Matt Retallick
Spencer Shakespeare

a text on the work of artist Spencer Shakespeare, Autumn 2021

Pink is the colour of Sea Thrift. Its flowers sit in dense mounds along the Cornish coast, punctuating the green tangle of salt-sprayed grass. That same pink is seen in the paintings of Spencer Shakespeare. His work is, after all, a direct engagement with the landscape of Cornwall, but rarely about places you can pinpoint on a map. His drawings, produced mostly plein air, are a starting point for paintings that are a complex exploration of experience. Imagination holds an equal importance to recollection and memory, each work is a culmination of life encounters, but also a daydream where magic is allowed to permeate.

As a kid, Spencer regularly visited Cornwall, and he recalls many long journeys, and how the county gradually came into focus. Its landscape turning more natural, ancient, and otherworldly the deeper the car travelled into the county. He remembers being made aware of nature like nowhere else, the weather constantly changing, and catching sight of wildlife, for example a hovering buzzard, which he still considers a signifier of luck. Spencer now lives in St Buryan, a small village near equidistant between Penzance and Land’s End, yet it’s far removed from either. Mysteries are part of its fabric, with lichen encrusted Celtic crosses, Neolithic remains, and the Merry Maidens standing stones - girls turned into rock for daring to dance on a Sunday.

It’s this, the heart of Penwith, where Spencer feels at home, amongst his friends, the trees, streams, and timeworn monuments. All of this finds place in his paintings, with clouds blocked-out in thick white, the arc of a gull wing in flight, leafless tree branches reaching upwards, racing-green moorland, and sea spray tussling with magenta skies. Fleeting moments observed at the edges and boundaries of the land, with Spencer allowing us a glimpse into his intimate relationship with it. He paints for nobody but himself, creating his own version of reality, bolder, brighter, dauntless. The paintings are both rooted to real landscapes and imagined portals into another realm, familiar on one hand, ethereal and fairy-tale on the other. You are invited in and given permission to get lost in Spencer’s shimmering, radiant world. The local landscape is a means to unlock himself, to dream of ideals, utopias, rather than something to be faithfully transcribed. It is this position that sets him apart from many Cornish painters.

His choice of acrylic paint reflects the urgency of committing an image to canvas, and charcoal is often the quickest means of capturing fragments of memory as they surface. This conserves a powerful energy that defines his finished paintings, and mirrors Spencer himself, tireless and spirited. He wades through streams, climbs over hedgerows, sits on cliff edges, he’s an artist who truly lives his work. This engagement with nature is his safe space where wisdom can be absorbed, and each painting retains the spell of knowledge.

Spencer’s work stems from a sincere passion and admiration for his local environment, and the results are refreshingly honest. They are uncomplicated, they do not attempt to be unnecessarily clever, or something they are not. Regardless of whether the places depicted are real, the paintings certainly are - authentic and heartfelt. There’s alchemy in every canvas.

Image: Two Trees by Spencer Shakespeare.