Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta

This painting,
owned by Viscount Astor but on long-term loan to the Stanley Spencer Gallery, was  composed and worked on in the 1950s, but unfinished at Stanley's death in 1959. It is 206cm x 536cm, roughly 7ft deep and 18 ft long, and was intended with its related paintings as the altarpiece for the river-aisle of his 'church house' (the 'nave' was based on Cookham High Street, and School Lane was the right-hand aisle.) 

Progress on the painting was slow in spite of Stanley diluting his paints to speed their drying, thus producing his 'boiled-sweets' colours. One reason was that it was to be supported
by a number of smaller paintings or predellas, and these he completed first. They are listed by Bell as Punts Meeting 1953, Girls Listening 1953, Listening from Punts 1954, Conversation between Punts 1955, Dinner on the Hotel Lawn 1957 and Punts on the River 1958.

There were further reasons for delay.
By this time Stanley was so celebrated in public life that he was in demand for talks and broadcasts as well as for a succession of mostly portrait commissions from his agent Tooth which he felt he had to accept to maintain his financial credit. These interruptions slowed the flow of the private visionary work which was so emotionally important to him, for in this last decade of his life he was aware that his time was measured and that he was unlikely to fulfil his all his objectives. In January 1959, his final year, he wrote: When I think I have drawings complete and ready to put on canvas that could cover 30 years of continuous work, and that I long to paint, it is agony to think I (may) not do it.... Some years ago I felt I must at least draw on the canvas these things I might never arrive at painting.....[so] that if in the future there are any real students of Stanley Spencer, those [works] only drawn on canvas are [can be] preserved.

Sadly, Stanley managed only a few of the pencil compositions he wanted to preserve on canvas. One was the considerable altarpiece dedicated to his wife Hilda, which at first he titled Litter on Hampstead Heath but later referred to as The Apotheosis of Hilda. Elsie, his long-term maid and domestic help, too received acknowledgment in a pencilled canvas called Her Evening Off, in which she greets her waiting suitors at the gate of Fernlea while a Stanley-figure kneels at her feet in worship, himself a suitor in an up-in-heaven adoration of her cosmic femininity.

But for Stanley, already suffering the symptoms of cancer, the load of work was heavy.

Like all Stanley's visionary work, Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta can be interpreted on a number of levels. However, it is important that its content, although plainly based on memorised actuality, should not be seen as 'real'. In its intent it is an evocation of feelings and convictions which by this time in his life Stanley had come to consider of paramount importance. Among these, it may come perhaps as something of a surprise if it is proposed that one aspect of the painting is based, like Elsie and her Evening Off, on the exploration, vindication and glorification of the sexual impulse.

This demands explanation.

In his early Cookham days Stanley had excluded sexual imagery from his work other than in terms of the conventional family-marriage context of the time. He recognised the personal demands of sex, of course, and included references in early paintings such as Apple Gatherers, The Nativity, and Two Girls and a Beehive, but he was baffled as to how relevant his feelings were to the energy which drove his art. Not until his relationship with Hilda during the 1920s was he persuaded that they must have significance. But then he faced the difficulty of reconciling their imperatives with the equally joyous but sexually unsophisticated creativity of his early Cookham-feelings. To me, he wrote in the 1930s, there are two joys, the joys of innocence and religiousness [as in his early Cookham-feelings] and the joys of change and sexual experience [as in his marriage with Hilda and his Patricia-feelings] and while these two selves seem unrelated and irreconcilable, still I am convinced of their ultimate union.

Stanley's failed Patricia-marriage scheme of the late
1930s had been intended to unify the dichotomy, but it was not until his creative recovery from it in the 1940s that he began to discern a solution. The supporting paintings offer a clue as to how he managed it. Each can be regarded as commemorating an insight or an episode in which he came to a realisation that the down-to-earth aspects of our sexual instinct become the basis of the creative universalities not only of art but of existence itself when metamorphosed into their up-in-heaven aspects. Thus, in Dinner on the Hotel Lawn he has come to the understanding that he must free himself from the pragmatic or sexually-motivated entanglements of the Patricias, Dorothys, Daphnes and Charlottes who, with the best of intentions, taint the longed-for perfection of comprehension to which he aspires. He must concentrate only on his visionary Hilda, whom he shows as the main figure in Listening from Punts, her red coat (an echo of the green coat she wore at her wedding?) discarded at her feet as she opens herself to the message Christ is preaching, which is of course the message which Stanley is promulgating as the theme of the painting.

