily attire. During the sittings Spencer rarely spoke, sitting close to the subject as he would to a still life, using small brushes and working with great intensity. When a visitor commented that Mrs Westropp did not look relaxed, Spencer responded that she was always listening to hear if her children were crying, the potatoes were boiling over, or the phone ringing. Another comment that she looked sad was true as she was grieving for her eldest daughter who had died two months earlier.
In the background of the composition is a view of Cookham Church (where Michael Westropp was vicar), seen from the back stairs window of the vicarage, painted at times when Mrs Westropp was not available to sit. At the time the church roof was being repaired and Spencer included the green tarpaulin used as a temporary covering. A suggestion from the sitter that it was "unnecessary" to include it as it was only there for a short time, brought the response: "I paint what is there and it is there now." He had a similar response when Mrs Westropp asked if the wild daffodils which would soon be blooming under the hedge could be added, replying, "No, they are not there now"(the above information comes from a letter to the writer from Michael Westropp, 16.1.80).
The present work, painted not long before Spencer's death on the 14 December, 1959, was the last in a long line of portrait paintings, beginning with the Portrait of Lady Slesser (c.1920) and including self-portraits, portraits of his two wives and a number of commissioned works. While he found the more formal official portraits less interesting, leading to some rather stiff poses, commissioned portraits of people he knew, were created with great care, attention to detail and concern for the subject's personality and individual environment. Sitters were expected to participate in the process by remaining emotionally "in tune" with him, as his friend Joyce Smith discovered in 1956, when his demands only relaxed somewhat when he drove her to tears.
Spencer's early adoption of the relaxed pose in the portrait of Lady Slesser (she turns towards the viewer as if in mid-conversation), contrasts sharply with the self-conscious Academy society portraits of Sir John Lavery R.A., Spencer-Watson and others. By contrast, Spencer's approach recalls the unforced portraits of the Camden Town painters, and the work of his friend, Henry Lamb, for example his portrait of Lytton Strachey (1914) (Tate). During the 1920s, Spencer's participation in the Carline family circle (he married Hilda Carline in 1925), brought him into contact with other artists who were working with informal portrait compositions such as Richard Carline's Gathering on the Terrace (1925) and Lamb's The Anrep Family. Spencer's portrait of Rachel Westropp represents the culmination of this approach, modernized and made more intimate.
We are grateful to Professor Keith Bell for compiling this catalogue entry.