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Stanley Spencer Gallery - Spencer's sacred piece of ground

Theresa Thompson, Oxford Times

Spencer's sacred piece of ground

THERESA THOMPSON reviews the first exhibition in the newly re-opened Stanley Spencer Gallery

Sarah Tubb, eyes shut, ashen-faced, and round, kneels to pray on the cold, hard pavement slabs at the gate of her home in Cookham High Street. She prays fervently, fearing the end of the world was come, and is comforted by mystical figures who place tokens before her of things she loves: texts, roses, postcards of the village, church and river, from the rack that daily was placed outside the local shop -reminding her of the heaven' that was Cookham, her home.

Cookham, Berkshire, was a village in heaven' too, and home, to Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), one of the most original and successful British painters of the 20th century, celebrated for his religious and war-themed paintings. Indeed, few artists can so fully have identified themselves with their birthplace than Spencer who was born and spent most of his life there.

He was even nicknamed 'Cookham' when a student at The Slade, because he travelled home each day from London to the place that was his inspiration. He was to immortalise his village, its people and surroundings in his work.

Spencer painted Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors in 1933, basing it on his father's story of the villagers' reaction to seeing the tail of Halley's Comet in 1910 and the ominous sunset that followed.

The picture says much about its artist, combining deep religious feeling with neighbourliness and homeliness, the simple dumpy figures typical of Spencer's style at the time that, despite their gawky appearance, manage to convey deep feelings and, above all, a local setting. Christianity was a living reality for Spencer; his art drew heavily on its imagery, inspired by his father's daily bible readings in childhood, and he set his own highly individual vision' of New Testament events against a backdrop of sun-filled Cookham scenes.

Granny Tubb' in the grip of her fear can be seen today just a few doors along from where she sank to the ground. The oil painting and a pencil study for it are among 47 paintings and drawings and memorabilia at the newly re-opened Stanley Spencer Gallery in the High Street in its first exhibition since modernisation with Heritage Lottery funding.

The small, friendly, volunteer-run gallery is light and airy, the better for its revamp. It is still housed, as it has been since opening in 1962, in the former Victorian Methodist Chapel where Stanley's mother took him as a child to worship, but now it has double the hanging space, better lighting and facilities for disabled and wheelchair-bound visitors, plus a mezzanine floor with internet access to the archive.

Display items include his bible, his CBE, brushes, paint-daubed brolly, and the dilapidated old pram he used when trundling his painting paraphernalia around the village.

A wonderfully evocative sign leans against the pram. Spencer's words on this charming sign seem almost by themselves to conjure up an era, a time when his beloved Cookham, pre-First World War at least, was a rural community virtually cut off from the rest of the world. It states politely: "As he is anxious to complete his painting of the churchyard MR. STANLEY SPENCER would be grateful if visitors would kindly avoid distracting his attention from his work."

Serendipity played a part in the rehang. A highlight of the collection is the enormous unfinished painting of Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta (1953-9), Spencer's final work. This can now be viewed from the mezzanine where you can look down at it as though you are on the bridge over the Thames, exactly as Spencer was when painting it. You can check this out for yourself later by following the gallery's Guided Walk booklet along the road to the bridge.

There's no grassy bank there now where the holidaymaking crowd gathered to hear Christ, who wore a straw boater and sat in a basket chair in the middle of the old horse ferry barge, preaching, and no Mr Brooks the ferryman in the foreground bearing an armful of oars, mops and a bailer, giving the scene a coolly appraising look. Yet the impact of Spencer's vision remains strong.

Hanging next to it is View from Cookham Bridge (1936), another work from an elevated viewpoint but with gentler impact and looking the other way. You can again check for changes in this view on the walk. The water's surface may not glint in the sun as in Spencer's finely painted handiwork, but even so it's pretty much the same.

His talent for landscape is visible in other works here too. In 1935, the Royal Academy rejected two of his more controversial paintings causing him to resign as an Academician. One was The Scarecrow. An unusual picture, it is arresting not just for the intimidating scarecrow of the foreground, but, in my view, for the remarkable quiet realism of the line of cottages peeping out from the trees above the watermeadows in the background.

A new acquisition to the collection, the Portrait of Eric Williams, MC (1954), along with the pencil and chalk studies and finished portraits in this exhibition, demonstrates that Spencer was also an accomplished portraitist. His eye for likeness and care for detail is clear. There's a keen simplicity about this sympathetic portrayal of a bearded man in a check shirt and chunky sweater: a former prisoner of war famous for his wartime exploits, including the Wooden Horse escape. Originally commissioned as a pencil sketch, Spencer who was dissatisfied with it, chose to paint it in oil instead for the same fee. Most of the fortnight spent on it was on the stitches of the sweater.

It's easy to think of Spencer in terms of bizarre scenes filled with people emerging from comfy graves, or figures throwing up hands in ecstasy. Yet, in this exhibition, there are glimpses of a more ordinary world. Nonetheless, the heaven' that was Cookham persists. And in Spencer's very own vision, in his extraordinary painted world, The Last Supper takes place just around the corner in a malthouse.

The re-opening exhibition, That Sacred Piece of Ground, runs until March 16. For full details see the www.stanleyspencer.org.uk website.

Link: Oxford Times 8th November 2007

© Oxford Times 2007