Monday, 23 June 2014

Stanley Spencer Gallery at Cookham

Today was bright and sunny and what better way to celebrate summer than to head out to Cookham in Berkshire to the Stanley Spencer Gallery just down the road from Mr Spencer's family house. The current exhibition is titled 'Paradise Regained: Stanley Spencer in the Aftermath of the First World War', presumably to tie-in with the centenary of the war. I've seen a few of the paintings before, at the 'Crisis of Brilliance' exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery last year, and it was nice to see them again.

The Gallery is based in a small, converted chapel at the end of the High Street with the main paintings on the ground floor and some paintings and drawings on the wall by the stairs up to a small mezzanine. This area holds archive materials you can browse through, books, more drawings and an iPad with an interactive display of the main painting on the wall opposite, the unfinished and huge 'Christ Preaching at Cookham Regata' (on the left of the interior photo above). Someone has clearly put a lot of thought into making this small space work both as a gallery and as an interactive experience, so well done.

One of the more striking paintings in the exhibition is 'The Last Supper' with Jesus and the disciples squashed into a small room for their last meal together and, for some reason, the disciples have their bare feet sticking out from under the table cloth. I was pondering this on the train back to London and can't think of any reason why that particular pose should be remotely meaningful - the catalogue suggests it might allude to Christ washing the feet of his disciples but what an odd way of alluding to it. What I want to know is who is the disciple to the left of Jesus who seems to be merrily scoffing food and shoving it into his mouth. I suspect Judas.

Just as so many of Spencer's painting hark back to Cookham, he sets 'Christ Carrying The Cross' on the High Street outside his family home. You don't actually see Christ, it's everyone else in the parade you see, with people milling around and leaning out of windows to see what all the fuss was about. The direction of travel heads towards the chapel that would later become a gallery to Spencer's memory. He seemed to like painting crowds and there are lots of crowds in his paintings - the trick is to look carefully at them and see what isn't obvious, what he might have hidden away in a corner or behind a more prominent figure. Never take what is obvious for granted in his paintings and drawings.

One of the more poignant paintings in the exhibition is 'Unveiling Cookham War Memorial' from 1922 (which was exhibited as part of the 'Crisis of Brilliance' show last year). I say poignant because it was obviously important to him and his older brother's name is inscribed on the base of the cross as someone who lost his life in the war. There are no soldiers in uniform present and no grieving, this is a celebration with everyone there in their best clothes, lounging around seeing who's there and being seen. The only thing that seems slightly out of place is the Union flag in the bottom right-hand corner and it's this splash of colour that suggests something other than a small town fayre is going on. You walk past the memorial on the way from the station to the gallery so you can't help but see it. On the way back to the station I took a photo from roughly the same place as Spencer's view-point. I'll post that when I download it.

Of course, there's a lot more to Spencer than religious paintings and the war, he was also a delicate and beautiful landscape painter and there are three paintings of Englefield House from different angles covered in wisteria, lilacs and clematis as well as tress and whatever else. I think my favourite was 'Lilac and Clematis at Englefield' that has the simple and raw geometric shape of the building overgrown and tangled by the plants. I like the brickwork, with the different shades of brick bathed in the sun - I suspect that took ages to get right.

It's only a little gallery and doesn't take long to look round but it's obviously well thought out and dedicated to the memory of Spencer. The number of books available, the wall of postcards (how often I bemoan the lack of postcards at exhibitions) and the lovely little catalogue with good reproductions and thorough text all demonstrate that whoever's in charge of the gallery knows what they're doing and knows what punters want. Well done! I got the catalogue and postcards to browse through later.

Beside the door as you go in there's a self-portrait of Spencer, his first in oils when he was 23 years old. The simplicity and the direct gaze say so much about the artist he was to become, battered by war and struggling to find his own peace afterwards in his little country town. There's something terribly English about his paintings, about his crowds and subjects. He painted what he saw around him and even placed his religious paintings in Cookham. He was bringing the immortal to the end of his street, to outside his own house, to make it real to his viewers and, in my view, he succeeded.

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