Andrew Daniels has cogently argued in his unpublished study of the backgrounds to Stanley's notions that Christ's (and Stanley's) message in the painting honours the benign influence of Stanley's father, Pa, and his progressive declamations to his family about the values of life. Stanley frequently based the God-figure (his disciple) in his 'sex-pictures' of the 1930/40s on Pa, depicting him as the elderly man Stanley remembered as he looked back. However, in this painting it is significant that Stanley appears to have used for Christ a figure of a younger man, fierce, in the vigour of manhood, resembling similar figures first used in the right corner of The Dustman or The Lovers. The image suggests that a Stanley nearing the end of his life still wants desperately, even angrily, to convince a public largely indifferent to his ideas that his preaching Christ is disseminating the building blocks of the creative universalities he has come to understand and which are so vital to existence (surely, argues Daniels, the figure of the boy in the punt is that of a young Stanley absorbing Christ's words intently?) Has Stanley based his Christ-figure on a Pa in the full vigour of his sexual impulse, as was Pa as the father of eleven children? Or does his Christ derive from a Giotto figure in the renaissance art to which Stanley was so dedicated, as archivist Ann Danks prefers? Whichever, the concepts are surely becoming linked in Stanley's understanding to sources which in his paradigm sense must be religious and which he concludes are imparted by the Love of (from) God.

During the painting of the picture Stanley outlined his progress in a series of letters to intimates. One set of such letters, to his niece Daphne (daughter of his older brother Harold by a second marriage),  only came to light in 2007. Others he sent to his daughter Unity, and through these it becomes feasible to draw as near his visionary intention and meaning in the painting as we are likely to reach. Since we are arguing that this painting, like all the church-house altarpieces, is meant to bring together and publicly assert Stanley's final convictions, it will help if the reader were to re-read the webpage on Stanley's Cookham-feelings, as it is argued that this altarpiece served to climax his longed-for recapture of those feelings. 

The figures in the painting represent holidaymakers enjoying a day out at the annual Cookham Regatta of Stanley's youth.
Working-folk excursionists from London (evidenced in the figures of the girls in Girls Listening) meet up on the lawn of the Ferry Hotel or picnic nearby. Locals take time off to watch proceedings from the riverbank. But the gentry hire punts to impress their friends and to show off their status and finery (Punts Meeting, Conversation between Punts.) No wonder local entrepreneurs like the keeper of the Ferry Hotel on the riverbank, or Capt John Turk, the Queen's Swanmaster and owner of the boatyard which hired out the punts, look enraptured - villagers like the Spencers could never afford the inflated prices charged for the occasion.

Stanley's point is that the happiness of the event is a reflection, an encapsulation, of the message Christ is proclaiming from his punt, for which Stanley used the old horse-ferry barge made redundant by the 1860s building of Cookham Bridge. The moment he shows is a recollection, says Bell, of the event at the close of proceedings when Will's local choir used to sing to the now tired but contented crowd. In the glow of Christ's message, everyone in the painting, whatever their individual outlook or social class, is passing into such a state of true happiness that they are no longer in their down-to-earth identity, but are resurrecting into the perfection of the biblical event Stanley sometimes referred to in his paradigm as The Last Day. All are in their true universality as human beings - their spiritual identity - and so are uplifted from the actuality in which Stanley remembered them into forms (shapes) in which they are in his up-in-heaven.

Here, for example, he refers in a letter to Unity to some of his 'upper-class' ladies in their punts :

They are nearly all middle-class ladies and all either asleep or nearly so. They have had a tiring day dismissing servants, and they are all going bye-byes under a shared blanket. Ah, then my Puck magic gets to work. The Christ-talk o'ercrows all these bothersome things and they sleep their way into this critical no-servant-dismissing joy and peace. I don't love them in their hoity-toity-ness. I love them because I know this is not them at all and that they are just as lovable as the servants they dismiss, and that's saying a lot! Bringing them to the Regatta, I so to speak ensnare them and bring them to my joy, which in this painting is Christ's joy.

The consequence of this transformation is that :

This all expresses to me the fact that I want all to know that what they wish for will be received. That if the Regatta is voluptuous [an opportunity for love in its down-to-earth manifestation as sexual venturing] then let it be so. The Christ talk is that their joy may be full. If it is carnal wishes, they will be fulfilled. If it is sexual desires or picture-making inspiration that is to be satisfied, then Christ will heave the capstan round. All will be met. Everything will be fulfilled in the symbol of the Regatta. The complete worshipfulness and lovableness of everything to do with love is meant in this Regatta scene. In that marvellous atmosphere nothing can go wrong.

These two passages in Stanley's memoirs, coming as they do towards the close of his life, are highly revealing. For the instinctively deliberate, even fastidious, young man he was, raised to Victorian values in which sexual indulgence outside the conventional was considered 'sinful', the process of arriving at this consummation proved a long and sometimes painful pilgrimage. But he has now resolved to his satisfaction many of the metaphysical dilemmas inherited from his upbringing. The sexual and the religious are reverse aspects of the one human creative instinct he has come to know as Love, embodied as his Christ-concept and directing us towards that state of universal joy he called our perfection.

In the concept of this painting, individual down-to-earth or bodily-sexual identity has merged into universal spiritual identity. The merger celebrates those often unexpected moments of happiness or enlightenment we experience which Stanley defines as glimpses of heaven. The Regatta scene represents an evocation of his youthful Cookham paradise, as meaningful in recollection at the close of his life as was the churchyard of the The Cookham Resurrection of the 1920s. In that painting - the first of his 'sex-pictures' - he, with Hilda, took into his metaphysical perfection their friends of the time. Now, in this 1950s Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta, he embraces into their metaphysical perfection the entire social hierachy of his remembered village.