Sunday, February 7, 2016

Spooner of Nottingham

Arthur Spooner (1873-1962), Summer, ca. 1930, Oil on Canvas, 38 by 48 in., Private Collection

The Goose Fair, Nottingham, 1926, Oil on Canvas, 72.01 by 96.5 in., Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Apple Fallings, Oil on Canvas, 36 by 36 in., Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Nymph in a Wood, Oil on Canvas, 42.13 x 20.28 in., Private Collection

Freshwater Bay, Oil on Canvas, 27 by 32.1 in., Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool, Lancashire, England

Sulby Glen and Snaefell, Oil on Canvas, 16 x 25 in., Private Collection

One of 59 demonstration sketches acquired by one of Spooner's students, Oil on Canvas Board, 12.5 by 15 in.

The lazy days of summer in Nottingham, England, circa 1930, in the sun-dappled vestigial environs of the legendary Sherwood Forest, was the setting for an exceptionally vivid recumbent figure painting by Arthur Spooner (1873-1962). 

It caught my eye in an auction catalog for British and Irish Art, one of my favorite artist groupings.  I soon discovered that it is just one of many memorable paintings created by this native of Nottingham, who stayed close to home all his life to carve out a successful painting career, which earned him celebrity status among the locals.  And bully for Spooner that he was able to cleverly conceal both hands and arrange the arms decoratively in a convincing full-figure pose.  Depicting those integral appendages is often a painting’s downfall if they are poorly executed. 

The woman posing languorously on a deck chair was none other than the artist’s favorite model – his wife.  Perhaps the empty deck chair beside her was reserved for Spooner at break time.  A shaggy dog is superbly added to the composition as well.   I’m told it was their dog and not the neighbor’s, or a stray.  How could I possibly confirm that, or answer all the other questions painters routinely have about the creation of a painting, such as what exactly is that light-struck background imagery behind her head?  Perhaps that mystery is solved when viewing the original painting.  I’m sadly imbued with the grade-school admonition, “We never guess, we look it up,” but you can’t look up everything you find interesting or important to relate on the Internet, can you?  One has to move on.

By the way, lots of married painters in the old days were fortunate to have spouses willing to pose for them.  If there were kids in the equation, that was even better, because the little tykes were obliged to pose for daddy’s or mommy’s pictures as well, especially if they were girls.  This was before Nintendo and Pokemon, remember.  The Boston Impressionist Frank Benson would have remained just another obscure but talented painter if he hadn’t had three lovely daughters to depict on canvas.  And it was a great blessing for the world of art that he did, because the girls posed during summer vacations for some of the most beautiful paintings ever created.  Benson’s son got a little posing time as well.  I’m not sure married painters today can count on their spouses and children posing for them, since easel painting is no longer front page news and everybody is now advised to “do their own thing.”  Posing for pictures that nobody cares about is not high on anybody’s list of things to do in this digital age.

Spooner and his wife had two children, a boy and a girl, and I’m certain he made use of them for pictorial purposes when they were youngsters.  A portrait of his daughter, Edyth, apparently painted when she moved back home after her divorce, was added not long ago to the collection of Nottingham Castle Gallery, which houses Spooner’s magnum opus, The Goose Fair, Nottingham, painted in 1926. The work shows one of the last times the festival, which dates back to the 13th Century, was held in the city center, before it was moved to the outskirts of Nottingham.  Spooner’s portrayal of a bustling crowd at dusk was painted from his rooftop studio, which overlooked the town square. The prominent clown figure in the painting is a self-portrait.

The painting was purchased at auction in 2004 by Sir Harry Djanogly, a wealthy textile manufacturer and knighted philanthropist, for the “staggering” price of $401,048, after a bidding battle to acquire the painting. It is now on long-term loan to the castle gallery. According to the BBC online, the work is said to be a visitor favorite and Nottingham's equivalent to the Louvre's Mona Lisa.  Sarah Skinner, Keeper of Art at Nottingham Castle, said the oil painting brings a “sense of noise” to a very quiet space as well as the smells of frying onions, mushy peas and candy floss.  "People like the picture for what it showed then [compared with] now."

I’m not crazy about paintings of crowd scenes in general.  The reportage tends to overwhelm the pictorial, unless it is a crowd scene in a carefully composed history painting. The phenomenal Russian painter Ilya Repin (1844-1930), for example, created several gigantic history paintings teeming with people that are supremely artistic.  But I think Spooner did a remarkable job composing what must have been a very chaotic street scene as witnessed from his studio above.  I can understand how it would be a real crowd pleaser.

Spooner studied painting in the traditional Victorian manner at Nottingham School of Art, but went on to paint in the British Impressionist style, which is marked by hazy, atmospheric light effects and subdued color.  He is best known for painting landscapes, horses, nudes, and flattering portraits of Nottingham’s notable citizens.

Spooner taught landscape and figurative painting at his alma mater in the early 20th Century and was one of the founding members of the Nottingham Society of Artists, serving as its President from 1946-62.  He exhibited locally and nationally at the Royal Academy, the Royal Society of British Artists and other important venues in England.

One element of Spooner’s teaching method might interest all art students who get hold of their master’s doodles by hook or crook.  Spooner required a pupil he instructed in the 1950s to attend class with a 12.5 by 15 in. primed canvas board, upon which he would demonstrate painting techniques.  A collection of 59 of these studies and sketches compiled by the pupil, ranging from seascapes to landscapes, horses and portraits, was put up for auction in 2012 at Bonhams Chester.  Bonhams said the collection provided “a rare opportunity to purchase works by an artist considered in Nottingham to be a local hero and very fine painter.”  One Internet art source reports that the collection was sold for $4,263, short of its estimate of $4,400-5,800.  Some of Spooner’s demonstration sketches look pretty good, and you can view a few of them online.  No painter today would ever think of giving away a demonstration painting, which is usually purchased by an audience member as soon as the applause dies down.

As a member of the Royal Society of British Artists, Spooner was a popular figure and much feted during his lifetime.  And he was a major artistic influence on the city of Nottingham through his teaching and painting career.  Apart from painting vacations abroad, his whole career was spent in Nottingham.  Spooner was unable to work in his final years because of failing eyesight, and he died in Nottingham in 1962 at the age of 89.

In looking into Spooner’s career, I wondered if he was related to William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), the Oxford don who is said to have humorously mixed up syllables on occasion, giving rise to the word “spoonerism” to describe that habit.  I couldn’t find any common ancestry.  But having dressed himself in that clown costume for his most-famous painting, it is possible Arthur Spooner would have been amused by W.A. Spooner’s comical legacy.  At any rate, the Spooner name is associated with some very fine art, not nonsense wordplay, in the fabled land of Robin Hood and his Merry Men.