Wessex Worthies: Stanley Spencer

Resurrection, Cookham

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).

Wessex on Screen: The Damned (1963)

Welcome to the first in an occasional series of articles about films and TV programmes set and/or shot in Wessex. Regular readers of the Wessex Chronicle will know that your editor is a huge fan of Berkshire-based studio Hammer Films, so it seems fitting to begin with one of their odder movies, which I recently caught on the excellent Talking Pictures TV--a channel specialising in older, mostly British movies--where it was showing under its US title, These Are The Damned.

The film was directed by Joseph Losey in an austere, European style, and shot in stark black and white by regular Hammer cinematographer Arthur Grant. The tone of the film is utterly unlike the lush Eastmancolor gothic of directors like Terence Fisher, the man who defined the Hammer style in the public mind.

Made in 1963, at the height of the mods vs rockers clashes that plagued seaside resorts across Britain, particularly on the south coast, the story starts out as a slice of social realism. American tourist Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey) visits Weymouth and gets robbed by, and then romantically involved with, Joan (Shirley Anne Field), the sister of terrifying gang leader King (Oliver Reed). King doesn't take too kindly to the latter development. He is highly protective of his sister, and it is implied that he has incestuous feelings for her, though such things could not be explicitly stated in that era. Modern audiences might find the love affair between the middle-aged Simon and a woman barely out of her teens more distasteful than audiences in 1963 apparently did, however.

About half an hour in, the film takes a sharp left turn into sci-fi territory, as we are introduced to a sinister research facility lead by Bernard (Alexander Knox), a man who Wells had previously met at his hotel in Weymouth. Through a series of twists and turns, Simon, Joan and King find themselves trying to uncover the truth about his secret experiments on children.

The film makes good use of the Weymouth locations, The famous town clock forms the scene of Simon's first meeting with Joan, while the street-running trains, steam-powered in those days, can be seen and heard throughout. One disappointment, though, is the lack of authentic Dorset accents. As was standard in mid-20th century British cinema, the supposed Weymouth natives either speak cut-glass RP, or in a sort of RADA Cockney argot. It is a minor flaw, but one which prevents me from praising it as an authentic Wessex film.


“A partly-real, partly-dream country”

One of the most common criticisms of the modern Wessex movement is that "Wessex doesn't exist any more." It is true that Wessex no longer exists as a nation, or as an administrative unit; but as a country of the mind, it has far more power than the government's South West or South East regions. The title of this post is taken from a description by Thomas Hardy of his literary Wessex, and while Hardy was not the first to revive the name of Wessex in the modern era, he was the first to really popularise it. He later lamented that "I did not anticipate that this application of the word to a modern use would extend outside the chapters of my own chronicles. But the name was soon taken up elsewhere as a local designation. The first to do so was the now defunct Examiner, which, in the impression bearing date July 15, 1876, entitled one of its articles The Wessex Labourer, the article turning out to be no dissertation on farming during the Heptarchy, but on the modern peasant of the south-west counties, and his presentation in these stories. Since then the appellation which I had thought to reserve to the horizons and landscapes of a merely realistic dream-country, has become more and more popular as a practical definition; and the dream-country has, by degrees, solidified into a utilitarian region which people can go to, take a house in, and write to the papers from."

Hardy may not have been happy about it, but it showed that Wessex has an imaginative power that extends beyond his novels and short stories. It is the land of King Alfred and Stonehenge, of cider and chalk figures, Wayland's Smithy and HMS Victory. But it is also a cohesive modern region. We sometimes attract criticism from historical purists because our definition of Wessex takes modern administrative regions into account, as well as the historical kingdom. Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire were in Mercia, they will say. The Isle of Wight and Meon Valley were Jutish, and Devon was part of Dumnonia. Leaving aside the fact that the borders of historical Wessex fluctuated over time, this somewhat misses the point that we are building a Wessex identity for the 21st century, not the 6th or the 10th century. This is why, while we are critical of the government's regions when they get things wrong (the "Wessex Iron Curtain" splitting the region in half; treating Cornwall as if it were an English county), we recognise when they get things right (refusing to draw a regional boundary through the middle of Bristol, as Hardy did). Indeed, had the Redcliffe-Maud Report of 1969 recommended the former Southern Economic Planning Region be merged with the South West instead of the South East, there might not be any need for this Society at all. Our work might instead be carried out by a regional Arts Council for Wessex and Cornwall. Whether or not that would be a good thing, I leave you to decide.

