Lucky to be an Artist is a powerful and incredibly moving autobiography by Unity Spencer that I would like to recommend to you. While painting Unity’s portrait last year I heard many stories about her childhood, her relationship with her father and her own struggle in becoming an artist. I was honoured to be given a script by Unity to look at and it is a compelling read. It will be published on 24th March to coincide with the opening of her exhibition at the Fine Art Society, Bond Street.
Born into two artistic families, the Spencers and Carlines, Unity is the daughter of painters Hilda Carline and Sir Stanley Spencer. Unity has continued to write extensively throughout her life, alongside her own practice as a painter and printmaker. Her touching and tender portrait of the artists’ father can be seen here.
The famous portrait Hilda, Unity and Dolls (1937) by Stanley Spencer shows his wife, and daughter with her dolls. Both mother and child are very serious and unsmiling; the dolls eyes are black and seemingly empty. This was painted in the aftermath of the disastrous split between Stanley and his wife, the portrait reflects the ruin and emptiness which followed.
I first came to know Unity a few years ago when I began teaching at Putney School of Art & Design. No stranger to sitting for portraits herself I asked if she would be willing to sit for me. Work began soon after and the painting continued throughout late 2013 and the spring of 2014.
Unity sat with the same intensity of gaze, observing me, observing her, as the wonderful 1959 Self-Portrait by her father which was very much in my mind. While sitting she would tell stories about her childhood, paintings of her parents and of life in Cookham. The characters she spoke of are all brought to life beautifully in her autobiography.
In Lucky to be an Artist Unity writes about her childhood and growing up in Cookham, the dark days following her parents well documented break-up and her mother’s subsequent breakdown. Unity also gives an honest and frank account of her own relationships and crippling depression. She beautifully describes scenes of when she watches her father at work, and talks about the art that has inspired her to create.
On Goya she writes…
“One of my favourite artists is Goya. I first saw his paintings in the spring of 1951, when I spent some days gazing and thinking and absorbing them in the Prado. My main memories of Madrid are of the paintings I saw there: the Zurbarans and Bosch’s famous Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins, the El Greco’s and Titian’s Venus and Adonis. But all the Goya’s, especially his extraordinary dream pictures, Witches’ Sabbath, the children floating in the sky, and Satan devouring children. In spite of the appalling gory scene (and his mad expression), he looks as if you could drink tea with him on occasion. Goya’s the man for me, miraculous and extraordinary. I think it was the psychological aspect of his glorious work that struck such a deep chord in me when I was young”. (p46)
And on Burghclere…
“It’s extraordinary how I’m always affected by the chapel, but I’m always thrilled by the first sight of the crosses on coming through the door, how alive and luminous they are, and then I’m awestruck and gripped in lively and intense contemplation. There is always something new that I haven’t seen before”. (p77)
Unity’s exhibition will run from 25th March – 17th April 2015 at The Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond St, London W1S 2JT. The exhibition will also feature works by Stanley Spencer, Hilda Carline, Gilbert Spencer, Richard Carline and George Carline. Her book Lucky to be an Artist will be published on March 24th by the Unicorn Press.
Excerpts from Lucky to be an Artist are reproduced with the kind permission of John and Unity Spencer.