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A Packed House

(12 February 2016)

A Packed House is Enthralled by Bishop Stephen Cottrell’s Insights at Cookham’s Stanley Spencer Gallery


Bishop Stephen, Ann Danks (the Gallery’s archivist) and Stuart Conlin (Chairman of the Gallery’s Trustees).  They are standing in front of Spencer’s painting The Last Supper, 1920.

Commencing at 6.30pm on Friday 5th February, members of local church congregations gathered together to join with The Right Reverend Bishop Stephen Cottrell in reflections on religious works of the great painter, Sir Stanley Spencer.  This was a very special evening, held amid the astonishing spiritualworks of Stanley Spencer in the Gallery’s current exhibition.  The event was fully booked and the Gallery packed out with visitors.

Bishop Stephen and Father Nick Plant, Vicar of the Benefice of the Cookhams.

Bishop Stephen Cottrell, now Bishop of Chelmsford, was previously Bishop of Reading and is held in high esteem and affection by the many local congregations.  As the author of a wonderful book full of intense spiritual reflection on the subject of Spencer’s ‘Christ in the Wilderness’ paintings, Bishop Stephen has been a long-time admirer of Spencer and has a deep knowledge of his works. The audience was held spellbound as the Bishop offered his insights and his enthusiasms in relation to a range of Spencer works currently on display.

Bishop Stephen and Father Nick Plant, Vicar of the Benefice of the Cookhams and Stuart Conlin (Chairman of the Gallery’s Trustees).

The Gallery’s Chairman, Stuart Conlin, opened the event and welcomed Bishop Stephen.  He said how proud he was that Bishop Stephen’s visit to the Gallery particularly featured Spencer’s painting, The Last Supper, which had only recently returned from the wonderful Divine Beauty exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.  That exhibition had attracted 170,000 visitors (more than double what the organisers had hoped for).  Stuart pointed out that, for two Spencer works (The Last Supper and Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem), to be exhibited amongst such a constellation of world-renowned paintings was recognition indeed. Both were now safely back on the Gallery’s own walls.  Only three painters from Britain had been chosen.

The inspirational Bishop Stephen. 

Bishop Stephen then enthralled the audience with his talk, rich with compelling information, insight and good humour.  He mentioned how Spencer “put Christ into the contemporary world” (often within Spencer’s beloved home village of Cookham).  Focusing particularly on The Last Supper, Bishop Stephen described the painting as a “picture of love”.  He explained the rather complex relationship of The Last Supper to the Passover. The love that he spoke of, he said, was represented in part by the washing of the disciples’ feet, which had occurred just before the supper (He pointed out how marvellously clean the feet appear in the painting as they create their ‘ladder to Christ’). And the breaking of bread showed that Christ’s own body would be broken, as a further act of love. Bishop Stephen also explained the particular hand gesture of the disciples to the left of the painting, reflected still in today’s Eucharists, as well as speculating on which disciple was Judas and what they all were eating.  The Bishop also told us about the Cookham malt house in which the painting is set, the lovely illumination from the window, and the mystical appearance created by the way in which the cushions,or bags of grain, behind the disciples also had the appearance of angel’s wings.


After the talk, the guests were able to wander round the Gallery, marvelling at Stanley Spencer’s spiritual works in the added light of Bishop Stephen’s thoughts.  Guests then drifted off to share drinks and nibbles provided for them in the homely atmosphere of the Kings Arms, just along the High Street from the Gallery.


Chairman, Stuart Conlin afterwards commented, “ ... Terrific outreach!  All the guests who I spoke to were very impressed. Bishop Stephen's talk was one of the best I have heard on Spencer”.

Visitor, Reverend Helen Chamberlain of the Cookham Ministry Team, sent a later note of thanks saying, “I am still thinking of all that was shared – profound thoughts with excellent company.”


The Gallery’s current exhibition, ‘The Creative Genius of Stanley Spencer’ runs until 20th March 2016.  It is followed by an equally thought-provoking exhibition commencing on 24th March, “Stanley Spencer: Spiritual Painter of the Natural World.”  For further information and opening times, see the Gallery’s website


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