Fifty years ago, the Stanley Spencer Gallery was founded in a converted Wesleyan Chapel by a group of local enthusiasts who wanted to celebrate the extraordinary achievement of Cookham’s most famous son. As Joan George recounts in her fascinating book, Stanley Spencer Remembered (Taderon Press, £6), at the gallery’s inauguration, Gilbert Spencer (Stan’s younger brother) quoted an inscription remembered from childhood on the chapel’s wall: ‘How amiable are thy tabernacles O Lord of Hosts.’ ‘Nowhere,’ declared Gilbert, ‘would its message be more appropriate than in this Gallery.’
Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) is famous for his love of his home town, for his unconventional approach to intimate relationships, for his partiality to bread and jam and what other people saw as rubbish, and for painting some of the most original and uplifting human documents of the 20th century. It’s appropriate that his life and work should be commemorated in a chapel because Spencer’s vision of the world was imbued with spiritual fervour. His was not an ordinary Christian belief, but a personal interpretation of God’s teachings as addressed toS. Spencer Esq. As he said, ‘Somehow religion was something to do with me, and I was to do with religion. It came into my vision quite naturally, like the sky and the rain.’ Rarely has the traditional self-centredness of the artist achieved quite so sublime an expression.
But Spencer put his obsessions to great good use, painting the most marvellous series of murals for the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere based on his experiences in the first world war (on being given the commission he is reputed to have said ‘What ho, Giotto!’), and producing a long stream of highly imaginative interpretations of the human (physical and spiritual) condition in the first half of the 20th century.
It’s some years since I was last at Cookham, and in the interim the gallery has been carefully renovated and enhanced. There’s a new mezzanine floor where drawings can be hung, currently a splendid group from the Astor scrapbook and other loans, and from this new height Spencer’s great unfinished last painting, ‘Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta’, can be thoroughly studied in all its eye-bending detail. The 50th-anniversary show begins with a wall of self-portraits, including two masterpieces from the Tate, from 1914 and 1959, and goes on through a fine selection of figures mending cowls or sunbathing, religious scenes, portraits, landscapes and love paintings. No one painted love so poignantly as Spencer.
Admittedly, there’s very often a sexual connotation to his imagery: a girl can scarcely grasp a long pointed leaf without a double entendre. But the innate eroticism of life was for him open and oddly innocent, not at all furtive or lubricious. In ‘Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors’ (1933), a well set-up gent on the left of the picture (apparently based on the local grocer) snaps his braces and crosses ankles in boldly knitted socks, his masculinity plainly visible in skin-tight trousers. The Heavenly Visitors swoop and swoon, but the whole composition is ordered around the hands, which punctuate the picture space and give it a cohesive rhythm. A similar formal arrangement can be seen in ‘The Last Supper’ (1920), in which the hands and the feet are structural focal points. Spencer was highly skilled at pictorial organisation. Revealingly, his daughter Shirin remembered him once saying that design was the image of the soul.
I was very taken with a painting entitled ‘Domestic Scenes: At the Chest of Drawers’ (1936), part of a series painted after Spencer resigned from the Royal Academy, and intended to be less controversial if not exactly placatory in mood. It’s a wonderfully lively image, full of colour and movement, the main thrust of it taken up by the complicated figure of a woman bending over the chest, with one hand in the open top drawer amidst a sprouting of shirt collars, and the other in the bottom drawer among a profusion of patterned stuffs. Only gradually do we notice that there is a small male figure almost underneath this vibrant woman, crouched submissively and pulling open the lower drawer by its handles (note the suggestive protrusion of these knobs). Of course, the two figures represent Stanley and his wife Hilda, and it is highly relevant that she should be depicted as the larger, enfolding presence: a potent image of their relationship.
Since I visited the gallery last month this painting has been removed from display for reasons of conservation and glazing. In addition to this loss, the four commissioned paintings connected with Englefield House in Cookham, previously on loan to the gallery from a private collection — rather lovely pictures of buildings and trees, flowering wisteria, lilac and clematis, which Spencer dismissed as potboilers because he couldn’t pack them with idiosyncratic and symbolic figures — have also been removed from display, after one of them was stolen in April. So, if you are consulting Carolyn Leder’s excellent catalogue (modestly priced at £5), not all the listed exhibits will be on view. This should not deter the visitor (though it will anger those of us who recognise the pointlessness of stealing a painting by such a well-known artist; impossible to sell on the open market, it can only be dumped or was stolen to order), for there is plenty still to see, and a library of publications upstairs to consult.
Until the beginning of November the Stanley Spencer Gallery is open daily, from 10.30 to 5.30, and is a joy to visit. Whether you come to look at the paintings or read the books or dream of the days when the building was still a chapel and Cookham was full of figures we would recognise from Spencer’s canvases, this friendly little museum is an essential part of the experience. As a lasting memorial to one of our finest — if most peculiar — figurative painters, it is a great success. Some version of the current exhibition will continue throughout the winter, but with restricted opening hours, so do check with the gallery before planning a visit.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 6 October 2012