Stanley Spencer Tour of Cookham
The walk, which takes about an hour, starts on the corner of Cookham High Street opposite the Stanley Spencer Gallery. From the end of the High Street cross the main road to the Tarry Stone, painted by Stanley Spencer in 1929. Go down Odney Lane and take the first left, Ferry Lane, which leads to the river passing the Ferry Hotel on your left.
N.B. Larger images can be seen by clicking on the paintings.
The river frontage of the hotel was the setting for the colourful painting Dinner
on the Hotel
is now in the Tate Gallery.
This is the fourth of the Cookham Regatta series begun in 1952. The scene
takes place on the lawn of the Ferry Hotel by the side of the Thames. Here
the visitors prepare to eat their
dinner, listening to Christ preaching from the horse-ferry barge moored
further up river. Spencer was to comment on that the long tables, whose
shapes bear a passing resemblance to punts, occur only in this painting,
whereas those in others of the series are square. "In all of them I
seem to have forgotten the food, square or long tables. And I was annoyed
to notice that I had made the servants putting the knives on the wrong
side: and they are doing it so nicely." The gaily dressed crowds
which attended the Regatta in Edwardian times gave Spencer an ideal
opportunity to paint the elaborate and colourful clothes for which he had
developed a taste for in the 1930s. For Cookham's Millennium Celebration
in July 2000, this scene was reinacted by the Tarrystone Players. The
finale was the
final tableauwith Sir Stanley Spencer's grandson, John Spencer in the
process of painting the scene.
This is one of several paintings in the Regatta series, two others which can be seen in the gallery the unfinished Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta and Listening from Punts. Spencer was working on Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta when he died in 1959. It had been commissioned by Lord Astor who was a Trustee of the Gallery. Since his death his son has taken over from him. The picture was intended to be for the central alterpiece section of the so called 'river aisle' in the Church House. This was to celebrate another part of the village, in this case the river, and was based on Spencer's memories of the annual Regatta at Cookham on Edwardian days. In the painting Spencer imagined the Regatta transformed into the Last Day on which Christ and his disciples visit the newly redeemed village. The scene is based on memories of the concert put on by the artist's brother, Will, and others, who sang popular songs from the barge at the end of the Regatta. Those who owned boats would crowd about the barge. Others, including the artist, his brother Gilbert and his sister Annie, would listen from the river bank or Cookham Bridge. In a letter to Hilda in 1953, Spencer recalled that the family could not afford a punt, so that to do so seemed to him like "an unattainable Eden". In the foreground, carrying assorted oars and mops, is Mr Turk, the owner of Turk's Boatyard. Two scenes in the unpainted upper left of the canvas were also painted as independent pictures in the Regatta series, Listening from Punts and Punts on the River 1950.
If you turn to the right the river looks much the same as when it was depicted by Stanley Spencer. Notice the wall down the side of the lane, this forms the background to Dinner on the Hotel Lawn. It is an example of the artists' meticulous painting of brick surfaces. Other good examples can be seen in the paintings of Englefield House in the gallery.
Retrace your steps to Odney Lane and the entrance to the Odney Club owned by the John Lewis Partnership. In the wall fifty yards to the left at the entrance are some round windows like ship's port holes in front of which the artist painted Girls Returning from a Bathe (1936) now in the gallery.
Returning to the Tarry Stone, cross the main road and take the turning leading to Cookham Church. The young Stanley Spencer was fascinated by the churchyard, he wrote about its vaults with heavy railings and the leaning tombstones. It was there that he set one of his most important paintings, The Resurrection, Cookham. On the left his first wife Hilda is smelling a flower and he is the standing nude figure. Judith Whittet writes an interested analysis which deserves reading. It was painted in Henry Lamb's studio in the Vale Hotel, Hampstead, where it stretched the entire length of the room. Because of the height the artist had to stand on a box placed on a table to paint the upper sections of the canvas. A friend, Kate Foster, described the artist at work "teetering on a box while painting white roses in a corner, just a patch at a time, and holding forth from his elevation on Tonks and the Slade." The painting was inspired by John Donne's description of a churchyard as being "the holy suburb in heaven". The newly resurrected emerge in leisurely fashion to experience the joy of their new Thames side paradise. God the Father and Christ, with a child in his arms, are seen in the flower covered porch in the centre and are attended by several prophets. To their right a group of negroes emerge from their own homeland. In the foreground Spencer shows the wicked being shepherded into the corners of the 'box-like' tombs.
