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IN THE COMMUNITY: Wargrave Local History Society looks at Stanley Spencer

stanley spencer
The Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham Picture: Lagosman/ Wikimedia Commons

For the June meeting of the Wargrave Local History Society, Keith LePage (a custodian for the Spencer Gallery in Cookham) gave a Zoom presentation about the life and work of Stanley Spencer.

He described Stanley Spencer as “one of the great British painters of the 20th century, who kept very much to his own style”. As Stanley said, “In order to understand any picture of mine, it means taking a seat and preparing to hear the story of my life”.

Stanley Spencer’s grandfather, Julius Spencer, was a master builder who had moved to Cookham at the time of a building boom there. He had built a pair of houses in the High Street, one for each of his sons, and it was here that Stanley was born, on June 30, 1891.

His father did not believe in state education, and so Stanley was taught, with younger brother Gilbert and two other children from the village – in a shed in the garden by his elder sisters, Annie and Florence. This seems mainly to have consisted of nature walks and Bible stories – the Bible stories were to be the foundation of many of his paintings.

When he reached the age of 15, Stanley surprised his parents by telling them he wanted to be an artist, but they could see that he had talent, so he was sent for a year to Maidenhead Technical College. His aptitude was again recognised, he was then sponsored to attend the Slade College of Art in London. He was an unconventional pupil, and would miss the last lecture of the day, so that he could get the 5.08 train from Paddington to be home in Cookham in time for tea.

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Another pupil at the Slade at the time, Gwen Darwin “took him under her wing” and, in 1911, she gave him a copy of John Donne’s works, which explored ideas about resurrection and rebirth, and these influenced Stanley, who liked to consider such thoughts and link them to a place he found in his walks around Cookham. 

His other work – portraiture and landscapes – was of such different styles that it is difficult to see them as the work of the same person.

It is the creative work, though, that are where he “explains himself to himself”, and Keith illustrated this with examples of his work – based on his life experiences and interpreted reflecting his spiritual thoughts on resurrection etc. Many of these, even biblical events, were portrayed in the setting of the Cookham area. The pictures Keith showed also illustrated Stanley’s somewhat unconventional personal relationships.

In 1940, Stanley was made an official war artist, and was sent to record the work in the Glasgow shipyards. Once again, his images reflect his views of the resurrection.

He was taken ill in 1958, and after treatment at the Canadian Red Cross hospital at Taplow, the vicar of Cookham arranged for his recuperation at the vicarage. He received his knighthood from the Queen Mother in 1958, but his cancer returned, and he died in December 1959.

The Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham High Street, is now able to open again daily, during the summer, from 10.30 – 5.50.

The Society’s planned programme is at www.wargravehistory.org.uk, where the latest information can be found, or email info@wargravehistory.org.uk  to confirm meeting details.

PETER DELANEY

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