Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

Provenance

Given by the artist to Patricia Preece

D. Hepworth

Sotheby's 14.11.79 (118)

The Piccadilly Gallery

Sotheby's 11.3.81 (228, as Figures Near a Chapel)

Marion Phipps

Christie's 11.6.82 (54)

Private Collection

Literature

Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer: A Catalogue Raisonne of the Paintings, (London: Phaidon, 1992), p.405, cat. no.76 ill. b&w
This lively oil sketch depicts Cookham churchyard, or perhaps the bank of the River Thames. Figures in the foreground prop themselves against tombstones, the churchyard wall or undulating earth. Some have their legs crossed, others are fully recumbent. The chapel or boathouse to the right is counterbalanced by a central tree rendered in variable depths of purple. In the distance, to the far left, more figures process onto a boat (discernible by its square windows) which passes beneath the arching Cookham bridge with quatrefoil detailing.

This study is related to four major works completed by Spencer around 1920. The bridge and boat were used as subjects in The Bridge and Bond’s Steam Launch respectively (both 1920), and the composition of foreground figures in the process of being resurrected is similar to The Resurrection, Cookham (c.1920-1). The present work sees Spencer endeavour to combine these elements, previously handled in isolation. His vast The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-7; fig. 1) is the result of their successful combination including the distant boat loaded with figures, foreground churchyard and chapel wall. As a precursor to this monumental painting, one of Spencer’s most significant works, the oil sketch here represents a vital stage the artist’s realisation of a more complex and ambitious vision of his beloved Cookham in the aftermath of the First World War.

Spencer’s relationship with Cookham was so intense that he would return daily to the town during his studies at the Slade School of Fine Art, a habit for which he gained the simple nickname of ‘Cookham’. There, he experienced a spiritual immediacy which inspired him to envision scenes from the Bible enacted in his local neighbourhood. Local ancestors were resurrected from cabbage patches, Jesus preached from street corners. Spencer’s art became a lifelong hymn to the wonder he found in his local environment through faith, striving to give it ever-greater realisation in visual form.

Much of his work from this early period can be generally divided between crowded figure paintings (often of an explicitly religious subject matter) and relatively open, expansive landscape scenes. Unusually, this study for a resurrection blurs such distinctions. Figures are placed in relation to capacious blocks of sky, receding banks of trees and bare land, suggesting it served to help Spencer toward the basic construction of his landscape. With the architecture of these complex compositional elements established, he could turn to carry out detailed figures. The bold, purple tree which structures and mediates separate elements in this scene is a trace of a Gauguin-esque atmosphere, a characteristic of the artist’s earliest masterworks completed while still at the Slade a decade earlier. Such details offer the study its own charged sense of mystery independent of any associated painting. Yet, like all outstanding preparatory studies, this work provides a glimpse of the thought and labour that enabled the artist to produce the works upon which his preeminent reputation now stands.