I had a free day the other week – nothing planned, the weather was good and I felt like an outing, so I trawled through my Art Pass Guide to find somewhere to go that wasn’t too far away. It didn’t take long for the name Stanley Spencer to jump out. I didn’t know much about him other than he was an artist (slightly eccentric) who’d had something to do with First World War paintings and who, according to family folklore, had taken tea with Dad’s artist cousin Walter Steggles on numerous occasions. It was time to check him out.
There is now a gallery dedicated to the man in his home town of Cookham in Berkshire so I consulted the map, checked the easiest route – there seemed to be several – and committed it to memory. I don’t have, nor do I want, a Sat Nav. While I know they can be an invaluable piece of kit, they are only as good as the programmer. They can default to the wrong place as we have discovered to our fury while touring in France and then Talking Woman gets increasingly agitated if you manoeuvre an unscheduled U-turn. So armed with a bottle of water, the map and my Art Pass, I set off.
Fortunately my sense of direction is reasonably accurate because when I arrived at Maidenhead, the nearest large town to Cookham, the lack of road signage is unbelievable. In my mind’s eye I had pictured Maidenhead as a leafy, broad-avenued sort of a place, stuffed full of expensive designer shops and delicatessens with willows bending towards the Thames. Possibly people in punts. In reality it is more like how I had imagined Basingstoke to be.
After an endless succession of round-a-bouts with choices to either go west for Reading or east for Slough (quelle horreur!) I ended up in a one-way system enjoying the sights of the multiplex cinema and a concrete shopping centre before thankfully peeling off through a residential area (still no signage) and ending up on the Cookham Road.
Cookham, by contrast, is a delight. Not quite a town but too large for a village, Cookham sits sleepily beside the river Thames.
There’s a church, a quaint little garage and the house in the high street where Spencer was born in 1891.
Just along from this is the tiny converted Methodist Chapel which now holds a permanent exhibition of Spencer’s paintings. It is packed full of them but manages to maintain an effective layout with plenty of information. Upstairs on the mezzanine you can watch a video of his life and works which I thought I’d dip into but I ended up watching it all, it was so interesting.
Spencer was quite a character around Cookham. He’d often paint en plein air, lugging his artist’s materials around in his daughter’s old pram. Many of his paintings depict ordinary life around the town and he included actual residents – not always with permission!
The exhibition I saw concentrated on his paintings of the natural world – I liked these – they are striking yet have a naïve quality. His colours are vibrant.
He was obsessed with gardens and what went on behind walls and hedges as well as using religious motifs and themes throughout his work. He married an artist, Hilda Carline, and they had two daughters. I was interested to see that one of his girls, Unity, has written an autobiography, providing an insight to living with this man but also who had had a very turbulent and artistic life of her own. Before I knew it, I’d spent two thoroughly enjoyable hours in this tiny space, studying the paintings and dipping into the freely available archive material. It was fascinating. I also discovered that the gallery opened in 1962 and was refurbished in 2007 through donations and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant which makes me feel that my purchasing of a weekly lottery ticket isn’t entirely wasted. The gallery is now a charitable trust, staffed by very knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers – I’d definitely recommend a visit and will more than likely return as long as I remember to avoid Maidenhead.
While at the gallery I learned that Spencer had been commissioned to create a series of murals at the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burgclere, Hampshire and I was keen to visit. Spencer had enlisted in the Medical Corps during the First World War and these murals depict personal experiences of everyday life both in hospital and on the front line. The work, inspired by Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua, took him almost six years to complete.
Now, you may remember that my last post covering the Silk Mill outing took the SSF and me into deepest Hampshire, so it seemed the ideal opportunity to call in to Sandham on the way home. Which is what we did: the SSF is very accommodating. So after the Mill, we hunted down this tiny chapel, which wasn’t easy due once again to poor signage. Anyway, we eventually found the place opposite a reasonable looking pub where we stopped for a sandwich before we wandered into the chapel grounds.
Sandham is run by the National Trust. Their properties have a formulaic uniformity to them. The volunteers are of a type. The gift shops have a certain layout and although there are often local items available (pots of jam or honey, usually), once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. They all sell tartan picnic blankets and small useless wicker hampers emblazoned with the Trust logo. They sell erasers in the shape of green welly boots. You get the picture. Unless you are a Trust Member (I am not), entry fees are expensive. Some are extortionate. Sandham falls into the latter. Occasionally my wonderful Art Pass will cover a Trust property. I always proffer my card to the volunteer cashier (sometimes I’m lucky) but usually it is regarded with snooty disdain and I’m offered the obvious alternative with a smugness that is definitely a Trust requirement – signing up there and then to become a Member. No thanks, I always say, wanting to add that I have no desire to add to their coffers which in turn allows them to turn our beautiful old heritage homes into themed opportunities with borrowed furniture of the time, contract carpeting and a re-enactor in every room. No thanks, if it’s all the same. I’m stared at as if I’ve just insulted their religion, which in a way, I suppose I have. Grudgingly I shelled out my £10 entry fee while being thankful that SSF got in for nothing because she is a member (and I don’t hold this against her. Each to their own).
A small room sporting story boards gives the visitor some brief information about the commissioner and Spencer’s work before you can then watch a short video doing much the same. Then you can get into the chapel itself which, I have to say, does provide more than a gasp factor. The place is naturally lit, the light being constantly regulated by a volunteer opening and closing blinds all day. The art work is truly amazing – the detail and extent of the work is breath-taking. These are all war paintings but not of suffering particularly, but of hope. Spencer apparently felt that toil would move him closer to God, something he strived to do all his life.
Our visit to Sandham probably lasted for a maximum of forty minutes and while I’m delighted to have seen these murals, £10 is still far too expensive. To cap it all, I was warned by Light Regulating Woman not to take photographs, so if you’d like to get an idea of Spencer’s vision, click here for a link to an article in Apollo Magazine.
Ah well, the Cookham Gallery was completely free to me, an Art Fund Member. Guess you can’t win ‘em all!
Incidentally, the photos in this post of Spencer’s paintings have been scanned in from the very excellent guide book I purchased from the gallery in Cookham for the very reasonable sum of £5.