Stanley the Village Mystic

The rain, it raineth every day.

And today was no exception. But I packed a mac and headed for Cookham, that lovely village nestling on the Thames. I had half an idea about finding more about its most famous artist, Stanley Spencer. I knew nothing about him. It was a fine upstanding name, though.

The light had a diffuse impressionism about it. It rendered the village full of a strange, misty energy I could not quite define.

I pottered through the raindrops, along the quaintest of high streets, to the little church and its pretty graveyard. And there by the path: there was Stanley’s grave, his stone green-lichened, announcing that he shared this space with his wife Hilda.

Inside, the church was all  ecclesiastical gloom and complete solitude. Not a soul was there, and my footsteps rasped as I trod the old tiles looking at the signs men have left.

There it was in the shadows of a thousand-year old church, half way along: a large painting entitled ‘The Last Supper.” And it was a copy of one by Stan.


Ethereal, it is. Haunting. The faces look so familiar, each apostle with his legs stretched out and relaxed underneath the table, and Judas laughing behind his hand.

Maybe I should learn more about this man, I thought. Stanley of the gravestone, and the ethereal friends’ supper.

Stanley was born in Cookham, and raised in Cookham, and he loved Cookham. At the Slade School of Art his friends jokingly called him Cookham. Even in his student days- 1908-1912 – he insisted on getting the train home every evening to be in what he called ‘a village in Heaven’.

And his art  – each piece breathtakingly beautiful- is full of Cookham people and topography, painted “as if,” a Times critic ventured, “a PreRaphaelite had shaken hands with a  Cubist.” The Last Supper is quite possibly peopled with Cookham villagers.

If ever there was a creature of place, Stan was he.

He was compelled to leave during the First World War, first with the Royal Army Medical Corps and then on the front line in Macedonia. When he returned home the painting he had been working on was waiting for him on his bed.

But he was not stolid. Rather, he seems to me to have been a mystic. In Cookham, he saw miracles everywhere.

In Sermons by Artists (1934) he wrote: “When I lived in Cookham I was disturbed by a feeling of everything being meaningless. But quite suddenly I became aware that everything was full of special meaning and this made everything holy. The instinct of Moses to take his shoes off when he saw the burning bush was similar to my feelings. I saw many burning bushes in Cookham. I observed this sacred quality in most unexpected quarters.”

This joy; this unfettered unEnglish ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary; I see it rarely.

And the best was yet to come.

Back at home, I googled painting after painting. The language they used was so familiar and yet so transforming. The faces were English, the light English, the situations fantastical.

And suddenly I saw it: the graveyard in which I had been squelching that afternoon. But transformed utterly. For this was The Resurrection, Cookham; and in it, those who have been sleeping are waking, as you would on a lazy Saturday morning. Many wear white, or nothing at all, and lean on their stones, awakening to the realisation that it is time for an eternity of life.

And I was there. This afternoon. In the rain. Something of that man’s infectious joy had crept into my spirit and I was glad, in a thoroughly timeless sense.

Stan’s latter days were spent with two different wives; he was a common figure pushing his black pram about the Cookham lanes, carrying brushes, paints and canvas, his pyjamas poking out from the bottoms of his trousers.

He died of cancer in 1959; a man who had seen and understood life through the prism of a small Berkshire village.

And he left his understanding behind him for me to stumble upon, one rainy November afternoon, in Cookham.


26 thoughts on “Stanley the Village Mystic

  1. I have heard of him but I thought he was a poet – just as I typed that, I realised why: in the first year of my Literature degree, we had a Humanities course and we looked at Spencer’s war paintings. Incredible stuff.

    The feet sticking out in this painting intrigue me.

  2. Next time you go Stanley hunting do visit the Sandham Memorial Chapel (NT) it is magnificent. Stanley was highly influenced by Giotto’s Arena Chapel, Padua.
    In the year of his death he received a knighthood. He carried his old shopping bag with him to Buckingham Palace, inside was a small painting that he had done for the Queen Mother. A vase of two roses, wrapped up in brown paper and string. Wearing a newly cleaned suit he handed the picture to an Equerry who declined to give it to the QM. Stanley brought it back home with him, and popping into a local cafe he handed the painting to the owners. Years later they sold the painting for many thousands of pounds. There is still a restaurant in Cookham called the Two Roses, and I believe that there is a copy of the original painting on the wall.

    1. I am amazed the equerry refused the painting. It’s tant amount to dismissing Fred Astaire as someone who can dance a little. Thank you for the Sandown tip, Rosemary: the chapel is closed until Christmas, but I shall potter along just as soon as it opens afterwards.

  3. I love the way that you’ve presented Stanley to us Kate. I leave wanting to know him. I’m not familiar with his art but agree that the piece is fantastic. The feet! How remarkable is the magic of the feet in that painting.

    1. I know. I find all his Cookham paintings as wonderful I love the walls behind, too, and that window: so 20th century, so red brick and solid. The painting leaves myriad questions floating in the air.

  4. I love this man! What an inspirational perspective and other-worldly consciousness! I gravitate to that. And I love what I see here in his art. I’m going to have to learn more about him–I’d never heard of him before, and I think he calls to me! 🙂 I do just as you seem to do, Kate. I get something in my head and I have to go and see! I can read about any number of things and learn many facts, but I never connect in quite the same way as one of my field trips! I could use a little more time…you? 🙂

  5. I find I’m fixated — and not in a pleasant way — on all the bare feet in the middle of the Last Supper. Off-putting, such focus on bare feet at a meal. Silly me, I suppose.

  6. What a unique perspective . . . with all those ape-sized feet at the center of attention. All reposed in identical postures.

    Thanks for the intro, Kate.

  7. What a happen-upon for you Kate, and for me, reading about Stanley Spencer here for the very first time. I did have to giggle a bit of the image of Stan pushing the pram, brushes about and his pajamas poking through. We had a fog today and I ran out, in my pajamas, to try to capture it with my camera – but, I didn’t feel much like a mystic. hehe

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