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Poetry and Art: Claire Dyer on Stanley Spencer, Ai Weiwei, and her poem ‘Of Angels, Porcelain and Paint’

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.


When the call for poems was made by Two Rivers Press for their 2017 publication, Stanley Spencer Poems: An Anthology, edited by Jane Draycott, Carolyn Leder and Peter Robinson, my first stop was The Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham where I spent a wonderful day with Spencer’s work, making copious notes and letting the pictures imprint themselves on me.

What I particularly love about the craft of poetry is the emotional connections the imagination can make between the visual, the heard and individual memories, and when, during my research, I came across Spencer’s ‘Gardening, 1945’, which features a man and a girl, heads down, backs bent, digging up leeks, there was something about the texture of their hats, clothes and the basket the girl is holding that brought to mind Tate Modern’s 2010 installation of Ai Weiwei’s 100 million individually crafted and painted porcelain seeds. And this, in turn, instead of the actual specialists who worked in small-scale workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, took me to a roomful of angels painting the seeds.

My imagined angels were all-knowing, all-seeing, but unable to do anything to influence or change us – they were about the pure act of giving. And so, when my daughter, who had been my son, was transitioning*, I wanted for her the chance to choose her own identity and destiny without censure or judgement, and so I wrote this poem, addressed to her, about angels painting the porcelain seeds Spencer’s painting had reminded me of, and of my daughter’s right to fashion herself as many identities and destinies as she wishes, by running her fingers through the seeds, making billions of shifting pictures, all uniquely hers.

Claire Dyer, March 2022


Of Angels, Porcelain and Paint

Imagine a room, square windows
letting in the light. Imagine the light

is bright and yellow and falling
across rows of tables in slabs

the colour of butter. At the tables angels
are painting porcelain sunflower seeds –

the husks of sunflower seeds that is –
and, in the falling yellow light,

focus on a pigment each: pink, green,
russet, caramel, grey.

They take breaks at regular intervals,
stretch their necks and talk about the news –

somewhere a war is ending,
another about to start;

how can they survive all this?
And, on one particular, peculiar,

sun-drenched day Stanley comes,
and they give him their creations,

give him baskets brimming
with painted seeds for his collage

of two figures (daughter
and father) harvesting leeks.

He bends Kathleen to her task.
She can smell soap,

her father’s gardener’s skin
is surprisingly clean and,

if you listen carefully
you can hear a torrent of birdsong;

clouds are holding in the rain.
Imagine then you are walking

into the room with the square windows
and the light that’s bright and yellow

and falling, and Stanley says,
You can stir your fingers through the seeds

if you like, make billions of shifting pictures,
all uniquely yours.


From Yield, Two Rivers Press, 2021

A version of this poem appears in Stanley Spencer Poems: An Anthology, eds Jane Draycott, Carolyn Leder, Peter Robinson, Two Rivers Press, 2017

*I have my daughter’s permission to refer to her by her old name, status and gender where appropriate.

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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