Humphrey Spender (1910-2005) Gross National Product

Humphrey Spender (1910-2005) Gross National Product

Humphrey Spender (1910-2005) Gross National Product


This painting depicts a gravel pit near Maldon in Essex where Humphrey Spender lived. The extraction of gravel from the water meadows in the beautiful Chelmer river valley by farmers and land owners upset Humphrey intensely. He even helped to set up a conservation association to protect the river valley. Gross National Product is therefore a witty and cynical title which refers to the way the countryside has become exploited for industry and big money.


Humphrey Spender trained as an architect but never actually practiced as such. Instead he got very much involved with painting, textile design and documentary street photography. He was a contemporary of Henry Cartier Bresson.

Humphrey was the youngest of four children of Harold Spender, a Liberal journalist and Violet Schuster, who was born in England but came from a German Jewish family who arrived in England in 1866. One of his brothers was the poet Stephen Spender.� As a child, at the age of nine, Humphrey was given a German camera and quickly learnt photography from his older brother Michael. He then was educated at Gresham’s School, Holt, and later went to Freiberg to study art history. After studying architecture he opened a photographic studio in the Strand in London with a fellow student.

In the 1930’s he was best known for his work as a documentary photographer recording pre-war Britain. One of his most famous pieces is his Worktown project for Mass Observation (1937-1938), a contribution to an anthropological field study of the British working-class. He later became one the photographers of the Picture Post where heremained during the Second World War.� In 1941, whilst working there he was called up for active service in World War Two and served as an official photographer for the War Office. Later during the war he worked in Photo-Interpretation.

After the war Humphrey concentrated more of his time on his painting and the Tate Gallery then acquired a number of examples of his work. Having won a textile-design competition judged by Henry Moore, he was noticed by Robin Darwin, Rector of the Royal College of Art who invited him to join the textile department, where he spent 20 years as a tutor. His public works include a huge textile inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry to commemorate the Battle of Maldon (1991). From his modernist house designed for him by Richard Rogers he held numerous shows of his paintings and ‘dotty objects’. In his studio he experimented with materials and techniques. Totally dedicated to his art he continued to work until he died at the age of 95. The Mass Observation archive is in the care of the University of Sussex.


Credit: Information provided by Rachel Spender, Humphrey Spender’s widow

Evelyne Bell