Sir Stanley Spencer: Discovering Cookham’s soaring genius
PUBLISHED: 14:58 03 June 2016 | UPDATED: 14:58 03 June 2016
Shez Courtenay-Smith reflects on the 125th birthday year of one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, Sir Stanley Spencer, RA
Perhaps it is not surprising that renowned artist, Sir Stanley Spencer, regarded Cookham as his ‘holy suburb’, his ‘village in heaven’. Nestled in a curve on the southern side of one of the most beautiful stretches of the Thames, Cookham was always further distinguished by its network of smaller waterways, chalk escarpments and wooded hillsides, its water meadows and riverside pathways. The whole was, and still is, surrounded by significant swathes of common land, Odney, Widbrook, Cockmarsh and others, each with a wonderfully different character, each individually cherished by Spencer.
Cookham High Street was, at that time, noisily busy with geese, cows, village stores and community gossip ~ and right at the heart of the street lived the eccentric Spencer family. The young Stanley, born on 30 June 1891 as the eighth surviving child, wandered the village and its environs with a joyous vision that allowed him to see the ordinary as extraordinary and the earthly as spiritual. In this way, Cookham itself in due course became the location of biblical events in Spencer’s paintings, such as The Last Supper, 1920, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1920 and The Resurrection, Cookham, 1924-27, whilst the landscapes, gardens and flowers of Cookham metamorphosed into paint in the form of warm, sensuous self-contained images of heaven. Such was Spencer’s keenly declared love of his home village, that he himself had been fondly known as ‘Cookham’ by peers at the Slade School of Fine Art, also signing himself ‘Cookham’ in later correspondence with these friends.
Roll on 125 years from the date of Spencer’s birth and here we are in 2016 with Stanley Spencer’s reputation continuing to soar, both in the UK and across the world. The period from April 2016 to May 2017, dubbed ‘The Year of Stanley Spencer’, includes four major Spencer exhibitions in the UK and one in Australia, together with the publication of no fewer than five books concerning the great artist, and an international poetry competition. There will also be a series of Centennial events dedicated to Spencer’s First World War service and his astonishing post WW1 commemorative paintings, plus educational sessions on Spencer, and numerous other gatherings.
In calendar order, the first highlight of ‘The Year of Stanley Spencer’ is the newly-opened exhibition at Cookham’s Stanley Spencer Gallery, which runs daily until the end of October 2016. ‘Stanley Spencer: Visionary Painter of the Natural World’ explores Spencer’s glorious depictions of nature in a series of exquisitely executed flower paintings, garden vistas and landscapes, forming breathtaking panoramas along the walls. These works are punctuated by figurative and spiritual scenes, also set against natural backdrops, movingly reminding us of the great personal loves of Spencer’s life and his mystical vision. Stuart Conlin, Chair of the Gallery’s Trustees, expressed his own view that “This is probably one of the most visually beautiful exhibitions that we have ever mounted.” Amongst many of Spencer’s finest works shown in this exhibition, Magnolias, 1938 is a wonderfully-observed painting of magnolia flowers at the peak of their beauty (the self-same tree continues to flower in Cookham today), whilst Rock Roses, Old Lodge, Taplow, 1957 shows a tumbling profusion of flowers, ‘accumulated’ by Spencer as they successively bloomed in a low-walled garden bed over an eight or nine week period of painting. Cookham on Thames, 1937 is a hugely popular enchanted landscape showing much of Cookham’s pastoral riverside setting.
Commencing 24 June, and in due course running in parallel with the Cookham exhibition until 5 October, will be the Hepworth Wakefield’s major exhibition of Spencer works. This exhibition is entitled ‘Stanley Spencer: Of Angels and Dirt’. Bringing together over 70 Spencer works, it explores the seemingly conflicting themes that Spencer fused together: spirituality and sexuality, leisure and work, rural and industrial. As Spencer himself expressed such dichotomies, ‘I am on the side of angels and dirt’. It promises to be well worth a summer trip to Yorkshire’s inspiring new art gallery, also home to works of Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and other leading artists of the 20th century.
A particular further highlight in September will be the publication of ‘Stanley Spencer: Looking to Heaven’, the first of three volumes of an astonishing ‘autobiography’ of Spencer, not of course finally compiled by himself (he died in 1959), but carefully distilled and assembled by family members and distinguished art experts from Spencer’s prolific personal reflections in the form of letters and other writings. Many of the selected extracts have hitherto been unseen by the general public and the surprising insights they include are expected to arouse widespread interest.
Find out more
The programme for ‘The Year of Stanley Spencer’ is available on the website of the Stanley Spencer Gallery, at stanleyspencer.org.uk, where it will be regularly updated.
Meanwhile, visitors may enjoy all that Cookham has to offer: the Stanley Spencer Gallery and related Spencer walks (see web address above), additional riverside walks, the quaint High Street with fascinating boutiques, enticing food in award-winning village hostelries and (Saturdays only) a further visual feast in the textile-rich, unforgettable John Lewis Heritage Centre.
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