Study for Unveiling of the Cookham War Memorial , 1919
Pencil on paper, lightly squared for transfer
Approximate size: 13 3⁄4 x 13 3⁄4 in. (34.9 x 34.9 cm.)
Spencer commemorates a rare and historic event in the village mixing sobriety with gaiety. This is a work of extraordinary detail and imagination and contrast with figures lounging on the grass looking away, a young girl looking back at the serried ranks of young men in waistcoats with their heads bowed and hats removed in respect in front of four large gravestones while flowers are laid at the base of the memorial.
A museum quality drawing in outstanding condition by one of the most important and influential 20th century English painters
Against the peaceful background – Spencer’s verdant stomping ground, unchanged since he was a lad – stands the defining new landmark which symbolises what haschanged: in just a few short years, sleepy Cookham lost scores of her men.
Like many of Spencer’s works from the time, it avoids the pain of war. It features frivolous elements, which contrast with the grievous reality of the carved name of Spencer’s brother. It’s an image of hope.
At first, Stanley did not actually serve on the front-line: on account of his diminutive stature (he was 5ft 1in), his mother had advised him to apply instead for ambulance duties. For the first thirteen months, he worked in the UK, volunteering with the Royal Army Medical Corps and stationed at Beaufort Hospital in Bristol. However, in May 1916 he was transferred to overseas duties and, after ten weeks’ training, was sent to Macedonia with the 68th Field Ambulance unit. It was there that he saw the worst of the war, especially after volunteering to join the Royal Berkshire (Infantry) Regiment.
Unsurprisingly, the horrific violence of war had a huge effect on the young Spencer, so his return to Cookham was like finding refuge. Nonetheless, he was deeply troubled when he resumed work on Swan Upping, the painting he started before enlisting. “It is not proper or sensible to expect to paint well after such experiences”, he wrote. But paint he did, and the immediate post-war years spawned many of his finest, most revered works.
“It was his salvation, in many ways, to refuse to dwell on the horrors that he saw.” Shez Courtenay-Smith.
He painted wartime images, of course, but always with a sense of looking forward.
Spencer wrote of the oil, which this drawing is a close study for, that ‘It was intended to express the absence of hurry … and to express the peaceful life that I visualised people could live if there was no war’ (K. Bell, loc. cit.).
It is fascinating to compare the study with the final work and very little has changed from the drawing although Spencer has added a Union Jack and the clothes of the young men are more relaxed and their stance less reverent, so we witness a change in mood in Spencer.
Spencer’s works often depict his deep but eccentric Christian beliefs. Spencer was born in Cookham in Berkshire and remained in the surrounding area for the rest of his life and is buried in Cookham churchyard.
Acquired from Piccadilly Gallery, London in August 1989
London, Piccadilly Gallery, Sir Stanley Spencer, R.A.: A collection of paintings and drawings, September - October 1978, no. 23, dated 'circa 1922'.and London, Royal Academy, Stanley Spencer R.A., September - December 1980, no. 67, dated '1921'.
Sir Stanley Spencer, R.A.: A collection of paintings and drawings, London, Piccadilly Gallery, 1978, n.p., no. 23, dated 'circa 1922', illustrated, and Stanley Spencer R.A., London, Royal Academy, 1980, p. 81, no. 67, dated '1921', illustrated.