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Poetry and Art: Gill Learner on how the art of Stanley Spencer has inspired her poetry

Poetry is often inspired by art, and poems inspire art in turn. This series of posts celebrates this special connection in the words of artists and poets who have been published by Two Rivers Press.

Ever since moving to Reading in 1966, I have been interested in the work of Berkshire’s best-known painter, Stanley Spencer. With my husband I visited the gallery at Cookham, which then had a rather different layout. Some years later, choosing our day carefully as there’s no artificial light in the building, we drove to the Sandham Memorial Chapel and were astonished and moved by the murals depicting life, death and resurrection in WW1 Macedonia.

In 2001 we went to the Tate Britain exhibition of his work. Many of the paintings were familiar: the inhabitants of ‘a village in Heaven’ either performing their usual tasks or transformed into characters from the Bible; the somewhat brutally honest portraits of his partners and himself; and scenes of places in and around Cookham. But the series of enormous depictions of shipbuilders working in Port Glasgow during WW2 were completely new to us. We learned they were commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee to document civilians’ contributions to the war effort.

Although I was intrigued by the situation Spencer found himself in, I had only just begun writing poetry. It was not until the Cookham Festival Committee organised a poetry competition in 2017 that I came to think about it as a subject. As I’ve always been fascinated by technology and craftsmanship, it was appealing. It was also intriguing to imagine how it must have been for a rural Home Counties man to lodge and work with Glaswegians, and for them to receive him into their homes and workplaces. ‘A long way from home’ didn’t win but I was delighted when it was included in the anthology that resulted from the competition.

When I was putting together ‘Change’, my third collection from Two Rivers Press, I found the poems grouped themselves. There are six sections, all untitled but each preceded by a quotation indicating the general tone: Conflict, Art, In Memoriam (chiefly of my late husband), Nature, Displacement, and Music. There are, however, some overlaps and, while this Spencer poem is in the Art section, it could just as easily have appeared among the poems about displacement alongside, among others, Frankenstein’s ‘monster’, a homeless refugee, and my son’s seduction by the wildness of the Peak District. As it is it faces another poem about a Stanley Spencer line drawing, ‘Roy’.

Gill Learner, February 2022

Gill Learners poem A long way from home

Visit Art UK to view Stanley Spencer’s Shipbuilding on the Clyde paintings

‘A long way from home’ features in Gill Learner’s most recent collection Change, and also in Stanley Spencer Poems: An Anthology, edited by Jane Draycott, Carolyn Leder and Peter Robinson.

Change cover image

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