Monday, 31 August 2015

Stanley Spencer at Cookham.

On Friday we told ourselves it really was summer and because of that we headed out somewhere....anywhere.

As we drove along it was obvious the sun wasn't going to shine on us.

Robyn started shouting out increasingly improbable places we could go to as this dreariest of Augusts slouched to its end.

Then she had a really good idea.

Back in June when the sun had been shining, we went to Cookham one evening and we walked along the river meadows which were cracking from drought.

I was still using my walking frame because I was tired and we walked past the Stanley Spencer was closed.

In March 2014, I took a rare afternoon off - my Mum was in hospital and about to come out. My drugs had just kicked in and I went to Maidenhead on the strength of it and walked all the way along the river to Cookham and back....but the gallery was just closing as I got there.

So that's where we decided to go.

It's only a tiny gallery in a former chapel and it doesn't have his most famous pictures but it is in Cookham all the same and that matters.

And here he is;

Stanley was born and brought up here in a quiet little village by the side of the River Thames; all timber-framed houses and meadows.

While next door Maidenhead became a fashionable resort at the end of the 19th Century - Cookham stayed an agricultural dead end much longer.

Stanley didn't go to regular school and the village became his whole life - except when he went away to art school or, horrifically, when he was sent to Macedonia in the First World War.

He was introverted and eccentric and his world always revolved around his religion, his village and his painting. 

He mainly painted pictures depicting scenes from the scriptures, full of the people he had grown up with.

It was a tiny little view of the world.

So, his last uncompleted picture (it's in the gallery) is entitled; "Christ preaching at The Cookham Regatta".

He was eccentric - here's the old pram he used to carry his easel around the village on;

The sign was professionally printed and says;

"As he is anxious to complete his painting of the churchyard, Mr Stanley Spencer would be grateful if visitors would kindly avoid distracting his attentions from his work".

The little gallery is good even if it over represents his portraits and lacks the most famous works.

Cookham was never sure about Stanley - he didn't run away from painting nudity or dealing with sex in a puritanical era.

It's very hard to categorise him - he was described as a 'Post-impressionist' but really he was just Stanley Spencer.

My interest isn't in his religious paintings or his landscapes. It all starts for me in the Second World War when he became a controversial 'Official War Artist'.

Better still, he was sent to rough and tough Glasgow to paint shipbuilders working on the 'Home Front'.

He was photographed at the time standing in the middle of the fire and noise of a shipyard in his earnest spectacles and wearing a paint spattered suit, sketching furiously on a roll of toilet paper.

This was a time when working people didn't matter (even less than now, if that's possible) - Stanley who saw something in everybody created the finest workplace pictures ever painted.

So much so that Lithgow, the owner of the shipyard complained about the pictures and forced the fund to send another artist to do some more conventional pictures for him.

The gallery doesn't have anything other than a couple of sketches for the series but it does have this unrelated scene of mechanics which I snatched a picture of; 

I'm sorry about the quality - 'No Photography'.

Recently, there was an appeal to restore the shipbuilding series launched by Alex Fergusson the former Manchester United manager who worked in the yards himself and whose Father and Uncles were working there during the war.

Here's the house Stanley grew up in;

And I took this picture of his grave in the little churchyard back in June when the ground was cracking from drought.

Then we drove back to Maidenhead, walked along the river and spent a while sitting and eating ice cream.

Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)

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