View from Cookham Bridge - Stanley SpencerCookham village lies some 30 miles from London along the favoured stretch of the river Thames from Henley, past Marlow and Cliveden to Boulter's Lock and Maidenhead Bridge.
A crow fell down the chimney at a house on Cookham High Street, flapped around the room, flew out of the window and Stanley Spencer was born. The date was June 30th 1891 - the family thought it was a good omen.
When he was 17 years old he was accepted at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. This was the premier art school in the country and he was taught by the renowned Henry Tonks. His fellow students included Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, David Bomberg and C.R.W. Nevinson. They dubbed him Cookham, so profound was his attachment to the village of his birth that most days he would take the London train back home in time for tea.
In 1915 after a long period of agonising over whether or not to join up for WWI, he volunteered to join the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). A year later he volunteered for service with the RAMC in Macedonia. His survival of the devastation and torment that killed so many of his fellow companions indelibly marked his attitude to life and death. Such preoccupations come through time and again in his religious works.
St. Francis and the Birds in Cookham
Swan Upping at Cookham - this is an annual ceremony when the Queen's Swan Marker counts all new cygnets and assigns ownership between the Crown and the ancient Vintners and Dyers.
Self portrait - 1914 - The Tate
Self portrait 1959 the last year of his life - The Tate
The Resurrection at Cookham church - This picture created fierce controversy. The depiction of the graves opening in Cookham churchyard and local people arising to the sound of the Last Trumpet. In Stanley's eyes Christ came to Cookham, and the Resurrection took place in the local graveyard. The painting contains the figures of Moses and other prophets, ranged in stone seats along the church wall.
Details of the figures clambering out of their graves - sorry it is not clearer.
A Cotswold Farm - Tate Gallery - Stanley spent 2 years living in Leonard Stanley in the Cotswolds. He was attracted to the region by the proximity of his friend, the already established and important painter, Sir William Rothenstein.
Some of his greatest work can be seen in the Sandham Memorial Chapel, now run by the National Trust, in the village of Burghclere. Stanley's paintings were inspired by his experience of the war, and he was greatly influenced by the Giotto Arena Chapel murals in Padua, Italy. The murals took him 5 years to complete.
If you had been wandering through Cookham in the 1950's or meandering around the churchyard, it is quite likely that you would have seen Stanley. A scruffy little figure who seldom washed and looked like a scarecrow. He once said 'I am on the side of the angels and dirt'. He would go out each day with his umbrella, pram, easel and paints. If it was cold he would leave his pyjamas on underneath his suit.
In the year of his death he received a knighthood. He carried his old shopping bag with him to Buckingham Palace, inside was a small painting that he had done for the Queen Mother. He had painted her a vase with two roses, and wrapped it in brown paper tied up with string. When he arrived at the Palace, wearing his newly cleaned suit, he handed the picture to an Equerry who declined to give it to the Queen Mother. Stanley brought it back home with him to Cookham. Popping into a local cafe to have a cup of tea, he handed the painting over to the owners. Years later they sold the painting for many, many thousands of pounds. There is still a restaurant on the Cookham High Street called the Two Roses, and I believe that there is a copy of the original painting on the wall.
There is so much more about Stanley that I have not touched upon, his controversial personal life, and other places that he visited and painted. This is just a brief glimpse at his life.
This lovely painting of Cookham from Englefield was stolen at the beginning of May 2012 from the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham. Should you happen to see it, please notify the police.
images courtesy Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham. Wikipedia BBC & National Trust