IT MIGHT be said that you can take the artist out of Cookham, but you cannot take Cookham out of the artist. Stanley Spencer was born in the Thameside village in June 1891 and died a few miles further up- stream in hospital at Taplow in December 1959. Although he had lived, unhappily, in London, it was in everyday Cookham that he explored his artistic voice and set his paintings; as a student at the Slade, he was much teased for living at home and coming up to London by train, and it was to Cookham, and his old family home, that he later returned.
Five months before his death, he had received his knighthood from the late Queen Mother, breaking all dress convention by turning up in a lounge suit, carrying a supermarket bag. In photographs of the 1950s taken in Cookham of him and his brother, the artist Gilbert Spencer, he appears much the same. At the Palace, he was accompanied by his daughter Unity, herself a successful artist (Features, 19 June).
Spencer had grown up in a strong religious family, the seventh of 11 children. His father was a parish-church organist while his mother raised the children as strict Wesleyans. Since 1962, the chapel in which he worshipped as a boy has been a gallery dedicated to the artist, and is staffed daily by volunteers.
He was religiously inquisitive. When Reginald Welford Rogers, the Vicar at Holy Trinity, proposed he prepare for confirmation, he was worsted in the subsequent theological debate with the teenager Stan. Thereafter, the incumbent forbade holding theological discussions with parishioners under the age of 21.
Spencer’s wartime friendship with the writer Desmond Chute drew him into the Roman Catholic circle of Eric Gill and the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic. After being demobbed (he had served on the Eastern Front in Macedonia), he visited Gill at Hawkesyard Priory in 1919, but chose not to join the fledgling community.
In 1920 he was befriended by the High Church Fabian barrister Henry Slesser, who eventually entered Parliament in January 1924 as the Solicitor General. Having three times failed to be returned in 1922 and 1923, he was finally elected as MP for Leeds South later in 1924, but he continued to live at Bourne End. It was Sir Henry Slesser, a later Lord Justice, who invited his house guest to paint a triptych for his private oratory.
Although this new exhibition, which brings 16 oils from Aberdeen and Leeds together with the permanent collection, is dominated by the unfinished Astor painting Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta high on the wall of the mezzanine gallery, it really bursts into action with the extraordinary two side panels from that 1921 commissioned altarpiece.
The first of the paintings to be completed, Christ Overturning the Money Changers’ Table, documents Spencer’s love for early Italian primitive painting, and his avid interest in the contemporary Italian Futurist movement. Christ up-ends the rich red-brown four-legged table away from us so that we cannot see what was on it. A cloth slips off the table, but there is no clatter, no cacophony. Rather, the violence is in the form, of the table jarring against the arch beyond. It is an encounter between Giotto and Gino Severini, who had first exhibited in the London of 1913.
For all that his was an unconventional entry into government, Slesser made much of his “dislike of plutocracy”, and that may explain why Spencer painted the same theme of the challenge in the Temple in the central panel itself. In most triptychs, the outer wings are linked to the central theme but are distinctly different. In that picture — which, sadly, is not in the exhibition, as it was sold off separately in 1972 and is now in Perth, Western Australia — it is possible see the bags of money cascading to the ground.
In the other side panel of St Veronica Unmasking Christ, Jesus seeks to clasp Veronica in what at first appears to be a game of Blind Man’s Bluff. He is again wearing (somewhat unscripturally, we might note) a pure white robe, while she stands in front of him, her hands raised like a figure in prayer, dressed in deep red. The cross is laid on the ground in front of them as she holds up a veil to his face. Whatever the piety of the traditional sixth Station of the Cross, Spencer has powerfully played with the hiddenness of redemptive love and balanced the towering form of Jesus in both compositions.
A year before, Spencer had painted a Last Supper (36×48 in.) for the Slesser chapel, for which the would-be Labour politician had paid £150. For many years, it hung in the parish church, but it is now held by the gallery. The upper room is depicted as a brick-lined malt house, a familiar-enough sight in Spencer’s neighbourhood, but at first glance it looks like the refectory at Quarr Abbey.
The newly washed feet of the disciples appear crossed over at the ankles stretched out from under the table. Sculpted, as it were, in the drapery of their garments, they form a processional way towards the central figure of Jesus. The Beloved Disciple lurches across Jesus as he breaks the bread, while Judas, seated on the Lord’s left, scoffs the sop that he has been handed. An unexplained hand claws the tablecloth between the Saviour and the traitor. Equally strangely, there is no cup on the table.
Only then do we see that the composition is not at all symmetrical; whereas all the disciples on the left reach out their arms across the table, those opposite them hold their hands against the table edge. It is as if the institution of the eucharist remakes a new order and disposes of the old expected accustomed orderliness.
The setting recalls for many Spencer’s professed fascination with Giotto and also with Masaccio. What could have been a simple and slightly workaday scene has about it an air of solemn promise; something is about to happen, and the faces of the inquisitive and confused Apostles suggest as much. But what? Is this the moment when the Twelve recognise the Lord as the promised Messiah at the Passover? Or is there still doubt and perturbation?
Spencer himself may not have known either. He was a man of faith, but his wartime experiences, first in the Bristol hospital and then with the infantry in the Balkans, where fissures in the side of one of the Rhodope mountains provides the background for his 1921 Crucifixion (Aberdeen), had shattered that honest trust.
Later, he regarded these early Christian paintings as “innocent”, claiming that sex was “unconscious” in them. His own later sexual awakening and freedom, well documented and painful for all the women concerned, informs many of his later pictures, but should not detract from what we see.
What this show brilliantly offers is a non-judgemental artistic retrospective that brings back to Cookham paintings that elsewhere are the pride of Leeds and of the Granite City. From Leeds, the 1937 family portrait of Spencer’s first wife, his daughter, and the eyeless dolls is perhaps his most famous, but the slightly later society double portrait of two sisters is the more enigmatic.
The Kitamura sisters, who lived in Lancaster Gate and no doubt moved when the incendiary bombs destroyed much of Craven Hill in 1940, are dressed for an evening out. Although a plaster cupid bust is on the bookshelf behind them, both seem too worried to be keen on falling in love.
Spencer is good at painting the unseen, offering hints, but rarely spelling things out. The faces of Mr Lambert and his daughter turning leeks in the autumn of 1945, like a latter-day Adam and Eve dressed in straw hats and sensible shoes, are deliberately obscured (Gardening, Aberdeen), and we will never know the identity of the Philip whose heart-shaped headstone in Port Glasgow props up a courting couple in the graveyard of the 1945 The Resurrection: Reunion (Aberdeen), perhaps the most compelling picture in this exhibition. The nuzzling lovers remain blissfully unaware of the scenes of resurrection behind them. Although not as celebrated as the 1924-27 The Resurrection, Cookham, which is held by the Tate, his later series of Easter paintings offers hope and encouragement.
There is much to reflect on in the paintings of Stanley Spencer; the gallery at Cookham generously will open out of hours, by prior arrangement, for church groups. What could be better for a quiet summer’s evening’s reflection by the Thames?
“The Creative Genius of Stanley Spencer” is at the Stanley Spencer Gallery, High Street, Cookham, Berkshire, until 20 March 2016. Phone 01628 471885. (The Last Supper and Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem will be away on loan in Florence from September.)