Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

Sir Stanley Spencer

Sir Stanley Spencer Gallery
Sir Stanley Spencer Gallery

I finally arrive at my destination, a small former Methodist Chapel. This is the home of the Stanley Spencer Gallery, dedicated to preserving the memory of one of Cookham’s most famous residents, Sir Stanley Spencer.

Spencer was one of England’s better known painters. His work is quite remarkable. He had a great love of his home village, but he was also a religious man. So he put the two together and composed vivid pictures of Biblical tales, but set them in his beloved Cookham.

Stanley was born on 30th June 1891, the eighth child of Annie and William Spencer.

In 1908 the young William studied at the Slade School of Fine Art at the University College of London. Not for him was the typical student life, for he spent most of his other time commuting back and forth to Cookham, so much so that he soon earned the nickname “Cookham” from his fellow students.

Cookham Church
Cookham Church

In 1914 he began military service in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and in 1916 was sent to Greece.

He was a war artist for WW2, and his most celebrated pictures at the time depicted the shipbuilding industry on the banks of the Clyde.

In 1925 he married Hilda Carline who was also an artist. They initially set up home in Hampstead and moved to Burghclere in 1927. He just could not stay away, and returned to Cookham in 1932 where he stayed until he died.

In 1927 Spencer held his first one man exhibition in London. His painting “Resurrection Cookham” was highly acclaimed. The painting can currently be seen in the Tate Gallery, and shows the residents of Cookham rising from their graves in Cookham Churchyard.

Spencer was a popular figure in Cookham. He would often be found at work, or pushing a battered old pram in which he carried his easel, canvasses and paints. He was a very sociable person, and was known to be able to talk for hours as his mind explored his wilder imagination.

He received his knighthood in 1959, and died later that year.

The gallery was opened in 1962, three years after his death. It is run by volunteer4s and holds over 100 paintings and drawings. In 2007 the chapel was completely renovated with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, transforming the old chapel into a modern light gallery of his work. The centre-piece is his unfinished work “Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta” which I found was best viewed from the upstairs balcony. The work depicts Christ in the centre, preaching to a boatload of Cookham parishioners while the regatta goes on around them.

Before leaving Cookham, there are a couple of connections with Wind in the Willows that are worthy of mention. Kenneth Grahame spent his childhood years here at “The Mount” in Cookham Dean. The nearby Quarry Wood is thought to be the inspiration for the “Wild Wood” in his masterpiece. Much more interesting is that Lullebrook Manor in Ferry Lane could be his inspiration for Toad Hall. Particularly when you consider that the owner at the time was the first person in the area to own a motor car and liked to show off his pride and joy. It could be just a coincidence, but let us not let an absence of proof get in the way of an entertaining story.

The Crown, Cookham
The Crown, Cookham

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