Unity Spencer: Lucky to be an artist
Published by Unicorn Press, 2015
The author of this book is the daughter of the English painter Sir Stanley Spencer, and herself became a painter. But, despite the title – or perhaps it is intended ironically – it is not really a book about art. Nor about her famous father. It is primarily the story of a woman’s painful life-time attempts to deal with childhood abandonment.
She was born in 1930 while her father was painting the now-famous Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere. But as she says plaintively later on, however much he loved her, ‘he preferred his painting to me’. Soon afterwards he abandoned the family for his relationship with Patricia Preece. By all accounts Stanley still loved his children, but that fell far short of making up for his absence from the family home; and Unity grapples with her anger towards him as well her adoration.
Meanwhile, her mother suffered bouts of mental illness, unrelieved by her beliefs in Christian Science. In something akin to a classic Victorian tale, Unity’s later childhood was overseen by a series of strict relatives, who induced her to internalise her anger as guilt.
‘I was very close to my father until that closeness was severed when I was three,’ she writes. ‘I was very close to my mother until that relationship was severed when I was eight.’ The rest of her life was spent looking for love and looking for ‘home’. One can only wonder, by the way, what her older sister Shirin felt. When Unity was to be born, Shirin was sent at the age of five to live with relations. Although she came home from time to time after that, she never lived permanently with her mother again.
The book traces Unity’s life, decade by decade, caught between a deep yearning for love and a terrible anxiety about intimacy. Her teenage years are characterised by awkwardness, loneliness and probably an exaggerated sense of responsibility for her mother in her declining health. Then, in her later twenties Unity experiences a belated adolescence. Perhaps typically of someone seeking a father-figure, she spends most of the 1960s in a relationship with a man twenty years older than her, Leslie Lambert. He, however, although charming in public, turns out to be increasingly controlling, angry and mentally abusive at home. Ultimately, only a series of court cases, culminating in a threat of instant imprisonment if he crosses her path again, frees Unity from this monster.
Their son, John, is the one bright light of unconditional love in her life. But as John was born outside wedlock before the Sixties got properly Swinging, Unity suffers further, if predictable, social isolation because of him, which only gradually recedes as mores change. At the same time, she comes to suffer further feelings of guilt that her continuing search for a man who will love her properly may have deprived John of some of the maternal love he should have enjoyed.
She suffers from low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and occasional manic episodes, and seeks in many places for a solution – therapy of various kinds, medication, Jungian analysis (the text is punctuated by accounts of her dreams), and Quakerism. She is attracted to Jesus in his dealings with vulnerable people, and she sees the benefits of forgiveness in releasing oneself from the burden of bitterness. But, perhaps in reaction to the false guilt induced by her upbringing, she seems convinced of an inner goodness within herself, and she seems to share the kind of universalist version of Christianity espoused by her father, in which emotional experience is mistaken for spiritual truth.
She has moments of insight when she realises she is whole in herself; need not depend on others; and does not have to carry the psychological burdens of her parents. But it is only in her seventies that she is freed from her depression when, invited to say at a Landmark Forum what she is going to give up, announces that she is giving up being a victim. Since that day, she writes, her depression has never returned.
The anger is now released fairly forcefully in the book, especially in the blame she lays on her own family for failing to rally round and help her to feel safe. However, she also recognises the vicious cycle that depression induces, failing to bring solace through isolation, and actively driving away the people that you need.
The story is told in an often disjointed style, which will be familiar to those with bipolar friends. One idea seems to spark another quite different thought, and many comments and memories are left dangling, while she returns to some episodes as if they were new information. There are also long lists, such as of Leslie’s faults and, later on, of positive things to draw from her life, poignant indicators of a writer struggling to gain control and make sense of life.
Her life as an artist finally begins to blossom in the 1990s. There is a sense that much of her art was therapeutic but she gained good reviews and considerable sales. Towards the end of the tale comes a longer and coherent account of her views on art, and the conflicts between discipline and freedom, craftsmanship and self-expression.
But this is not really a book about art. It is a terribly sad tale of the sins of the parents being visited upon their children. I hope it might be a solace to the increasing number of such children in our society.
[First published in Third Way magazine, June 2015]