Friends First - Work in Focus: Zacharias and Elizabeth, 1913, Stanley Spencer

Stanley Spencer, Zacharias and Elizabeth, 1913-14. © Estate of Sir Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images

Sheffield’s Visual Art collection includes thousands of paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings, prints and watercolours. It is an extremely varied collection, which reflects the personal interests of collectors, directors and curators who over the years have helped it to grow and develop. The two main benefactors who laid the foundations for the visual art collection are John Newton Mappin (1800-1883) and John George Graves (1866-1945).

Sheffield’s Visual Art collection comprises predominantly of British and European works from the 16th century to the present day, many of which are on display at the Graves Gallery. The collection is particularly notable for its works from the modern British period, which represent one of the most significant holdings in the country outside London.

In this Friends First, we wanted to bring you closer to one of the jewels in Sheffield’s collection, Stanley Spencer’s Zacharias and Elizabeth, 1913, which is often on display in Gallery 5.

Stanley Spencer, Zacharias and Elizabeth, 1913-14. © Estate of Sir Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images

Zacharias and Elizabeth was purchased in 1999 jointly with Tate, and the work shares its time between London and Sheffield. The acquisition was made possible thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Art Collections Fund, the Friends of the Tate Gallery, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson and private benefactors.

The biblical story of Zacharias and Elizabeth occurs at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. Zacharias, a priest, is visited by the Archangel Gabriel while burning incense in the temple. Gabriel tells him that although Elizabeth is too old to bear children, she will give birth to a son given to her by God. That child will grow up to become John the Baptist.

In this work, Spencer employs a technique used during the Renaissance to depict multiple scenes happening at different times through the clever use of picture planes. In the painting, the scene you see at the back of work takes place at a different time to that in the foreground; this technique allows the story of Zacharias and Elizabeth to be depicted in one painting and therefore read as one image.

Museums Sheffield's Curatorial team have recently been researching the history of the painting and its previous owners. In this image you can see the work hanging in the London living room of English artist and designer Mary Adshead during the 1960s:

Zacharias and Elizabeth, 1913, Stanley Spencer - hanging int he home above mantelpiece

The Image was taken by Robert Blomfield, the son of Mary’s close friend Agnes Blomfield, who lived in Sheffield with her husband and children. It was due to this friendship that the painting eventually became part of Sheffield’s Visual Art collection.

Home has a special place in Spencer’s work. In many of his paintings he illustrates and depicts biblical stories and narratives, but unusually he chooses to set his visionary compositions in the landscape of his village of Cookham, Berkshire, and Zacharias and Elizabeth is no exception. Spencer describes this mixing of his everyday environment and biblical narraritive as giving his painting a quality of ‘me-myselfness’. This work actually started life being painted on Spencer’s kitchen table; in this painting, the traditional temple setting of this biblical story has been replaced with a garden scene in Cookham. The garden is that of an empty house called St George’s Lodge, which was owned by Spencer's wealthy neighbour. 

We're used to seeing great works of art on the walls of museums and galleries, but it's fascinating to explore their previous lives and see how they formed part of the general day to day of those who once owned them. That's especially true of this work, which itself sees the everyday and the world on Spencer's doorstep take on such elevated and important role. 

Images (top to bottom):

  • Stanley Spencer, Zacharias and Elizabeth, 1913-14. © Estate of Sir Stanley Spencer / Bridgeman Images
  • Stanley Spencer’s Zacharias and Elizabeth in the home of Mary Adshead. Photo: Robert Blomfield.


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