Stanley Spencer’s childhood in Cookham, a pleasant Thames-side village in Berkshire, was so blissful that he came to see these environs as a specially hallowed corner of creation. When he attended the Slade School of Art in London he did so as a day student, travelling back to Berkshire each evening (his contemporaries nicknaming him ‘Cookham’). Spencer wrote ‘When I left the Slade and went back to Cookham, I entered a kind of earthly paradise’. His experiences during the Great War, serving first with the Medical Corps in Macedonia and then as an infantryman, shattered his pre-war idyll, but only reinforced his mystical belief in Cookham as a personal Arcadia. He returned to his native village after the war and continued where he had left off, using it as a backdrop for a series of biblical compositions such as the Last Supper and Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem.
The Resurrection, Cookham is the most ambitious single work of this period and it was the centrepiece of a one-man exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in London in 1927. It was immediately purchased for the nation at the handsome price of £1,000. The Times hailed it as ‘…the most important picture painted by any English artist in the present century…’.
Almost hidden in the gloom of the porch, God the Father presides over the resurrection of the dead who stir from their graves in Cookham churchyard and miraculously assume the corporeal form of their former lives. Lined against the wall of the church we can see a number of white-robed prophets including Moses holding his tablets and pointing to the first Commandment.
In front the Almighty, sitting beneath the profusely flowering white climbing rose which obscures the structure of the porch, is a Madonna figure nursing not one but three children. This figure may be modelled on Spencer’s first wife, Hilda Carline, whom he married in 1925 and who also appears as if deep in sleep enfolded in an ivy nest atop a tomb surrounded by railings. Spencer himself stands naked in a central position, arms resting rather jauntily on a pair of tombstones: the fully clothed man lying on top of two unstable brick tombs, looking rather like a giant book that might snap shut at any minute, is also him. The couple appear again near the left edge of the painting where Hilda smells a yellow flower and Stanley watches her from the top of a tomb.
To the left of the porch, a section of the churchyard (the earth cracked by heat and drought, contrasting with the lush grass which surrounds it) is host to a small community of black bodies struggling from their places of burial. Spencer’s intentions here seem to have been that their presence was symbolic of the inclusive nature of his vision — to emphasise that all humanity will experience this moment, not just the inhabitants of a comfortable part of the Thames Valley. Soon, every emergent soul will walk from the churchyard, through the gate and onto a Thames pleasure cruiser (two of which can be seen in the top left corner of the composition). Presumably these have been pressed, Dunkirk-like, into unlikely action by some heavenly bureaucracy for the journey along the Thames to Heaven — a paradise which, in Spencer’s eyes will no doubt look very much like the village they have just left.
1923 Max Ernst: Ubu Imperator, Paris, Musee National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou
1924 Pierre Bonnard: Signac and his Friends Sailing, Zurich, Kunsthaus
1926 René Magritte: The Menaced Assassin, New York, MOMA