Modern British & Irish Art

Stanley Spencer: Heaven on Earth

By Frances Christie

A highlight of the Modern & Post-War British Art auction on 12 June, Stanley Spencer’s 1958 masterpiece Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta: Punts by the River is appearing in public for the first time in over half a century. Spencer is an artist for whom the intimate and everyday was inseparable from the eternal and ineffable. In his work, ordinary people and familiar places are transformed, with his beloved village of Cookham and the surrounding countryside becoming a Holy Land, filled with miracles and divine interventions.


Spencer grew up as part of a large and remarkable family who lived in Fernlea, a house built by his grandfather Julius on the High Street of Cookham. Before the First World War, Cookham was a quintessentially rural village on the banks of the River Thames and the High Street was quietly busy with all the shops to be found in similarly peaceful villages all across Britain; the butcher, baker, chemist and, opposite Fernlea, Ovey’s Farm where the young Spencer children would watch the cows coming in each day.


Usually, in order to understand any picture of mine, it means taking a seat and preparing to hear the story of my life…
Stanley Spencer, in correspondence with Dudley Tooth, 13th April 1933.


Almost immediately after the death of his first wife Hilda in 1950, Spencer wrote her a letter (he continued writing to her until his own death) to tell her he was now taking up the long considered subject of Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta which he envisaged as the River side aisle of his never-to-be realised 'Church House' project. Drawing on his own memories of life in the village before the Great War, he envisaged Christ, accompanied by his disciples, visiting Cookham to preach from the horse-ferry barge moored by the bridge. Spencer recalled that renting a punt during the annual Regatta was never something the family could afford, so the parties of revellers in the boats seemed to him "like an unattainable Eden".


The central work in the series, Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta, an enormous seventeen foot long canvas that was to rival the great The Resurrection, Cookham, was intended to be surrounded by a series of smaller canvases. Between 1952–3 Spencer produced a plethora of red chalk drawings for the composition, but he could not bring it to completion before his death in 1959 and it now hangs, unfinished, in the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham. He did, however, complete six of the accompanying works, with Punts by the River being the last work to be finished.

8th October 1959: Sir Stanley Spencer (1891 - 1959) standing on a trestle table as he works on his 20ft x 6.5ft mural, 'Christ talking with people at Cookham Regatta' at his Cookham, Berkshire studio. (Photo by Harry Todd/Fox Photos/Getty Images) Harry Todd/Getty Images

Spencer’s gift of being able to create individual works of astonishing and unique imagery, whilst fitting them into a larger overall narrative scheme, is remarkable, especially when one sees how self-contained each painting appears. In Punts by the River the viewer’s eye winds through the composition as we see Spencer the draughtsman lavishing attention on the various patterns and textures of the cushions, the wooden slats of the punts and the fleshy, tangled mass of limbs.

A young man – bearing a strong resemblance to the young Spencer himself – breaks the cosy circle of girls, or at least tries to. Rather strangely, he appears naked, which immediately gives the situation an erotic charge. Yet his pose is also contorted, in the deliberate manner of a saint in a Renaissance altarpiece, which in turn transforms the erotic into the mystic. Here, amidst the earthly pleasures of a village festival, is perhaps the presence of the divine.


Join us at 1pm on Sunday 10th June for a free gallery talk with renowned Spencer expert, and author of Stanley Spencer: The Astor Collection, Carolyn Leder. To reserve your free place email or telephone 0207 293 6424.

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