Two Girls and a Beehive: Poems about the art and lives of Stanley Spencer and Hilda Carline Spencer by Rosie Jackson & Graham Burchell. (Two Rivers Press, 2020)
Reviewed by Ross Moore
‘One day, back in Cookham, he will turn this into pattern and meaning’ writes Rosie Jackson in ‘Macedonia, 1918’ from the collection Two Girls and a Beehive by Jackson and Graham Burchell. Stanley Spencer was rarely away from Cookham for long. He returned there after studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1908, until the First World War took him briefly away from the village. Spencer had already gained recognition for his paintings by 1915 when he was stationed with the Royal Army Medical Corps. Posted to Macedonia he was on the front with the infantry, where he remained for two and a half years before returning to Cookham in 1918, having been hospitalised due to malaria. Hilda Carline had worked for the land army and she was also studying at Slade when she met Stanley Spencer in 1919. They were married in 1925 and during the course of the next five years they had two daughters. These were the years in which Stanley’s career took off: a solo exhibition in 1927 included his signature work The Resurrection, Cookham; he produced colossal paintings for the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere under the patronage of the Behrends; his work appeared in the Venice Biennale. Hilda’s career, predictably, had ground to a standstill after her marriage. During these years they lived away from Cookham, following the trail of Stanley’s commissions, but they returned to the village in 1931. In the early thirties Stanley began a relationship with Patricia Preece. Rosie Jackson writes in ‘Photograph, 1928’:
Here it is in black and white – the moment
when the penny should have dropped.
Patricia’s sleeveless dress, its large bow
asking to be undone, Stanley perched
almost in her lap, as close as he would be
nine years later in The Leg of Mutton Nude.
A few lines on, the way things will play out is further spelt out:
Stanley plays King, Patricia is elevated
from pawn to new white queen,
and Hilda now sees she herself is to be
toppled in a few deft moves.
Hilda began divorce proceedings in 1936 and when the divorce was settled, Spencer married Preece, who continued to live with her partner Dorothy Hepworth. While (unsurprisingly) this second marriage failed almost immediately, it took until 1951 before a settlement was agreed. In 1938 Spencer completed his Christ in the Wilderness series and later began painting shipyards in Scotland as a commission from the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. In 1942 Hilda was hospitalised for nine months at the Banstead Mental Hospital in Surrey, during which time she was visited weekly by Stanley. When Hilda died in 1950, Spencer continued writing letters to her until his own death nine years later. The website of the Stanley Spencer Gallery glosses the situation as ‘Hilda remained the love of his life, and he continued to write to [her] even after her death.’ ‘Candle and Snow’ from Two Girls and a Beehive better captures the ghoulish aspect of this:
To say what is under a good layer of snow
the accident of my being here
you being there
snow falling with no regard for logic
falling over what went before
over all I meant to say
all that is difficult
which is to say that love
the bridge between me here
and you there
a new kind of courtship
a new us
the freshly falling and the fallen on
a kind of snow.
In his own afterlife Stanley Spencer is imagined, fittingly, as still in Cookham. The poem ‘When I Think of Him in the Afterlife’ envisages Spencer:
he’s pushing his pram of paints
in the empty streets above Cookham,
and a flurry of snow is starting to fall.
He’s here to take stock, to weigh
the worth of his work against a life
clumsy in love. But he grows impatient …
Many of the biographical details I cite here were gleaned from the three page ‘Chronology of Lives of Stanley Spencer and Hilda Carline, which is helpfully appended to the collection. It proves necessary for readers (like this reviewer) who might not be overly familiar with the Spencers’ lives and times, given that the focus of the collection is the biographical lives of Stanley Spencer, Hilda Carline Spencer, and Patricia Preece, or rather, the relations between these lives. Two Girls and a Beehive predominately consists of ekphrastic poems – but some poems in the collection take a letter or diary entry as their inspiration. While many of the poems do respond to the paintings they reference, the collection might be best viewed as ekphrastic in a looser sense. In this collection the paintings by Stanley Spencer, and on one occasion by Hilda Carline, function as touchstones that appear mainly in chronological order as we move through the lives of the artists. At times ekphrasis and biography merge, perhaps unsurprisingly given how much of a predilection Spencer had for peppering his pictures with details from his life. Take ‘Meadow’ written after the painting ‘By the River’, 1935:
Is the coat Patricia’s? Is that her, foreground-large,
lying like a balsa manikin, holding out a letter?
An invitation? A notice of separation?
And are those his children sharing the space,
the elder, Shirin, looking away, slightly disconsolate,
and the younger, Unity, clutching her uncle’s knee?
Whereas a strictly ekphrastic poem might transmute one art form (the painting) into another (the poem), here the lives of the artists themselves are central and a contemplation of the paintings is used to provide the poets with a way into these, rather than a response to the paintings being the point in and of itself.
