Cookham is a civil parish in northeast Berkshire, which has a population of under 6000, but an extraordinary artistic legacy for its size. The stretch of the River Thames that forms the parish’s northern boundary inspired Kenneth Grahame to write The Wind in the Willows, and it has been home to railway poster artist Frank Sherwin, illustrator Ralph Thompson and, uh, Timmy Mallett. But the artist who has really placed Cookham on the map is undoubtedly Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).
Stanley and his younger brother Gilbert both had a passion for drawing, inspired by the countryside around Cookham. They both studied at Slade College of Art under the influential Henry Tonks. Gilbert went on to become a noted landscape artist, painting scenes mostly in Wessex, but also in the Lake District. Stanley, however, was best known for painting Biblical scenes visibly set in Cookham, and featuring local people
During the First World War, Spencer served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, initially at the Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol (now UWE’s Glenside Campus), and later in Macedonia. The latter experience inspired his painting Travoys Arriving With Wounded, which was commissioned by the Britsh government shortly after the war as part of a proposed Hall of Remembrance. It now hangs in the Imperial War Museum.
1927 saw the creation of his most famous painting, The Resurrection, Cookham, reproduced above. The Times‘ art critic at the time called it “the most important picture painted by any English artist in the present century”. Many of Spencer’s friends and family appeared in the painting, his first wife Hilda Carline appearing three times. Spencer divorced Carline in 1937 ater becoming infatuated with one of his models, Patricia Preece. Spencer and Preece married a week after the decree absolute was issued, but the marriage was never consummated, The love triangle was later depicted in Stanley, a 1996 play by Pam Gems.
Spencer returned to the theme of Biblical scenes set in Cookham with Crucifixion, painted a year before his death. He was diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards, and died on 14th December 1959.
In 1962, the Stanley Spencer Gallery was opened in the former Methodist chapel at Cookham. The chapel had closed in 1910, despite efforts by the Spencer family to keep it open. After its closure, it had been used by Spencer to teach a life drawing class. At the time of his death, it was being used as a studio by another local artist, Faith Gibbon, who generously donated it to the newly formed Stanley Spencer Memorial Trust. Today, it hosts two exhibitions a year, preserving the legacy of Cookham’s most famous resident (sorry, Timmy).