What the Curation of The Cocktail Party Could Mean for Anne Spencer’s Legacy
Photos by Ashlee Glen
Although she never set foot in New York City, Anne Spencer was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
Spencer’s involvement in this hugely important cultural movement, which fostered and celebrated the intellectual and creative accomplishments of African Americans, began with a visit from James Weldon Johnson. In addition to being a renowned African-American writer, Johnson was also a civil rights activist and field secretary for the NAACP.
When he came to Lynchburg, he—along with Spencer and other activists—established a Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP. Johnson became fast friends with both Anne and Edward Spencer, and he discovered early on that Anne was a talented writer whose poems demanded exposure and deserved acclaim. Before long, Spencer had a poem published in The Crisis, an NAACP-published magazine, and another poem published in The New Negro: An Interpretation, a groundbreaking anthology of African-American work edited by Alain Locke, who is often referred to as the father of the Harlem Renaissance. Anne and Edward’s Pierce Street home quickly became a hub for African-American artists, writers, and intellectuals passing through the South.
Despite her increasing popularity and friendships with such prominent people as Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes, Spencer valued her privacy and enjoyed spending time working alone in her garden. Additionally, only about 30 of her poems were ever published even though she likely wrote at least a thousand during her lifetime.
“Anne’s poetry has activism in it, but it’s not in-your-face activism,” says Shaun Spencer-Hester, one of Anne’s granddaughters and the executive director and curator of the Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum. “She kind of used nature and incorporated it with activism to address things that she didn’t think were always fair or equal.”
Spencer’s simultaneous compulsion to write (and disinterest in seeking fame for her writing) led to the existence of a painting in the Spencer House with a fascinating backstory.
When it came to writing, no surface was off-limits for Spencer—including her own bedroom wall. Spencer would wake up in the middle of the night and write any number of things—poems, ideas, grocery lists—on the wall of the bedroom she shared with Edward. At one point, he suggested they have a painting done on the wall. Anne agreed.
“My grandfather was trying to protect my grandmother,” Spencer-Hester says.
“My grandfather had a pool table in the attic, and in order to get to the attic, you had to walk through my grandparents’ bedroom.
The community of people who knew of her knew she was a person who often wrote for privacy, so they could have said that the writing on the wall meant that she didn’t want to be bothered with people. They also could have said, ‘What about that Anne Spencer? She’s just too much!’
My grandmother wasn’t afraid to step out, but that wasn’t the kind of thing women did during that time period.”
Ultimately, Dolly Allen Mason, a friend of the Spencers, painted The Cocktail Party on a canvas that was pasted directly onto the Spencers’ bedroom wall in 1944. The painting depicts a large gathering of smiling, well-dressed men and women, along with two large disembodied grins in the background.
In a 2018 C-Span interview, Spencer-Hester mentioned that her grandmother said the painting was “about having to go to a party and put on a phony smile.” Spencer-Hester notes that this statement refers to her grandmother’s aversion to disingenuity rather than an aversion to social gatherings in general.
“She was definitely not an introvert, but she also didn’t need to have people tell her who she was,” Spencer-Hester says. “There was nothing phony about her and she would tell you exactly what she thought but was never cruel with her words. I think she was just saying that people don’t always act genuine at parties. When you go to a party, you’re in the moment, feeling out the room, and maybe you’re not really being you.”
There is another intriguing layer to The Cocktail Party: who it potentially depicts. Spencer-Hester speculates that some of Spencer’s famous friends may be portrayed in the painting.
“In my 12 years of involvement with the museum, I have gotten to know these people by reading my grandmother’s papers,” she says.
“They have really become familiar to me. I pass this painting daily, and one day I looked at the gentleman in the bottom righthand corner, at his profile, and I’m like, ‘That’s James Weldon Johnson with his big forehead! And that’s his wife Grace! And that could be W.E.B. Du Bois in the bottom lefthand corner with two of his smart women that he liked to travel with!’”
Spencer-Hester believes that Spencer herself might be depicted in the painting as well.
“My grandmother used to talk about, and has written about, her and her friend Mary Rice putting on their best red dresses or red hats, and that meant that they meant business,” Spencer-Hester says. “When they wore red, that meant they were going out into the community to do some shaking up!
In the painting, you can see two women with red on, so maybe that’s them.”
Regardless of the particular figures portrayed in the painting, its historical and cultural significance are undeniable. In January, The Cocktail Party was selected from more than 40 applicants as one of the Virginia Association of Museum’s “Virginia’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts.” Although the top two prizes ultimately went to other artifacts at other museums, the Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum received an award of $500 to put towards the painting’s restoration.
Mark Wittl, conservator and owner of Virginia Art Conservation and Restoration, LLC, recently met with Spencer-Hester to look at the painting. “It is a well-executed, whimsical painting of social interaction in happier times,” Wittl says.
“I am thrilled to be a part of this exciting project and hope the joy I personally feel when I complete a restoration can be shared by all who view it in the future.”
Following a May visit to inspect the painting, Wittl returned to the Spencer House in June to remove the oil-on-canvas artwork from the wall—a necessary part of the restoration process since portions of the wall are experiencing internal failures, he explained.
The removal was successful, but intense—it took Wittl about four hours to extract the canvas inch by inch. He transported the painting to his studio in Roanoke for restoration, which includes cleaning, mounting it to a suitable substrate, touching-up and framing. Wittl believes the entire process will take eight to 12 weeks.
After it’s restored, the original painting will be framed; a copy will be printed and rehung inside the museum where the original used to be located. Spencer-Hester also says they are making some limited edition copies available for purchase, with proceeds going toward the restoration of The Cocktail Party.
Once the painting came off the wall, Spencer-Hester was thrilled to unearth another surprise: more art. The Cocktail Party was covering up three smaller paper paintings. “One of the three paintings is intact. The other two adhered to The Cocktail Party,” she said.
As The Cocktail Party is restored, Spencer-Hester is excited to investigate these new pieces of her grandmother’s past—and hopefully unearth more secrets of her legacy as well.
“There is another layer to remove as we get down to the plaster. Dranny’s scribbling on the wall has yet to be seen,” said Spencer-Hester. “How exciting to find the artwork. It adds another layer to the story. Oh, if these walls could talk…”