Uniquely, for a collection that depends largely on responses to paintings, it has been written as a collaboration between two poets. Out of the sixty-one poems comprising the collection, the poems are shared out more or less equally. Graham Burchell writes the majority of the first sequence ‘A Village in Heaven’ dealing with Stanley Spencer’s early life and the First World War. The middle sections ‘Portrait of the Artist with Two Wives’ and ‘Summer Without Fire’ are shared more equally between the poets and the two final sections ‘Hilda with Bluebells’ and ‘Love’s Return’ are written almost exclusively by Rosie Jackson. In Two Girls and a Beehive authorship of each poem is attributed on the content pages, but not throughout the volume. Instead, each poem is listed only by title – as would be the case in a single-authored collection. This had me wondering whether the authors had considered a purely collaborative venture, leaving each individual poem unaccredited. Maybe the final arrangement is a compromise, allowing you to read the collection through without being definitive about the author of each poem? If so, it’s a nice touch, serving to prioritize the subjects of the poetry rather than the poets.
While Graham Burchell and Rosie Jackson have very distinct styles, in these poems the work of each complements the other. Rosie Jackson has published some of these poems previously in her collections What The Ground Holds (Poetry Salzburg 2014) and The Light Box (Cultured Llama 2016). Both poets employ quite measured, formal lines – Jackson’s are that bit freer – while Burchell makes greater use of internal rhyme and repetition. A predilection to rhyme and repetition makes it the more likely that a poet will engage with traditional form and just a few pages in we have ‘Cowls’ after ‘Mending Cowls, Cookham’ 1915, written in the Malayan-derived form of the pantoum. It’s a nice alignment with its subject – the now static, previously slowly moving cowls, that reflected a timeless religious presence for Spencer, refracted through the pantoum form that takes its few steps forward, then its few steps back. There is some very effective imagery too, in ‘Roaring Great Hospital’ Burchell writes (after ‘Convoy of Wounded Soldiers Arriving at Beaufort Hospital Gates’, 1927) of ‘… bandages, triangles of white slings / pulled together like a trawl of clattering sailing boats, / dragged through a channel of flowers.’ At the start of the second section Rosie Jackson responds to Hilda Carline Spencer’s ‘Melancholy in a Country Garden’, 1921 with ‘What is Beautiful I do not Know’:
She has not read Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia,
but likes the term melancholy for lowness of spirits.
It makes her think of windows so small
even the sun has to struggle to enter…
Equally effective are these lines from ‘Dinner on the Hotel Lawn’ after ‘Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta: Dinner on the Hotel Lawn’, 1957:
…We must hide love letters
behind our backs, though surely he knows everything:
how the earth will one day turn to pebbles,
the Thames to dishwater. We must remember
to thank him for the kind weather, daisies underfoot …
Nicely judged imagery such as the above does have to compete at times with some over the top language. The situations and subjects may be over-wrought but the language surely doesn’t need to be pitched to levels such as:
Did they calculate
the odds of their meeting, promise
they would find each other in any after life,
push aside saints, angels, even God himself
as soon as they caught sight of those familiar
(‘What Else Did They Do?’)
Likewise with ‘Portrait of the Artist with Two Wives’ after Spencer’s ‘Portrait of Patricia Preece’, 1933, there have already been enough portents to make this observation of what might have been playing on the gramophone a touch superfluous:
Ethel Waters’ ‘Stormy Weather’,
perhaps, or I’m in the money,
‘The Gold Digger’s Song’.
Stanley Spencer’s work is known for its pre-Raphaelite like attention to detail and this aspect of his art is reflected in these poems, rising as they do out of closely observed details from the paintings and the lives of the protagonists. These poems are full of details and incidentals from Stanley’s and Hilda’s turbulent personal lives, encompassing infidelity, abandonment, the break-up of families, Hilda’s mental breakdown and illness, death, and the ongoing sense of loss suffered by a man who finds (in the words of ‘In Which Hilda Brings her Complaints to God’) that ‘He likes to have his arms around the dead.’
Given the issues of sexual power relations and gender imbalance, the devastation caused to a woman’s career and life as collateral to her partner’s artistic vocation this collection should be awash with thematic possibilities. However, it may that be the sheer level of individual biographical details these poems bring to their subject prevents the poems from resonating further in their relevance. But to be fair, the cover blurb states that these poems ‘illuminate Spencer’s creative legacy and engage the reader with the contradictory beatitudes of his art.’ On its own terms, this then might be better seen as a collection for afficionados of Stanley Spencer, Hilda Carline and their milieu. A minority sport maybe, but that’s something that enthusiasts of contemporary poetry are well used to.
R.I.P. Graham Burchell