Spencer – St Francis and the Birds

It is tempting to dismiss this humorous painting, rejected by the Royal Academy in 1935, as naive, quaint and faintly ridiculous. But the image of St Francis as a fat friar surrounded by the ducks and chickens of the village is a witty example of Spencer’s depiction of Christianity as an everyday experience. Spencer used his own father, wearing dressing gown and slippers, as a model for the saint, and drew most of his inspiration from the daily life of his beloved village of Cookham in Berkshire.

In the painting St Francis flings his arms to the heavens as the birds watch in fascination or curiosity from behind him and from the nearby rooftop. Reminiscent of Gauguin’s brightly-coloured ‘primitive’ works depicting the paradise he found on the island of Tahiti or Pieter Bruegel’s earthy, riotous scenes of sixteenth-century Flemish daily life, the painting turns a simple village scene into an easy and uncomplicated biblical allegory.

However, this does not mean that we should take its simple, idyllic appeal at face value. Spencer worked as a stretcher-bearer and infantryman during World War I and had certainly seen his share of suffering. Although the charming farmyard setting of St Francis and the Birds is far from most people’s everyday experience of Christianity, Spencer draws out, in a lively and colourful visual language, the importance of finding human solace and a deeply religious foundation in seemingly mundane or trivial activities and gestures.

Rosie Razzall