By Julie Marshall
Have you ever noticed the painting of the swans which hangs in the smaller of the two main rooms in the Village Hall? Even if you have noticed it, do you know who it is by and how it comes to belong to the Village Hall? We have unravelled part of the story but if any reader knows more, please contact us and share your knowledge
What we do know is that the picture was painted by Arthur Spencer Roberts in 1971 and, some years later, was bought by a Mrs Marion Winter who we believe was a local resident who later donated it to the Village Hall.
Though Spencer Roberts lived much of his life locally, he was not originally from Sussex.
He was born 8th June 1920 at 2 Blackrock Road, Cork, the son of Arthur Meyrick Roberts and Catherine Isabella Spencer. His father was a military man rising to bandmaster in the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Roberts senior eventually left the army and became a trombone player for the Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow (1923-27) but the family moved to Hastings around 1928 on medical grounds because a warmer climate was deemed to be beneficial for young Arthur’s TB. And so they settled in Hastings.
The family lived at Wynbury, 35 Fearon Road, Hastings. Spencer attended St Mary in the Castle School, did well in swimming, and, in 1939 aged 19, was selected for the team for the 100m freestyle in the Olympics scheduled to take place in 1940. In the event WWII deprived him of the opportunity to show what he could do. Instead he attended the Hastings College of Art under Phillip Cole and Percy Badham. He was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art but before he could take it up he was called up to serve in WWII.
He had already joined the 114th Field Regiment (Royal Artillery) of the TA in 1938 and had trained with guns taken from Hastings Museum. On call-up he then volunteered as a RAF pilot, training first at Scarborough and then Perth, flying Tiger Moth and Miles Magister aircraft. However, his RAF service was cut short. He was sent to the USA for fighter training in Tomahawks, but in 1942 he crashed, surviving uninjured, but received a severe head injury when rescued. He then went to Canada and trained as bomb aimer and Navigator before becoming a navigator instructor, with the rank of Flight Lieutenant in the Royal
Canadian Airforce before being declared permanently unfit to fly as a consequence of his crash injury.
In 1943 he was recalled to the army in England and took part in the film The Way Ahead directed by Carol Reed. He returned to the Royal Artillery and was stationed in India and Pakistan as a gunner before going to Burma where he endured miserable conditions but where his artistic skills were employed to scout and make drawings of enemy positions.
After hostilities ended and whilst still in India Spencer Roberts did several murals in hospitals and at the Palace of the Maharajah of Mysore often featuring the animals which became something of an obsession. He was demobbed in 1946 and returned to Sussex, where he married Mavis E Board of St Leonards in St Mary Magdalen Church, Hastings that same year.
Roberts returned to Hastings School of Art until 1948 gaining his fine art degree and then he went to Brighton School of Art to obtain a teaching diploma. He taught briefly at Hastings School of Art before returning to Canada to Vancouver University as a lecturer in the History in Art. He then worked in Canada as a commercial artist before returning to Sussex in the mid-1950s. There followed a period as a school teacher for eight years at the Downs School, using art as therapy. In 1951 and 1953 he exhibited with East Sussex Arts Club.
In 1965 Spencer and Mavis went off in a caravan to Scotland but returned to Rye and eventually to one of the coastguard cottages at the Haddocks in Fairlight. But, as we know, the cliff eroded in 1978 so they were forced to move and settled into the former boathouse once used to construct the Royal Military Canal.
Spencer Roberts was particularly active during the 1970s and 80s including the commission in 1985 to paint the murals at Lympne, Kent for John Aspinall brilliantly depicting over two hundred species of jungle animals. They are still to be seen in the house at Port Lympne Wildlife Park near Hythe.
In 1985 there was an exhibition of his wildlife paintings at Hastings Museum and Art Gallery. He died aged 77 years in 1997. His wife Mavis wrote his biography Chiaroscuro: The life of Arthur Spencer Roberts in 2004.
And so, back to the swan picture and how it comes to be in the Village Hall. In 1984 we understand that Spencer Roberts donated the painting to the Village Hall. It was immediately agreed that the painting be sold and the proceeds kept by the Village Hall. Members of the Fairlight History Group have inspected the picture, including the various labels and markings on the back. Paul Draper enlisted the help of local auction room Burstow and Hewett of Battle. From their information it seems that it was put up for auction at Sotheby’s on 15th October 1987 with an estimate of £600-£800, but was unsold! (Who remembers what happened that night in 1987?). The painting has remained in the Village Hall ever since. But we are delighted to have kept it for it provides a tangible link to a prominent and internationally successful artist who had a strong local connection and who is remembered by other members of Fairlight’s strong artistic community.
EAST SUSSEX ARTS CLUB started around 1890 and I am interested in past exhibitors, so if you have a painting with a similar logo on the back, I would love to take a photo for the club archive. Julie Marshall 813104