Sheet of slides showing geometric paintings, handwritten captions on slide frames

Hannah Waters: Encountering the Jean Spencer Archives

The afternoon is cold and crisp. I’m a little early, so I take my time as I wander through to the Women’s Art Library, clutching a green slip of paper with my name and the time of my appointment scribbled on it in biro. I’m met by the curator of the Women’s Art Library, Dr Althea Greenan; I introduce myself and the reason for my visit. I am a PhD student, and my practice research project centres around the archives of my great aunt, constructivist artist Jean Spencer. My position is one of multiplicity: researcher, great niece, practitioner, childlike observer. I grew up with Jean’s paintings and relief works displayed around me in my family home, but without the artist herself: I was only a young child when Jean passed away in 1998. My interest now is in encountering her archives, the traces she left behind, and the pull I feel to activate her work in the present moment. I want to understand the principles of her work through physical engagement with them as part of a movement practice, using my body to explore the rules and systems that guided her: geometry, repetition, shape, line, mathematical sequence. My practice aims to embody these principles whilst also exploring my relationship to Jean herself: the memories that arise, the associations that emerge. It is a process of accessing the insights that are held in the archive, activating them, and sharing my experience of them through a mode of performance.

White geometric shapes on a rectangular canvas

Two square canvases painted with colourful triangles
Jean’s paintings in the family home. Photos by Hannah Waters

Althea tells me that she remembers my grandmother bringing Jean’s archival material to her when the Library was situated at Fulham Palace. There is something of that same contraction of time in my presence here, now, ready to encounter her archive over twenty years later. The Jean Spencer folder is laid out for me on the desk, the anticipation building as I open the cover.

I am drawn to the slides first; they hold me for a long time. I recognise my grandmother’s handwriting on the labels, some of the paintings depicted in the tiny frames. Jean’s work is meticulous: geometric, straight lines and angles systematically constructed through precise calculation and colour theory. There is something transient about holding the slides up to the light – the trace of the work, but not the work itself, both there and not there: my experience of Jean. The slides themselves are little windows into rooms where Jean’s work hung.

Sheet of slides showing geometric paintings, handwritten captions on slide frames
Slides of Jean’s work in the Women’s Art Library. Photo by Hannah Waters

The way the light filters through the transparency reminds me of an essay by Jean where she wrote about her paintings having “different, changing effects… made anew in each hanging/space/light (performance) and in each viewing subject (response)” (Spencer, 1994). Her work performs here, too, each painting reanimated in its frame, as responsive to space and light as the full-sized canvases that hang in my family home.

I like the idea that experiencing a painting can be a performance, and that this performance is co-created through painting, viewer, space, and the changing light of the day. The interaction of all these contextual elements blurs the boundaries between energy and inertia. Matter comes alive here, and I recognise this feeling. I have felt this liveliness in my engagement with Jean’s paintings all my life, something drawing me in, persisting.

There are programmes from Jean’s exhibitions in amongst the archive material, shows in 1969, 1974, 1996. As I hold them in my hands, I wonder who has held them before: Jean herself, maybe? I feel a pull towards holding what she held, leafing through the same book, a repeated gesture across the years, across generations. Tightening threads in the fabric of time.

Memories arise as I sift through the material: a proportion is memorial documentation, copies of readings and tributes. I remember my mother telling me that she’d read at the funeral, telling the story of when Jean took her to a Monet exhibition at the Royal Academy. It was packed, but Jean led them around to the end of the gallery, telling them to work backwards against the flow of the crowd. They would experience something unique this way, something different to the masses, moving at their own pace. My mother saw this as a metaphor for how Jean lived her life: going against the grain, against expectation.

There are a couple of photos of Jean, with colleagues, working. My mind wanders to my only real memory of her: a sunny day spent with the family at the Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park, London, the azaleas in full flower, then back to Jean’s for a lunch of dippy eggs and soldiers. I remember the colours: brick red, a deep purple, and the golden egg yolk.

I think about how the physical act of engaging with these archives, touching, sharing space with them, gives rise to these memories, to a mind constantly making associations. I imagine a transfer happening in the interface between materials: my interaction with them as activating, animating, feeding forward. A continuance of creative life.

A figure performing a sequence of ten poses
Practical exploration of Jean’s work. Photo by Hannah Waters

In my research and my practice, I am interested in the activation of archival material, of going beyond the fixed repository of the archive and into a creative process of ‘anarchiving’ (Massumi in Murphie, 2016). To me, anarchiving is a process of animation: activating dormant matter and accessing the knowledge that is held in an archive through physical engagement with it. Touching, holding, allowing memories to arise, moving with and through the materials and their creative potential, taking these ideas into the body and experimenting with them practically. The term ‘anarchive’ speaks to “that which is not contained by archive, that which is without archive, particularly those things that cannot be captured by documents, fragments, and text” (Zaayman, 2014:319). I like this way of understanding the anarchive because it encompasses both presence and absence, and it is the intermingling of the two that characterises my experience of Jean throughout my life: the presence of her work, her archives, the presence of memory, but the absence of Jean herself.

For me, this anarchival impulse is physical, it’s a call to action and interaction, a feeling of being pulled towards something. I am pulled to touch, hold, examine, to think deeply, to try to understand the rules, systems and underlying structures present in Jean’s work. I am pulled to experience this knowledge in my body: I take this impulse into my practice, using movement to think through my experiences with Jean’s archival material. How does this angle, shape, repetition, feel in my body? It is a moment of encounter, and a meeting of bodies – in this case human and archival – the site where dormant matter is animated, spurred forward. It happens in the present, but the pull I feel is also temporal: the sense of the past interweaving with the present, persisting into the future.

I close the folder, but my engagement with Jean’s work lingers on. I turn over ideas in my mind as I leave the Library and walk back towards the station: geometry, duration, relationship. I wonder what I will take into the studio with me: a repeated gesture, a particular shape, that feeling of the unfolding of time. In the fading light, the sky just verges on the promise of deep violet; the colour makes me think of Jean.

Pink and purple sunset over a residential street
Photo taken upon leaving the Women’s Art Library, 06/01/22. Photo by Hannah Waters

Hannah Waters is an artist-researcher and PhD student in Visual and Material Cultures at Northumbria University.


Massumi, B. (2016) ‘Working Principles’ in Murphie, A. [Ed] The Go-To Book of Anarchiving, Montreal: SenseLab.

Spencer, J. (1994) Looking Long and Hard At, essay accessed via Jean Spencer Archive, London: Chelsea College of Arts.

Zaayman, C. (2014) ‘Anarchive (Picturing Absence)’ in Hamilton, C. and Skotnes, P. [Eds] Uncertain Curature: In and Out of the Archive, Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jacana Media.

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