Stanley Spencer painted The Angel (1953) which is on your left as you enter the church gate, and several paintings of the churchyard. The Angel also appears in the top right-hand corner of Parents Resurrecting 1933. The painting shows the stone angel with the church tower in the background. Further down on the left of the path is a memorial stone to the artist, with a Judas tree planted by the Friends of the Stanley Spencer Gallery to commemorate the centenary of his birth.
Although there are no paintings by Stanley Spencer hanging in the church, which has a largely medieval interior and is well worth a visit, he did set some of his work inside.
The popular pen and ink drawing Roy was drawn by the artist when he was fifteen showing a young boy leaning over a pew inside the church. It is one of his earliest pen and ink drawings. The boy is Roy Lacey. This drawing can be seen in the gallery. In 1957 Stanley Spencer painted In Church, depicting the interior as he remembered it in his youth with the choir in procession.
From the church take the path past the west door leading via a kissing gate to the river. Stanley Spencer wrote of being taken by his father to the kissing gate at twilight to hear the owls "snoring".
At the towpath, turn right towards the bridge which Stanley painted crowded with people in 1920.
A little earlier he had painted Swan Upping at Cookham begun in 1915 and completed on his return from the war in 1919. The theme of the painting is the annual swan upping or swan hopping, where officials of the Companies of Vintners and Dyers, who by royal licence own the swans on the river Thames, collect the young birds for marking. In the picture the birds are taken ashore in carpenters' bags at the landing stage The idea came to Spencer in church. "I could hear the people going on the river as I sat in our north aisle pew."
This painting also shows the bridge and Turk's boatyard which appears in another painting View from Cookham Bridge (Turk's Boatyard), which is now owned by the Gallery. Captain Turk was the Queen's Swan Upper. This ceremony still continues in July each year. Turk's Boatyard appears in two other of Spencer's paintings, The Boatbuilder's Yard, Cookham 1936 and Turk's Boatyard, Cookham 1936. Retrace your steps and continue along the towpath for about 200 yards.
On you left is the newly built Civil Service Retirement Home, the whole of this area was the setting for Bellrope Meadow. This painting provides an example of the artist's remarkable detailing of flowers and plants for which he is less well known than for his religious work. The gallery has examples of his flower painting in the Englefield House series. For this work Stanley Spencer used very fine brushes and there are on view in the memorabilia case in the gallery. Bellrope Meadow shows a view from the riverbank across Cookham with the tower of the church standing above the trees on the left. Bellrope Meadow is also the setting for By the River 1935.
Just before the Sailing Club turn to the left up the path which runs between the club on your right and Cookham House on your left. But before doing so glance at the view ahead, still little changed, of the fields and the river bank; these were the settings for By the River (1935) and Cookham-on-Thames (1937).
Now follow the pathway which leads via a large metal gate bearing left into Berries Road. Towards the end of this road, to the right, is Westward House where you will see The Magnolia Tree painted by Stanley Spencer. It is in the front garden on the right hand side of the house. This is another fine example of the artist's beautiful painting of flowers. He wrote to tell Dudley Tooth that it was "as good as anything I have done."
