Stanley Spencer, Cookham

Cookham, Berkshire was the birthplace of the twice married artist, Stanley Spencer. He loved it there and many of his paintings feature the small town. An exhibition about his wives, Hilda Carline and Patricia Preece opened recently at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham and I was really keen to see it as he lived with Hilda in Hampstead, London and I talk about them on my Artists Hampstead walk.

So, one sunny morning a friend and I drove to Cookham and to nearby Marlow for an Away-Day. The gallery is small but it has a great selection of works by Spencer and the staff were very helpful. Here is the link if you want to know more I especially liked his Neighbours which reminded me of a Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon for some reason, maybe it’s the round shapes of the people and that both canvases have or bushes a tree dividing them. Spencer’s style varies enormously from huge canvases filled with detail and painted in a naive style to his very disturbing Double Nude Portrait : The Artist and his Second Wife 1937.

We did all the touristy things like photographing the house where he was born, walking alongside the Thames and visiting the church featured in his Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard which is in the Tate Britain collection (I can’t show it here for copyright reasons but you can see it if you google Tate Britain).

I was ridiculously thrilled about taking photos of the church to compare with the painting. Some of the people in it are stepping out of graves marked by large round headstones. I think the lovely C18th graves in one of my photos are where he got the idea of round stones. They look like the old-fashioned beds with wooden headboards and footboards in Disney’s Snow-White. The names on the gravestones have long since worn away but I imagined they belonged to a gentleman and his wife resting very comfortably in peace next to each-other.

The Cookham Resurrection was painted early in Stanley and Hilda’s life together and reflects the happiness he felt. It lasted for a few years but Stanley was a difficult man and very egocentric. Living with him was not helpful to Hilda’s career or to her state of mind. He moved the family from Hampstead where she was happy, to Cookham where he thought he would find domestic bliss and inspiration for his work. Things came to a head when Stanley became obsessed with Patricia, the slim, elegant woman who lived next door with her lover, Dorothy Hepworth. Stanley had met Patricia in 1929 when visiting his parents in Cookham. He bought her expensive jewellery while giving Hilda only 30 shillings a week to keep house. Finally, after Stanley and Patricia went away on business trips together to Switzerland, Hilda left. They divorced and within days Stanley married Patricia. Things did not go smoothly however. He still loved Hilda in his way spent the night with her while Patricia refused to consummate the marriage and continued to live with Dorothy. Patricia forced Stanley out of his house (he had made it over to her) so that she could let it. He returned to London to live in a bedsit alone and pretty broke.  Stanley and Hilda are both buried in the graveyard that he painted so many years before. The stone memorial to him in the churchyard also names Hilda but her grave is in another part of the cemetery.

Just up the road is Marlow, a busy little town on the banks of the Thames, famous as the home of Jerome K Jerome, the author of Three Men in a Boat and where Mary Shelly completed her book, Frankenstein (in a really pretty cottage near the main shopping street).

The trip inspired me to programme an Artists Hampstead walk. In the next day or so I will add a new page called Tours in 2020 to my website with full details of this and how to book.

About the author: Gail Jones