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 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. His idyllic experiences are central to any reading of his work and the importance of Cookham as both subject and setting cannot be understated.
From the late-1920s (and possibly earlier), Spencer very definitely saw his most personal and visionary work as a united body, with each painting being part of a wider group that combined into a grand overall vision, which would demonstrate to the viewer the totality of his imagination. A number of sketches and letters exist that help to realise the astonishing complexity of such a scheme, which was to grow and evolve over the year, known usually as the ‘Church House’, and although there was never any real prospect of such an edifice ever becoming reality, the underlying sense of such a concept only heightens one’s recognition of Spencer’s achievement. He wrote ‘As this scheme develops I may continually change and alter it so that anything I say about it is only provisionally stated. The subject matter for the main pictures of the church is to consist of religious subjects namely Gospel stories, etc. taking place among secular subjects & in this I hope to show how near in spirit to each other these different emotions are…’ (TGA 733.6, quoted in Timothy Hyman and Patrick Wright (eds), Stanley Spencer, Tate Publishing, London, 2001, p.245). The design for his ‘Church House’ would mirror the topography of Cookham – the High Street would form the nave with his seminal painting The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-6, Tate, London) in the chancel whilst the side aisles were seen as School Lane and the River.
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 intended as the River side aisle. 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, in the same spot that his brother Will and others had recounted entertaining boaters with a concert. 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’ (Spencer quoted in Keith Bell, op.cit., p.519).
The central work in the series, Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta (Private Collection, on long term loan to the Stanley Spencer Gallery), 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 (fig.4). He did, however, complete six of the accompanying works, with Punts by the River being the last work to be finished. Four of these works - Punts Meeting (1953), Listening from the Punts (1954), Conversation from the Punts (1955), and Dinner from the Hotel Lawn (1957) – focus on Cookham’s high society, gloriously brought to life in all their finery. Together with Girls Listening (1953), Punts by the River provides an important contrast. Unlike the excesses of those pompously on display in their smartest outfits, the girls are wearing simple summer dresses and are likely based on local adolescents Spencer would have known, girls enjoying a rare day out, or even just catching an hour off from serving Regatta guests, gossiping and celebrating their leave of absence from the daily routine.
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 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. The figure certainly bears a strong resemblance to the young Spencer himself, depicted at the apotheosis of his youth when life in Cookham was at its least complicated – and he crops up again in the series, in Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta: Dinner on the Hotel Lawn, surrounded by three finely-dressed women.
After his beloved wife Hilda’s death, the ‘Church House’ project became something of an obsession, a chapel devoted to love and to loss where he would ‘have all my real selves around me… like objects in a museum.’
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