Opposite the end of Berries Road is the War Memorial, erected in 1921. Among others it commemorates the death in the first World War of Sydney Spencer MC, one of Stanley Spencer's brothers. Here Spencer painted A Village in Heaven 1937, which is set on the edge of Cookham Moor by the War Memorial, where the village girls traditionally came to meet their lovers. One of the disciples stands by the Memorial and gives his blessing to the young lovers. Its theme is the redemption of the world by sexual love which has become free of all shameful associations.
To your right is Cookham Moor. This area is the site of several pictures painted just before World War II including Cookham Moor, Cows at Cookham and Love on the Moor. Cookham Moor shows the road leading over the Moor with the War Memorial and the village in the background.
At the time the artist was also working on the compositions for From the Rise 1954, which was set by the bridge, seen in the foreground of this painting. The delightful painting of Cows at Cookham Moor is taken from one of the illustrations Spencer did for an Almanac published by Chatto & Windus in 1927. The two children are probably his daughters, Shirin and Unity. Spencer seemed to be particularly fond of the cows which ambled across the Moor and over the causeway.
They reappear in Love on the Moor 1937-55 calmly chewing the cud behind the fertility statue. Cows also frequently occurred in his notebooks.
The War Memorial is depicted in several of the artist's painting, Unveiling Cookham War Memorial (1922), A Village in Heaven (1937), Adoration of the Girls (1937) and the Jubilee Tree (1936). In that last painting the Jubilee tree is a sapling protected by fencing. Although simple in its composition it is probably one of the most masterly of Spencer's landscapes. The sapling was planted on the edge of Cookham Moor to mark the twenty fifth year of the reign of George V. By the time Spencer painted it, George V was dead. The war memorial can be seen through the metal cage. The tree has now grown into the very tall tree you can see in front of the Crown Hotel.
Spencer was often disparaging about landscapes like this, which took him away from the more important figure painting. It was painted before the onset of financial pressures of the late thirties and early forties, which sometimes caused him to cut corners in an attempt to provide an early saleable work.
On the other side of School Lane was the site of the former malthouse where the artist set probably the most well-known of his religious paintings The Last Supper. In 1915 Spencer made his sketch of the Last Supper and then in 1919 he returned to the subject. He reported to his friend Henry Lamb ' I have nearly finished a composition of the Last Supper which I think you will dislike in the same way that you dislike the Entombment.' However, it was not until 1920 that he was able to begin work on the painting, which he completed during the summer of that year. He wrote to Lamb again to report that he had completed The Last Supper, but he felt it 'has not got the nice feeling that the drawing has got somehow'. His own doubts were not shared by others and there was talk of the Contemporary Art Society buying it, however Henry Slessor 'liked it so much' he duly purchased the picture for £150. The scene of The Last Supper takes place inside the Cookham malthouse with the red wall of a grain bin in the background. Christ is shown at the moment he breaks the bread and, in accordance with tradition, St John sleeps on his shoulder. The composition belongs to his early 'Giottesque' style of large broadly-painted figures in a simple architectural setting. The extraordinary device of the legs protruding from under the table was a later addition, first appearing in the 1919 study. Spencer's own feelings about the painting were mixed. Writing in 1937, he commented "I lied the red wall among the sandy coloured ones. Could not get the feeling of the place which at the beginning was indivisible from the concept I had of Christ, but I could never get it in the picture." The original now hangs in the gallery with a copy in Holy Trinity Church. Also on the left hand side of School Lane is The Brew House (1957), painted by Stanley Spencer.
Return to the War Memorial and turn into the High Street. Halfway up on the right side is Fernlea, marked with a blue plaque, where Stanley Spencer was born and where he and his family lived for many years.
The artist looked upon the High Street as the nave of a church and he made it the setting for many of his paintings. These include Christ Carrying the Cross, Christ's Entry into Jerusalem and Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors (1933)
now owned by the gallery.
