A crow fell down the chimney at Fernlea on Cookham High Street, flapped around the room, flew out of the window and Stanley Spencer was born. The date was June 30th 1891 – and the family thought it was a good omen. He was the eighth surviving child of Annie and William Spencer, and he was joined a year later by his younger brother Gilbert.
Grandfather Julius was a master builder and built at least two of Spencers’ homes – the family house on the High Street, and later the home he shared for a while with his sister Annie at Cliveden View on the High Road in Cookham Rise.
They were an extraordinary family. ‘Pa’ William was a music teacher, who himself had trained in London. As Spencer’s biographer Ken Pople points out the family produced ‘a knight, two professors, a concert violinist, a professional stage conjurer, the Director of the National Building Institute in London, an Oxford graduate (killed in the Great War) and the wife of a Cambridge don’. He should have added ‘two professional artists’ as Gilbert also went on to be a successful artist.
Spencer’s childhood was full of music, literature and conversation. His father was a born educator who read out loud with the family and insisted on lively debate and argument at the dinner table. A small school was set up in the garden at ‘The Nest’ next door to Fernlea which was run by his sisters Annie and Florence and education revolved around reading, often Bible stories, music and nature walks through the wonderful local countryside. The Bible, nature and Cookham are strong threads running through much of his work.
Stanley was small and wiry and had a very energetic yet engaging personality. He could also be quite exhausting and would talk for hours with his mind flying free. He would vocalise or write his thoughts on every aspect of his work and left behind a vast archive of letters, notes and jottings. (Much of this is now in the Tate. See archives for the Gallery’s own collection)
After his informal schooling he was sponsored by Lady Boston of Hedsor to go to the Maidenhead Technical Institute (where his father insisted he must not take any exams) and in 1908 on to the Slade School of Fine Art in London. This was the premier art school in the country and he was taught by Henry Tonks. He picked up the nickname ‘Cookham’ because of his love for the village, and his habit of coming home from London everyday after classes. His work began to be appreciated; he won several prizes and was included in Roger Fry’s important Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912.
Before the Great War, Cookham was still a rural idyll. On the High Street were a butchers, bakers, chemists and forge. Ovey’s Farm was opposite his childhood home and young Stan would watch the cows come into the yard from his bedroom window. The brewhouse at the end of the street formed the backdrop for several paintings. Gilbert wrote of ‘the excitement of the Regatta and fair on Cookham Moor…..where the social barriers were down and the mix up was attractive and complete.’
Stanley left Cookham for the first time for any length of time when he was posted to Beaufort Hospital near Bristol in 1915. He had enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps. In 1916 he was posted to Macedonia, and he later applied to transfer to the Infantry and went to the Front Line in 1917.
The War had a profound effect on Stanley, and when he returned to Cookham he said he had lost that ‘early morning feeling’ which had so awakened his spirit. He was an official war artist and painted ‘Travoys with Wounded Soldiers’ (Imperial War Museum) and his magnificent Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere is one of the greatest of all war memorials with murals depicting his life in the army.
In 1925 he married Hilda Carline, sister of his friend and fellow artist Richard Carline. Hilda was also an artist, and their family home was in Hampstead, London. For some time they lived by the Heath until moving to Burghclere in 1927. He also held his first one man exhibition in London in 1927 where ‘The Resurrection Cookham’ was a sensation.
By 1932 he was back in Cookham with his two daughters and Hilda. He then met Patricia Preece, an aspiring artist who lived in the village with her close friend, another, more talented artist called Dorothy Hepworth. She was an exotic creature who entranced Stanley. He loved to take her to the large department store in Maidenhead and buy her jewels and furs. She became a model for several of his paintings and eventually his relationship with her led to his divorce from Hilda.
In 1937 – four days after the divorce, he married Patricia Preece. The marriage was an immediate failure, not least because Stanley stayed in Cookham while Patricia and Dorothy left for the honeymoon in St Ives together. Today Patricia Preece would be called ‘high maintenance’ and Stanley paid her considerable expenses until the day he died. Together with his responsibility for his family, and his lack of any ability to manage his own finances Spencer needed to keep painting to earn money, and his agent Dudley Tooth persuaded him to paint ‘anything that would sell’. This tended to be his magnificent landscapes and portraits. At various times Spencer said he felt no pleasure at creating these wonderful paintings, but at others would admit that, as he saw God and wonder in anything and everything, there was some satisfaction for him.
In 1940 he was again commissioned as a war artist and asked to paint the shipbuilders on the Clyde. At the time he was staying and working at The White Hart Inn, Leonard Stanley, Gloucestershire with George and Daphne Charlton from 1939-1941 . In 1946 he finished the series Shipbuilding on the Clyde in his house in Cookham. (Imperial War Museum)
He died in 1959 and during his lifetime he was awarded the CBE and knighted, and had been elected to the Royal Academy. Hilda remained the love of his life, and he continued to write to even after her death. He was a most sociable character with many friends and supporters who has been called eccentric and Patricia in her diaries even called him ‘mad’. As a character he was certainly different and unusual. The small man with twinkling eyes and shaggy grey hair (often wearing his pyjamas under his suit if it was cold) became a familiar sight wandering the lanes of Cookham pushing the old pram in which he carried his canvas and easel. He was also undoubtedly one of our greatest British artists.