link to University of Utah Home link to Marriott Library Home
Off Campus Access - Log In

Utah Artists Project Logo

Nathaniel I. Spens

Irvine Nathaniel Spens was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1838. He was a primitive rural painter, decorator, woodcarver, woodgrainer, and farmer. He died in Mountainville, Utah in 1916.

Spens participated in the decoration of the Salt Lake Tabernacle and also carved part of the staircase of The Church's Manti temple. Like other self-taught painters of his time, many of Spens's paintings were copies of calendar and magazine pictures.

The Deacon Jones' Experience (c. 1876) featured in the Springville Museum of Art permanent collection is an example of this painting style. He also painted genre scenes including   Couple Fishing by the Stone Bridge (1880) and Embarkation from Scotland (1867).

Biography adapted from the Springville Museum of Art.

Nathaniel Spens was born June 21, 1838, in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of copperplate printer master, James Spens, and his wife Isabella. Nathaniel was the eleventh child of thirteen and just before his fourteenth birthday, he was apprenticed to a painter and glazier. The apprenticeship lasted seven years.

When first apprenticed, young Nathaniel earned two shillings and six pence a week, which was gradually raised as his skills increased until he was earning six shillings a week for his last two years, out of which and with his family's help, (he is known to have lived at least some of the time with his sister Sarah) he had to provide for his food, lodging, and clothing.

Sometime in 1872, the Spens family moved to Salt Lake City, and over the next 19 years Spens' name can be found in the Salt Lake Directory with his occupation listed as “painter.“ The early pioneers had few luxuries and one way they decorated was by techniques such as “graining,“ making pine furniture look like hardwood. Nathaniel had brought a set of graining combs with him from England and was skilled in their use. He worked on the Salt Lake Temple and the Tabernacle, graining the pine benches and making the pine pillars look like marble. Some records indicate Nathaniel also did the wood graining in the baptistry of the Manti Temple.

In Salt Lake, Charles R. Savage, a successful photographer, had an art gallery that Nathaniel was able to frequent, being out of work at various times. He painted and perhaps traded the paintings for supplies; no records exist of any sales.

Nathaniel Spens was a self-taught painter and many of his paintings are copies from popular magazines, Chromos, and the like. His painting, Deacon Jones' Experience, was painted in 1876 and is based on a painting by American artist Archibald Willard (1836-1918) also entitled Deacon Jones' Experience.

In 1893, Charles R. Savage, the photographer and art gallery owner, took Nathaniel's best painting, The Battle of Trafalga, and some of his wood graining samples to Illinois where they were displayed as part of Utah's exhibit in the Chicago World's Fair.

Nathaniel continued to live on the farm and paint and grain woods until he died in 1916.

Biography adapted from The Springville Museum of Art.

Books

Davenport, Ray. Davenport's Art Reference. Ventura, CA: Davenport's Art Reference, 2001.

Dunbier, Roger, ed. North American Artists: The Artists Bluebook. Scottsdale, AZ: AskART.com, 2000.

Falk, Peter Hastings. Who Was Who in American Art, 1564-1975: 400 Years of Artists in America. Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999.

Falk, Peter Hastings, Who Was Who in American Art : Compiled from the Original Thirty-four Volumes of American Art Annual--Who's Who in Art, Biographies of American artists Active from 1898-1947. Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1985.

Haseltine, James L. 100 Years of Utah Painting: Selected Works from the 1840s to the 1940s. Salt Lake City, UT: Salt Lake Arts Center, 1965.

Olpin, Robert S., William C. Seifrit, and Vern G. Swanson. Artists of Utah. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 1999.

Opitz, Glenn B., ed. Dictionary of American Sculptors: "18th Century to the Present," illustrated with over 200 photographs. Poughkeepsie, NY: Apollo, 1984.

Samuels, Peggy and Harold Samuels. The Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976.

Swanson, Vern G., Robert S. Olpin, Donna Poulton, and Janie Rogers. 150 Year Survey of Utah Art, Utah Artists. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2001.

Swanson, Vern G., Robert S. Olpin, and William C. Seifrit. Utah Art. Layton, UT: Peregrine Smith Books, 1992.

Swanson, Vern G., Robert S. Olpin, and William C. Seifrit. Utah Painting and Sculpture. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 1991.

 Last Modified 8/28/13