Christ Carrying the Cross was inspired by a Daily Mail report the death of Queen Victoria which he saw quoted as journalistic sensationalism. It ran "Women publicly wept and strong men broke down in side streets." This suggested to Spencer that at the death of Christ, that the Virgin, who is shown in the background, might have moved into a side street to be unobserved. The house is Fernlea and the ivy covered cottage The Nest, which belonged to his grandmother. When planning the painting he saw Fairchilds the builders' men going past The Nest carrying their ladders.
Spencer painted Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors from a story recounted to him by his father. Sarah saw Halley's Comet flying over Cookham and thought it was the end of the world. Spencer painted her with angels in attendance trying to calm her down. The painting was willed to the Stanley Spencer Gallery by Barbara Karmel, who wanted her pictures by Spencer kept together after her death.
The rear garden of Fernlea was the setting for an early painting, The Apple Gatherers. Stanley Spencer called this his first ambitious work, and it won him a Slade School prize in 1913. Just before the artist's death, he told his brother that The Apple Gatherers was painted over his first attempt to paint a Resurrection. This painting shows the artist's interest in Gauguin, which can be seen in the faces.
Also set in the High Street was The Dustmen or The Lovers (1934) and St Francis and the Birds. These two paintings were rejected by the Royal Academy in 1935 which caused Stanley Spencer to resign. A review in the Field said "When he paints St Francis of Assisi as a distorted doll followed by chicken and ducks, he shows a fault, not of the painter's hand, but of his head and heart." The Dustman or The Lovers shows the newly resurrected dustmen and labourers being reunited with their wives in front of a cottage garden. In 1937 Spencer described the painting as "...the glorifying and magnifying of a dustman. The joy on his bliss is spiritual in his union with his wife who carries her in his arms and experiences the bliss of union with his corduroy trousers... they are gazed at by other reuniting wives of old labourers". The discarded rubbish which the labourer and his wife offer up to the dustman couple had a significance for Spencer; "what is rubbish to some people is not rubbish to me and when I see things thrown away I all eyes to see what it is." "These things were bits of lives of people to whom they belonged and express their characters". "Nothing I love is rubbish and so I resurrect the teapot, and the empty jam tin and the cabbage stalks, and as there is a mystery in the Trinity, so there is in these three and many others of no apparent significance." St Francis and the Birds was inspired by two of St Francis' books. According to the artist the composition was developed from a drawing showing Hilda Carline reading on a haystack, with a flock of chickens and ducks on the ground below. The large figure of the saint corresponds to the outline of the haystack. Spencer said that the painting "was imagined by the memory of his father in a dressing gown going to the larder in the passage between Fernlea and the Nest to get food for the hens and ducks.
On the opposite side of the High Street, to the right of the garage is Ovey's Farm where he painted The Farm Gate. This was his diploma painting for his re-election in 1950 to the Royal Academy where it now hangs.
Towards the end of his life Stanley Spencer was commissioned by Aldenham School to provide a picture for the school chapel. The result was The Crucifixion (1958), a striking picture in which he imagined the cross wedged across the High Street "like a crashed airliner". The pile of earth in the foreground with the figure of the fainting virgin lying on top was inspired by pipelaying operations in the High Street, which Spencer saw while composing the picture. Spencer shocked the boys of Aldenham School by telling them "I have given the men who are nailing Christ on the Cross Brewers caps, because it is your Governors and you, who are still nailing Christ to the Cross." The setting of Cookham High Street attracted Spencer because of the perspective formed by the roofs of the receding towards the east end of the village.
You are now almost back at the Stanley Spencer Gallery where the walk started.
Permission to reproduce the following paintings is gratefully acknowledged:
Tate Britain, London: Swan Upping at Cookham, Self-portrait, Dinner on the Hotel Lawn, The Resurrection, Cookham, St Francis and the Birds, Christ Carrying the Cross, Apple Gatherers
The Royal Academy: The Farm Gate
Manchester City Art Galleries: Cookham Moor
Leeds City Art Gallery: Christ's Entry into Jerusalem
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool : Villas at Cookham
Rochdale Art Gallery : Bellrope Meadow
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