1958 Stanley Spencer with his old pram chassis walking down a Cookham lane with his easel and canvas. The pram chassis can be seen in the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham High Street, along with his crayon and palette and well-worn Bible.
Stanley Spencer was born in Cookham in 1892, one of eleven children. His grandfather was the village builder, his father William, a professional musician and organist at a nearby church, with a passion for the Bible. He is said to have been an enterprising eccentric who used to ride a lady's bike around the village, as he recited Ruskin. When, as a boy, Stanley chose art for a profession, no obstacle was put in his way and in due course he went to the Slade School of Fine Art, travelling daily to and from his home in Cookham. Those years were splendid times at the Slade, where the finest art teaching in Europe was being given to a host of brilliant students. At the Slade he was nicknamed "Cookham" because he seldom stopped talking about the place. His fearsomely influential teacher at the Slade, Professor Tonks, got him a scholarship, which was then denied him on the grounds of his general academic incompetence.
Sir Stanley paints under his famous umbrella. The fiery 5' 2" man with the silvery thatch of hair may one day be acknowledged as one of Britain's greatest religious painters since the Middle Ages. Although in his lifetime he was one of the most controversial. From 1916-1918 Spencer served as a hospital orderly with the Field Ambulance Service in Macedonia. There he was a daily witness to carnage and human suffering. Spencer was prepared to serve his fellow men in humility and to try and make amends for their pain. This notion of redemption was one that remained with the artist all his life.
He turned to the Bible for his inspiration and to his village, Cookham, for the setting of many of his pictures. Apart from serving in the RAMC during the first World War and brief stops around UK, Switzerland and China, he never really left Cookham, the source of his inspiration.
"When I was young about the village as a child, I was aware of a wonderful something which was everywhere to be felt, it was bang all around me, it was heaven as clear as the Cookham day"
Spencer with a neighbour in High Road. Stanley Spencer was married to Hilda Carline in 1925 for 11 years. Spencer continued to write love letters to her long after her death. During his marriage to Hilda, Spencer met Patricia Preece, with whom he became infatuated. Spencer wanted to keep both women. Hilda's brother wrote "He has no wish to lose Hilda, but wanted Patricia, not merely as a visitor but to reside with them, as he hoped. It was characteristic of him to presume that his desires, whatever they might be, must be acceptable. He could not tolerate being thwarted." In 1937 Spencer divorced Hilda and married Patricia. For their honeymoon Patricia went down to St Ives, to be followed later by Spencer, who was finishing a painting in Cookham. Hilda travelled down to Cookham and Spencer on arrival in Cornwall admitted to Patricia to having made love to Hilda and was amazed at Patricia's expression of abhorrence. In the late '30s he told Fr D'Arcy, Master of Campion Hall, the Jesuit House at Oxford, "I've got two wives, one divorced and one not and I feel equally married to both." Hilda's ultimate rival was not Patricia, but the sacred spirit of Cookham. An unequal competition she could never win.
1957 Stanley buys a Christmas decoration. To Spencer Cookham was the village of his dreams. He was a story telling painter and he presented the literature of the Bible as incidents of Cookham village life. To Spencer it was all quite simple. Why should not Christ carry his Cross through the High Street, past brick houses and iron railings, beneath the gaze of women who watch from windows where lace curtains blow? Spencer brought miracles of the Old Testament into Cookham High Street. There go Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors, St Francis and the Birds, Villagers and Saints. But he was in an age that was horrified by such simple straightforward things. In a Resurrection painting he has included an old country woman trimming the grass of a grave because she had explained to him "I like to give mother a clip". Spencer was a visionary who brought together the common life around him and the splendours of the imagination.
1958 Stanley Spencer in front of Cookham Church. Stanley Spencer was knighted in June 1959 and was for more than 30 years in and out of the news with his vivid controversial pictorial conceptions of religious subjects that in turn brought him high praise and also heavy criticism. His resurrection picture created fierce controversy. It depicted the graves opening in Cookham churchyard and local people arising to the sound of the Last Trumpet. "Back to the bottle" was a frequent utterance of the painter, the "bottle" being another Resurrection picture. In his eyes Christ came to Cookham, and the Resurrection took place in the local graveyard. It contains the figures of Moses and other prophets, ranged in stone seats along the church wall. Soon after Spencer completed the picture, the patronage of the Behrand family enabled him to spend five years painting his own Sistine in the tiny chapel in the village of Burghclere, near Newbury. The chapel is now owned by the National Trust. To him the visions were no less real than the village of Cookham where we lived.
Later in his life Stanley Spencer lived at Cliveden View in Cookham Rise. In an upstairs room at his house he had set down on canvases great and small, a vivid story of his life. His early childhood, places remembered, his religious beliefs and the beauty with which his village of Cookham is endowed.
Spencer made Cookham, its church, bridge, stretch of Thames, cottages, fields and its flowers world famous. In 1958 he held an exhibition at Cookham Church in aid of church funds, this was the year he became very ill and underwent an operation for cancer at the nearby Canadian War Memorial Hospital.
The scruffy little figure who seldom washed and looked like a scarecrow, once said "I am on the side of the angels and dirt", was a familiar sight in Cookham as he painted. He took an umbrella and pram with him wherever he want. When he went for his knighthood from the Queen, he carried his old shopping bag with him to Buckingham Palace. His daily help for twelve years, Mrs Emily Price said she used to sew on his buttons and try and keep him clean. She said "He was a pet. He was also in may ways like a child. I had to bully him into getting his hair cut and letting me wash his clothes." Two sisters who lived at the end of his lane said that he would drop in and say "Can I have a tinkle" and he would sit down at their piano and play Bach and Chopin. People in Cookham loved the eccentric, grubby little genius, he was kind, gentle and generous. Even the children of Cookham adored him and would cluster around his easel and watch spellbound.
1959 Stanley Spencer with his unfinished painting of 'Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta'. This was the painting that Stanley was working on when he died in 1959. It is a bustling exciting picture, full of people, full of colour, full of life.
A row of punts is lined up along one bank and sitting on a red cushion in a wicker chair in Cookham's Old Horse Ferry is a bearded man in a black straw hat. This is Christ as Sir Stanley Spencer depicted him. He is surrounded by disciples and children in the old ferry boat that used to ply up and down the Thames. All around is the summertime confusion, crowded banks and bobbing punts. Spencer had worked on the picture for nearly four years, sitting as was his habit, on a stool perched on top of a trestle table. This great unfinished painting started as 60 chalk drawings in 1953. Spencer completed one piece before moving on to the next, working with small brushes, his nose almost touching the canvas. Right up to the end of his life, Spencer had no hesitation in showing Christ in modern terms and in everyday circumstances. Spencer put Bible scenes into modern dress and transferred them from Jerusalem to Cookham's High Street, where he was born.
The address is the Back Lane, Cookham.
LINES WRITTEN ON THE DEATH OF SIR STANLEY SPENCER CBE, RA
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.
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.