Above - Stanley Spencer, The Garage, 1929. Collection of Lord Lloyd Webber.
Review - Stanley Spencer: Prophet of Love and Work at the Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham, Berks, until November 2, 2008.
This year’s summer show at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham is a chance to enjoy rarely seen works by an unusual and idiosyncratic English painter displayed in the town where the artist lived most of his life.
There’s a rare chance to see a really colourful and focussed canvas from the collection of Lord Lloyd-Webber – The Garage, painted in 1929. The work, one of a series originally painted in response to a commission from the Empire Marketing Board, is the centrepiece of the show.
Alongside this painting is the exceptional The Dustman (or The Lovers) painted in 1934, a riot of limbs, hands, dresses and almost hidden but always meaningful detail.
Interior of the refurbished gallery. © Jeff Hopkins
Apart from a traumatic spell serving his country in the first world war, and a time studying at The Slade in London, Spencer lived and worked all his life in Cookham, a small Berkshire town bisected by the Thames.
This means that once you’ve had a look inside this intimate but intense little gallery in the centre of the town, you can walk out of the door and see the very places Spencer lived in and painted from – stand on the town’s bridge over the Thames and see the swans drifting up and downstream.
Walk upstream towards Bourne End a few yards from the bridge and the subtle but distinct atmosphere of the town and river starts to become apparent. Life centres around the floods and flushes of the river.
From the outside - the Stanley Spencer gallery is now open again after being closed for a year. © Jeff Hopkins
Go back to the show and some of these places can be seen: one of my favourite works is The Scarecrow, Cookham, 1934. This is a straightforward gem of a country landscape, a close-up view of a broomstick figure clad in old clothes. But is it? Seen through the fertile imagination of Spencer, the familiar becomes somewhat grotesque; the figures billows and expands, the placid and parallel Thames Valley backdrop glimpsed behind. What else lies beneath?
For Spencer, a lot else lay beneath. The artist painted the place he lived in, but more then anything, he painted a series of works that explored metaphors and motivations of the people around him. It was often earthy stuff, passionate and uncompromising. Passionate enough to get Spencer’s work rejected by the RA hanging committee in 1935 - the aforementioned The Dustman (or The Lovers) is one of the offending paintings.