Wessex in The English Hymnal

The English Hymnal was the hymn book associated with the Oxford Movement within Anglicanism and published by Oxford University Press in 1906. The Oxford Movement was a movement to restore the Church of England to what it saw as its Catholic roots, and many of its founder members later went on to convert to Catholicism.

What makes it of interest from our point of view is that many of its hymn tunes were named after the counties and towns where they were recorded. The editors of the hymnal were Percy Dearmer, the Christian Socialist vicar of St Mary the Virgin in Primrose Hill, London, and Ralph Vaughan Williams of Down Ampney in Gloucestershire. Vaughan Williams was actually an atheist at the time, but like Thomas Hardy, retained a love of the trappings of Anglicanism long after he had lost his faith. His background as a collector of folk music made him eminently qualified to seek out the best hymn tunes from across the British Isles, continental Europe and North America.

I have compiled, to the best of my ablity, a table of tunes named after places in Wessex, which I reproduce below.

Hymn #First LineModern TuneMetreSeasonPlainsongAlternates
656See him in raiment rentBridgwater/Langport64.63.D.Litanies, etc.
6Hark the glad sound! the Saviour comesBristolC.M.Advent
602Loving Shepherd of thy sheepBuckland 1E77.77.CatechismApp. 67
460O Lord, who formedst me to wearChristchurch (Ouseley)88.88.88.General
411Jerusalem on highChristchurch (Steggall)66.66.88.General
25In the bleak mid-winterCranhamIrreg.Christmas
198Hark, the sound of holy voicesDeerhurst 1E87.87.D.For any Saint’s DayApp. 32
294The year is swiftly waningDevonshire76.76.Autumn
152Come down, O Love divineDown Ampney66.11.D.Whitsuntide
206O thou, who didst with love untoldCrediton 2EC.M.St Thomas
137The Day of Resurrection!Ellacombe76.76.D.Eastertide
528Father of men, in whom are oneExeter888.888.Societies: Friendly
283Most glorious Lord of life, that on this dayFarley Castle10 10.10 10.Sunday
217Her Virgin eyes saw God incarnate bornFarley Castle10 10.10 10.St Mary the Virgin
355In Paradise reposingHambridge76.76.The Departed
395God of mercy, God of graceHeathlands77.77.77.General
282Now the busy week is doneHeathlands 1E77.77.77.Saturday Evening
260New every morning is the loveMelcolmbe [D major]L.M.Morning
631Spirit of mercy, truth, and loveMelcombeL.M.Processional
498There is a land of pure delightMendipC.M.General
16The Maker of the sun and moonNewburyC.M.Christmas Eve
389Fight the good fight with all thy mightShepton-BeauchampL.M.General
359O Lord, to whom the spirits liveSouth Cerney88.88.88.The Departed
554Thy kingdom come, O GodKingsland 2E66.66.Home and Foreign MissionsApp. 64
545Thy hand, O God, has guidedThornbury 2E76.76.D.The Church45
467Oft in danger, oft in woeUniversity College77.77.General
177Captains of the saintly bandUniversity College 1E77.77.Apostles and Evangelists
53The wingèd herald of the dayWarehamL.M.From the Octave of the Epiphany till LentP
52O splendour of God’s glory brightWarehamL.M.From the Octave of the Epiphany till LentP
475Rejoice, O land, in God thy mightWarehamL.M.General
55Lo! golden light rekindles day:Wareham 1EL.M.From the Octave of the Epiphany till LentP
54Ye clouds and darkness, hosts of nightWareham 1EL.M.From the Octave of the Epiphany till LentP
56Eternal Glory of the skyWareham 1EL.M.From the Octave of the Epiphany till LentP
502Through all the changing scenes of lifeWiltshireC.M.General
9On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cryWinchester NewL.M.Advent
620Ride on! ride on in majesty!Winchester NewL.M.Palm Sunday Processional
30While shepherds watched their flocks by nightWinchester OldC.M.ChristmasApp. 08
158When God of old came down from heavenWinchester OldC.M.Whitsuntide
332There is a fountain filled with BloodWindsorC.M.Holy Communion

You may notice a couple of well-known hymns in there. The tune of Fight the Good Fight is named after Shepton Beauchamp near Ilminster in Somerset, and While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night is sung to Winchester Old (originally known simply as Winchester). What is less well known is that the same tune is also used for a Whitsun carol, When God Of Old Came Down From Heaven, with words by another founder of the Oxford Movement, John Keble of Fairford. Two hymns, On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry and Ride On! Ride On! In Majesty are set to the similar-sounding but unrelated tune Winchester New.

Dearmer and Vaughn Williams aimed to create a "musical landscape" of Britain with their collection of hymn tunes. See this excellent article for further information.