7 November 2015

Stanley Spencer

Cookham - A Village in Heaven

A Village Made in Heaven,
The Cookham War Memorial

We motored across the Chilterns, my father piloting our black Vauxhall, registration FOW 34, an L series Wyvern I think. Down through Bourne End and across the meadows to the 1867 iron bridge at Cookham.

The Thames at Cookham

At Turk’s boatyard, famous for swan-upping, we hired a small motor boat and puttered upstream to the railway bridge, the river gently swirling past the reedy banks. Or perhaps we splashed about in a skiff?  It was one of those sunny days in my childhood that lingers, somehow caught in the eddies of memory, occasionally surfacing in the light of dreams, my affections for family confused with images of Ratty and Mole.

The railway bridge

I wasn’t to know, but at the time Lord Astor, of nearby Cliveden (and later Mandy Rice-Davies) fame was making arrangements for a sixty-eight year old artist to return to his birthplace at Fernlea in Cookham High Street. Stanley Spencer had earlier been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone an operation at the Canadian War Memorial Hospital which was then on the nearby Cliveden Estate. He went to convalesce with friends in Dewsbury, but returned to Cookham, and then died, at Cliveden, on December 14th, 1959.

Odney Common, and just visible, top right, the clock tower of Cliveden

It was years later, when living at Ascot, that I returned to walk in the meadows alongside the Thames here. The boatyard by the bridge, memorialised in Spencer’s painting, had gone, destroyed, I believe, by fire, and the far bank of the river seemed to have sprouted houses where once cattle grazed, but much of the village and the surrounding scenery was still recognisable.

Stanley Spencer Gallery

Just recently, I passed by again, to see an exhibition of The Creative Genius of Stanley Spencer at the Stanley Spencer Gallery, which incorporates loans from the Stanley Spencer collections of Aberdeen and Leeds Art galleries. A former Wesleyan Chapel, built in 1846 in Cookham High Street, is the home of the gallery.  Spencer himself used to attend services here, and his uncle was one of the preachers. The chapel closed in 1910, but was for many years used as a reading room, and then became the studio of another local artist. In 1962 it opened as The Stanley Spencer Gallery with the largest single display of his work, although Tate Britain, following its acquisition of archives in 1973, holds the greatest collection of his paintings, drawings and writings. Thanks to a grant of £800,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Gallery was refurbished in 2006/7.

Fernlea, built by Spencer's grandfather

The gallery is a delightful memorial to this artist, described by Dr James Fox, Art Historian, as one of the most original artists of the twentieth century. His paintings are beautiful, inimitable and irresistibly uplifting. To look at his 1935/6 paintings of Domestic Scenes, such as Neighbours in which one of Spencer’s sisters passes a bunch or red tulips to her cousin over the high hedge at Fernlea, the house where the family lived in the High Street, or At the Chest of Drawers where he is seen helping his first wife, Hilda, rummage in their bedroom chest, is to see into a very intimate world of everyday life.

A copy of Spencer's The Last Supper
Commissioned from Sharon Brindle
Hanging in Holy Trinity Church, Cookham

On the other hand, to see Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill, 1935 is to see the awkwardness of his second marriage set in the landscape he loved.

Cockmarsh, beside the Thames

And then there is the vast canvas (over two by five metres) of the unfinished Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta, 1952-9 in which he links Cookham with religion, as he did throughout his artistic life. 

Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta, 1952-9
Photo by kind permission of the Stanley Spencer Gallery

In this picture Christ, wearing a black straw hat, preaches to the villagers from a wicker chair set in the horse ferry barge, by the Ferry Hotel near the bridge. 

The Ferry Hotel, where Christ preached at the Regatta

Unfortunately Spencer died before he could complete this work, but others in the current exhibition, such as The Betrayal, 1919 and Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, 1921, and others at the Tate, such as The Resurrection, Cookham, 1924 -26 and St Francis and the Birds, 1935  show very clearly how his imagination brought religious subjects and his home village together in an extraordinary way. Cookham was indeed to him an earthly paradise.

Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere

Some years ago I stood, alone, in the Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere.  The chapel was built to Spencer’s specifications, funded by the generous patronage of Louis and Mary Behrend, as a memorial to Mary’s brother, Lieutenant Henry Sandham, who had been killed in the war. The walls, covered with Stanley Spencer’s paintings of scenes from his own experience with the Royal Army Medical Corps and then as an infantryman with the Berkshire Regiment in Macedonia, reminded me of my grandfathers, my direct lines to the extraordinary sufferings of the First World War and its aftermaths. 

For the Fallen:  Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere

Stanley Spencer’s elder brother, Sydney, died in action, in 1918, and his name is one of the many listed on the village war memorial at edge of Cookham Moor.

 Sydney Spencer's name on the Cookham War Memorial

Stanley Spencer came from a remarkable family. He was the eighth child to survive, and the second youngest. His father, Pa William, was a music teacher, and the family produced a knight, two professors, a concert violinist, a professional stage conjurer, the Director of the National Building Institute in London, an Oxford graduate (Sydney, who was killed in the war), the wife of a Cambridge don and two professional artists, as the youngest, Gilbert, was also a successful painter. Father read to his children from literature and the bible; they were surrounded by music and books, and all of them learned to play instruments.

Fernlea, Spencer's birthplace

Stanley was initially home-schooled by two of his sisters, but later attended Maidenhead Technical Institute and then the Slade School of Fine Art. Before the War he had already begun to win prizes and gain attention, and then in 1919 he was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee to create a painting for a never completed hall of remembrance.  The work, entitled Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916, is now in the Imperial War Museum, along with a number of Spencer’s other paintings.

Cookham High Street

For a high proportion of the rest of his life, Spencer resided and worked in, or near, Cookham, though memorably he visited Port Glasgow many times during World War Two when commissioned to produce a series of paintings of shipbuilders on the Clyde

The Thames by Cockmarsh

His first marriage, to Hilda Carline, ended in divorce in 1937, and his second marriage, to Patricia Preece, was solemnised a week after the divorce came through, but was never consummated. He had two daughters, one of which, Unity, born in 1930, recently published her autobiography, Lucky to be an Artist.

The Maltings, part of the School Lane Brewery

During his last years he was a familiar figure in Cookham, wheeling an old pram (now preserved in the Gallery) in which he carried his paints and brushes and an umbrella.  He was a slight, scruffy figure who rarely washed and who sometimes wore his pyjamas under his suit if it was chilly.  

With kind permission of The Stanley Spencer Gallery

For twelve years up to his death he was looked after by Mrs Emily Price, his daily help, who said she had to bully him to get his hair cut and to let her wash his clothes.  The people of Cookham loved this kind and generous, eccentric genius, and children often clustered around his easel as he worked.

Holy Trinity Church

Stanley Spencer’s cremated remains were buried near the path to Bellrope Meadow in Holy Trinity churchyard. A memorial stone is inscribed: 

To the memory of Stanley Spencer Kt. CBE RA, 1891–1959, and his wife Hilda, buried in Cookham cemetery 1950. Everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God: He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love

Heavens Above

The village of Cookham may, perhaps, not be everyone’s idea of heaven, but it was Stanley Spencer’s, and that is where he now is.  In a village.  In heaven.

Cookham Moor


Here, in the beauty of this River Village,

God gave a man some vision of His Light,

He saw the Glory, and, within his Parish,

Sought to interpret it for our delight.

In simple faith, this fortunate Immortal

Nurtured his talent, exercised his art,
Touching the cold grey canvasses with beauty,
Borne on his brush the pictures in his heart.

See with your own small eyes, his world around you,
Walk through his lanes and sit beneath his trees.
Can you see Christ, as he did, in a boater?
Can you hear God, as he did, in the breeze?

Paints them in dearest detail on his walls,
Shows us the mire and misery of battle,
Echoes the empty brag of bugle calls.

Thousands have seen and walked the humble gardens,
The leafy lanes, and river paths he trod.
The places in which everyone sees beauty, 
Are where he painted Mary, and saw God.

We must be glad that he has seen things for us,
Revealed his memories, and portrayed his mind.
Those whom he knew rejoice because they knew him,
And mourn all anonymous mankind.


Stanley Spencer
by his friend Reca McGibbon

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