The First World War was to have a profound effect upon the artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). Looking back upon his years in uniform he bemoaned ‘Oh no, it is not proper or sensible to expect to paint well after such experiences’.
Prior to the First World War Spencer had painted some of his most spiritual and lauded works of art set within Cookham, the village of his birth, and it was with great reluctance that he left for war in 1915 initially joining the Royal Army Medical Corps and eventually serving in the front line in Macedonia. On his return he soon forsook an official war work commission amidst fears that he had lost his artistic vision.
Cookham was very important to the artist at this critical point of his career. Paradise Regained. Stanley Spencer in the Aftermath of the First World War demonstrates how Spencer redeemed the devastating effects of the war upon his personal and professional life, renewing the connection with his birthplace. Returning to safer ground he once again sought inspiration from his surroundings, exclaiming : ‘After the war I felt, on returning home, as if I were performing a miracle every time I beheld the familiar spots’. Featured within this show are a number of paintings depicting scenes located within the very fabric of the village, and their exhibition at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in this Great War centenary year is most appropriate. Making a poignant return is Unveiling Cookham War Memorial 1922 (lent by a private owner) an intriguingly peaceful painting of a ceremony which would have had great importance for the Spencer family as Stanley’s elder brother Sydney, whose name is carved on the memorial cross, had been killed in the last few months of the war. Spencer chose to portray the event in a light hearted fashion describing the painting as ‘my Ascot fashions, my sweet pea colours’. In Christ carrying the Cross 1920 (lent by Tate) Christ processes down Cookham High Street on his way to Calvary, followed by the local builder’s men carrying ladders. Although the artist’s intention was to convey a reassuring feeling of comfort derived from association with the familiar routine of village life, critics at the time and since have interpreted this work as very much informed by the trauma of war.
By 1923 Spencer felt ready to return to his wartime memories, drawing up detailed plans for a scheme of paintings designed to decorate a memorial chapel depicting his experiences, which was eventually built at Burghclere near Newbury (now The Sandham Memorial Chapel). Having lost his kit bag containing sketches whilst abroad he referred back to pencil and wash studies made on his immediate return in 1918/19. Newly acquired and on show at the Gallery for the first time are Pack Mules and Wounded being carried by Mules in Macedonia which demonstrate the essential part played by mules, which held great sway over Spencer’s imagination, in the Salonika campaign.
Paradise Regained is a must see, not only for those interested in the cultural legacy of the First World War, but also for the more casual visitor who wishes to find out about the life and work of one of the twentieth century’s most important artists. Outside the gallery, Cookham today is a vibrant village, with a range of good restaurants and shops, whilst still retaining that special riverside charm which meant so much to Stanley Spencer.
The Stanley Spencer Gallery Cookham, was established in 1962 as a memorial to the artist within the former Methodist Chapel he attended as a child. Refurbished in 2006 it is a beautiful modern art gallery, with an important collection and selection of Spencer’s work permanently on display. Within the archives are a complete set of letters Spencer wrote to his friend Desmond Chute throughout the First World War. These are available to view on the designated mezzanine floor alongside further archives, a comprehensive library of books on the artist and a computer presentation which accompanies the exhibition.