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.