In his painting Spencer rejects the fluid brushstrokes and impasto paint of early French Modernism, developing instead a much more exacting approach that combines careful drawing with a flattened, tonal use of colour. This is perfectly demonstrated in 'Crocus' where, whilst every petal is exactly drawn as an individual form, colour is used in a much more generalised way, emphasising shape and a balance of tone over specific surface detail. It is this tension between exactness and generalisation that distinguishes Spencer’s work, making it such a unique take on classic Modernism.
Landscapes, and images of gardens and flowers, became a popular creative outlet for Spencer and became a more commercially successful subject matter as opposed to his esoteric religious narrative scenes. However, for the artist these gardens, especially in his home town of Cookham, were a way to continue to explore his religious feelings, albeit in a more abstract form. As the artist himself stated he ‘liked to take [his] thoughts for a walk and marry them to some place in Cookham’.
Following his experiences of the horrors of the First World War, Spencer became fixated in his life and work on the idea of human redemption. This is most explicitly seen in his monumental masterpiece 'The Resurrection, Cookham', 1924-7 (now in the Tate Collection), itself set in his local church gardens. Flowers became a symbol of rebirth, of human ability to recover and grow after trauma. Spencer’s use of the crocus as the subject of this painting is particularly interesting, as the crocus is known as a particularly strong species that begins to flower even before spring in the late winter months. Painting in 1938, Spencer was aware of the upcoming threat of a potentially even more devastating war in Europe, leading him to create his own symbol for human survival.
Spencer saw Cookham as an earthly Eden and a safe haven against the horrors of the outside world, and used it repeatedly as the setting for his religious scenes. Whilst in his landscapes a precise narrative element has been removed, his painterly enjoyment of the world, and in particular flowers, demonstrates his belief that the sacred is found in the everyday. In 'Crocus' we see the artist revelling in the beauty of the natural world, and its ability to survive at any cost.
Tooth Paintings, London 1938
Collection of Viscountess Cawdor 1938-1981
Tooth Paintings, London, 1981
Private Collection, Canada, 1981-present
Keith Bell, 'Stanley Spencer: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings', Phaidon, London 1992, cat no.267, p290 illus (colour)