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Hayletts Gallery

Biography for Humphrey Spender (1910 - 2005)

Humphrey Spender was the third son of Harold Spender, a journalist and writer.Humphrey's mother, Violet Schuster, came from a German family who had emigrated to Britain in the 1870s. Violet died in 1921 and Harold Spender died in 1926. Humphrey had two brothers, the poet Stephen Spender and the scientist and explorer Michael Spender, and one sister, Christine.

As a child, Humphrey learnt photography from his older brother Michael Spender and was given a handsome German camera for his tenth birthday. After attending Gresham's School, Spender initially studied art history at Freiburg University for a year, where he spent time with his brother, Stephen Spender, and other literary figures including Christopher Isherwood. During this period he gained exposure to continental European avant-garde photography and film. He enrolled at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, but became disinclined to practice as an architect. Soon after graduating from the school Spender decided to make a career in photography.

Spender’s initial motivation was to use photography as a tool for revealing social deprivation and human behaviour... He was given the job as the roving ‘Lensman’ by the Daily Mirror in 1935. In 1937 Spender became the photographer for the Mass Observation project, where he maintained the importance of being the ‘unobserved observer’. He subsequently worked for Picture Post magazine between 1937 and 1952, and as an Official War Office Photographer during World War 2.

In about 1955 he abandoned photography for painting and textile design, and taught at the Royal College of Art from 1953 until he retired in 1975.

In 1968, Spender moved to Ulting near Maldon, Essex.. This was the first built design by architect Richard Rogers, where he lived and worked at for 50 years. He was a versatile photographer, artist and designer during his lifetime, although perhaps best known as a photojournalist, followed by painter and textile designer, including the designer of the Maldon Millennium Embroidery.

Spender’s paintings and original prints are more colourful as he explores nature and the world around him. From the estuaries of The Blackwater to the textures and patterns found in flowers and landscapes. Even his most figurative art works have a surrealist edge, each delightfully imaginative and witty as he takes you on a journey of his vision. He often described working in his studio as ‘playing’, and it is this sense of awe wonder that shines through all of his work continually hoping that his paintings "might make people see differently".

As well as numerous mixed shows, Humphrey had solo exhibitions of his paintings at The Redfern in Cork Street and Leicester Galleries, New Art Centre. His commissions included work for Festival of Britain, British Rail and Shell International. He was also a tutor in the Royal College of Art textile department for a number of years.

A major retrospective of his photographs was mounted at the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut in 1997 and exhibitions of his work were held in both London and New York. Exhibiting regularly at The Photographers’ Gallery London, with photographs in Tate & V&A permanent collections amongst others contribute to Humphrey Spender becoming one of the main social chroniclers of his time.

Hayletts Gallery, Oakwood House, 2 High Street, Maldon, Essex CM9 5PJ

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