Tuesday, April 23, 2013

John Spencer wouldn't like this

John Edward Spencer and Lady Elizabeth Brown, his lovely “Boo,” arrived in Cuernavaca in 1967.  They were traveling the country with the book "Mexico on $5 a Day" tucked under John’s arm. He read that across the street from the Cathedral there were cheap furnished apartments for rent in a building called La Casona. To their delight not only was an apartment available, it was a second story corner apartment with windows on two walls and a view of the cathedral. “How grand!” John is reported to have said. "This will be my studio; we'll live here too." When the apartment next door became available they moved into it keeping the corner apartment as John's studio. 

Neither apartment had much of a kitchen.  I first met this wonderfully eccentric English couple on a visit with Cuernavaca author May Brooks.  Boo prepared our tea using only an electric hot plate. They walked everywhere -- to art exhibits, cultural events, museums, movie theaters, banks, the post office, restaurants, and friends' homes.   Those frequenting downtown Cuernavaca came to recognize them.  Elizabeth attended St. Michael’s, the tiny English-language Anglican church. John, a Catholic convert, attended Mass at the Cathedral.

Poised and elegant, Elizabeth dressed in dark colors with her hair in a tight bun. Though quite a bit older than John she walked with her back ramrod straight. John always wore a suit coat and tie. The coat rarely matched his trousers, his shirt collar was usually frayed, and his tie askew.  Following Boo, with hunched shoulders and his hands clasped behind his back, he seemed older than Elizabeth.

John was a multifaceted artist.  Hundreds of sketchbooks were filled with his drawings.  He painted on canvas and carved river-smoothed stones with a dentist’s drill.  He created large, intricate metal sculpture.  He loved reflections.  In drawings, in oils on canvas, or in metal sculpture, the top is often the inverse of the bottom. 

John’s largest project,  "Spencer's Walls," surrounds the churchyard of the Three Kings church in northern Cuernavaca.   John was asked by a Canadian priest if he would design gates for the 17th century church.  John replied. "How can I design gates without walls?"  Spencer's many gates are marvelous pieces of metal sculpture that are often overlooked because of the immense, intriguing, fantasy of the stone walls he created to hold the gates.  

After Lady Elizabeth's death in 1986, John was distraught.  Everything in Cuernavaca reminded him of her. He needed to get away. With his rent paid ahead for just shy of two years to keep his Mexican residency permit, he left for a trip to India and Pakistan. 

Upon returning to Cuernavaca, he saw a chilling sign over the doorway of La Casona-- "Se Vende" (for sale).  John realized if the building sold he’d lose his studio and his beloved view of the cathedral.  

The man who traveled with "Mexico on $5 a Day" under his arm bought the building.  In cash.  By then La Casona hosted sixty tenement-like apartments.  John dreamed of converting the building into an art museum and cultural center for Cuernavacans and their visitors. The garden in the courtyard would be the fourth public green space in downtown Cuernavaca -- others being Revolution Park, the Borda Gardens, and the Cathedral's atrium.  His dream was so convincing that only two renters demanded financial compensation for moving out. John removed the top floor and took the building back to what it had been in the 1920s. 

When Sally Sloan, the director of the nearby Brady Museum, asked him what his plans were for La Casona, John replied "I want it to be 'The Met' of Cuernavaca." 

I was invited to John’s last birthday party on April 25, 2004.  Addressing his guests, he told us his longterm plans for La Casona.  I had a small digital camera in my pocket and filmed what he told us (you can view it at http://youtu.be/OXLXwK6Tbew). In that short video John asked us to speak up if what he wanted for La Casona wasn't being carried out after his death by saying "John wouldn't like this.  This wouldn't do for him."  

Unfortunately that’s where we are today. I've spoken up a number of times and said "John wouldn't like this."  In February I even chained myself to the entryway of La Casona during the inauguration of the exhibit "Instruments of Torture and Capital Punishment."  It is hard for me to imagine an exhibit that goes more counter to gentle John’s wishes than one displaying instruments of torture in his and Boo's bedroom.  

I feel certain that funding is available for “Cuernavaca's Met” if the expatriate community supports John Spencer's vision for La Casona. I have the required legal documents to make this happen.  However a positive public opinion is needed to pressure for such change. I know John Spencer would be delighted if we join to get La Casona, his legacy, back on track.  

Happy birthday Dear John!


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  2. John Spencer was a first cousin of my father (their mothers were sisters) and they were born two month apart. I have just added John to the family tree at ancestry.com and saw your youtube film and this whilst looking to find more information about him.

  3. I hope you are still looking at this site. I knew John and Boo in the early 1970s when I lived at La Casona. In some old papers I just read a description of one of his pieces he showed me one night -- it sounds like a fantasy now. I was delighted to run across this blog, despite the sorry 2013 fate of La Casona, the first place I lived in Latin America -- it turned out to be a journey that still has no end. Gracias!

  4. Elizabeth Brown (aka 'Boo') was my Mum's art teacher at school in Walthamstow, East London, in the 'thirties. They remained in contact after Mum's marriage in 1951, and Elizabeth's subsequent marriage to John. I can remember our visits to their house in Chingford, on the Essex borders, in the early 'sixties, and rooms full of John's work- recent canvasses from Italy, icons and sculptures made from old locks. The correspondence continued after their move to Mexico in 1965, until around the mid-'seventies, so I was delighted and fascinated to learn about their subsequent life together in South America, and John's life and activities after his beloved Boo died in 1986.
    What a wonderful gift to leave to their adopted city, thanks to Elizabeth's legacy and John's singular vision and determination. I would hope to be able to visit Cuernavaca one day when the global situation has improved, providence willing.