My Favourite Painting: Viscount William Astor

William Astor chooses a painting from an artist with whom he was lucky enough to have a personal connection: Sir Stanley Spencer.

Viscount Astor on Cliveden Woods by Stanley Spencer

‘On a summer day, Stanley Spencer came to Cliveden to sketch on the terrace for his portrait of my father. He was kind enough to give me, an eight-year-old schoolboy, a drawing lesson. At the end of the day, we swapped drawings; I still have his, but I don’t think he kept mine.

Cliveden Woods is a perfect example of his art, carefully drawn in pencil in minute detail and then painted by colour, the blues, greens and then the reds and so on. He could visualise the exact detail of the painting before he lifted his brush.

‘A master technician, a great painter and a kind man.’

Lord Astor is a hereditary Lord Temporal in the House of Lords, chairman of the British Hound Sports Association and a trustee of the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, Berkshire.

Charlotte Mullins on Stanley Spencer

Stanley Spencer is best known for his large-scale religious paintings, such as The Resurrection, Cookham (1924–27). These were often set in the village of Cookham in Berkshire, where he was born and lived for much of his life. But he also painted landscapes, taking inspiration from the countryside that surrounded him. This painting of Cliveden Woods from 1950 captures the belt of woodland that enclosed Cliveden House when it was still the Astor family estate.

Trees line a hillside that gently rolls towards a broad slow-moving river. A path along the bank ends in a short flight of steps, with a mooring point for river exploration. It was painted from the opposite bank on the cusp of autumn. Spencer paints every tree as an individual, observing the shape and tone of leaves as they turn from green to red. Colours fuse in the reflection in the still water below, a haze of orange and yellow.

In many of Spencer’s figurative paintings, the landscape is charged with meaning, enhancing the drama or action of the scene. In The Resurrection, Cookham, for example, the central bower of white blooms above the doorway to the church signals the rebirth of the dead on the Day of Judgement.

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Spencer was fascinated by the harmony of nature, its life cycles and patterns. Cliveden Woods may also be a reflection on his own life cycle — it was painted the year before he turned 60 and he died only nine years later, in 1959.

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