virtually completed his four years' work decorating the Sandham
Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, Stanley felt the urge to return and
live again in his beloved native
village of Cookham. He had been away for eleven years
during which he had painted the Cookham
Resurrection in London and the bulk of the chapel
at Burghclere. Now, in the autumn of 1931, he at last felt free to
achieve his aim. He decided on a comfortable residence called Lindworth
in the middle of the village. It had a tennis court, and a large garden which he
thought his wife
enjoy cultivating. He bought it with the help of a mortgage from
the Maidenhead Building Society, and
the family moved in on January 21st 1932.
His decision was highly personal and its reasons largely undisclosed, so that friends could not understand why he had not chosen to move to London, where he would have been in the centre of the art world. Certainly Hilda would have preferred being near her widowed mother in Hampstead, but it was some consolation that he had earlier bought a motor car, which she enjoyed driving more than he did and in which she was able to hop off when bored in Cookham. The figures left-to-right are Jas Wood, Stanley, Hilda, their three-year-old daughter Shirin, and Hilda's mother Mrs Annie Carline.Stanley's personal but pressing reason for returning was an overriding desire to recapture the early inspirational ecstasies or epiphanies he called his Cookham-feelings. This resolve was itself grounded within a more nebulous project he had devised during his long hours of quiet work in the chapel - to plan a building, comparable to the Burghclere chapel, in which he would eventually assemble all his visionary paintings. The building would be secular, but the paintings would be displayed to reveal the religious or spiritual essence intrinsic in his work. He was to call it his church-house, but at the time spoke of it only to close confidants (see the closing paragraphs of the webpage on Stanley Spencer's Holy Grail.)
During their years at Burghclere it had been Stanley and Hilda's custom to spend two or three week-long summer holidays back in Cookham, attending to his elderly Pa and sister Annie at his boyhood home Fernlea. They made use of the breaks as an opportunity to call on local friends and to meet up for parties and picnics with Hilda's family (the Carlines) and other visitors from London .
one of these holidays, in 1929 - the year after Pa's death - Stanley
for the first time met Patricia
Preece who had recently moved to the village with her artist friend
Dorothy Hepworth. Patricia was deputising for
the Buckpitt sisters, owners of the Copper
Kettle Café in the High Street, when Stanley and Hilda came in with
their young daughter for lunch. They
got into conversation, and Stanley invited the two women as
fellow-artists to join the Spencer-Carline parties. Patricia was
delighted, although she occasionally found them rowdy.
interest in Patricia should not primarily be seen as a
'seven-year itch' or as the mid-life crisis of a forty-year-old. During
their first year there, 1932, the relationship between the Spencers and
the 'Preeces' was
essentially one of neighbourly friendship, with Patricia and Dorothy
occasionally acting as child-minders for Hilda and Stanley, and in
books on art and literature from their extensive library. Even in
invited Patricia to join Stanley on
in Switzerland (Patricia spoke
fluent French, Stanley had none), the
all accounts carefully observed, although
eyebrows were raised in Cookham, and Hilda suspected that the visit,
harmless as it was, forged an intimacy between the couple from which it was difficult to retreat.
Patricia had a colourful personality and could be sexually attractive to men when she tried. She knew too how to use them. Under her birth name of Ruby, she was educated with her friend Winifred Emery at a private girl's school in Harrow. Winifred was from a theatrical family, and the pair became known to that inveterate admirer of attractive women, the elderly W S Gilbert (he of Gilbert and Sullivan.) On Whit Monday 1911, he invited the two girls for lunch and a swim in the lake at his nearby home. There, panicking at finding herself out of her depth, Ruby was devastated to see him die from a heart attack in the water beside her as he swam her to safety. Newspapers printed her inquest evidence verbatim, respectfully but gleefully describing her as a 'fair-haired seventeen-year old schoolgirl'. Her father was a named mourner at the considerable funeral.
A year later, now Patricia and at a finishing school in Lytham St Annes, she became engaged - to the envy of her schoolmates - to an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve. Back in London during the Great War and living in a Kensington flat with her sister Sibyl and their mother (her father was on war service) she sketched fashions for periodicals, learned to drive ambulances, marched with the Suffragettes, discarded her foundation garments (the equivalent of 'burning her bra') and frustrated her fiancé on his few leaves to such an extent that he ended their engagement (he let her keep the ring.) Asked by her school magazine after the war for news of herself, she implied that she was no longer engaged because he had sacrificed himself for his country. He hadn't; he survived to marry fruitfully elsewhere.
In 1918 Patricia began a Slade art course where she met the more talented Dorothy. With parental help they set up a home/studio together in an apartment in Gower Street, and during the early 1920s went annually to Paris at Roger Fry's instigation and with Dorothy's father's money to continue their art studies, principally with Lhote. Summer holidays were spent in Wales or Cornwall where Bright-Young-Thing Patricia was again saved from drowning, this time by a local mineworker whose Gold Award for bravery got them both a photograph in the national Daily Sketch. During these adventures she happily accepted flowery attention from admirers, only to reject them when they became importunate. By the time she joined the Spencer-Carline picnics of the 1930s, Hilda's then-bachelor brother Richard was still sufficiently attracted to make forays to Cookham to take her dining and dancing, until rumbling the nature of her relationship with Dorothy.
But now, by the close of 1933, Patricia was turning her considerable attentions on Stanley, not because she found him more eligible than the several she had discarded (although she conceded he was intriguing and unlike any man I had met), but more realistically because his extensive art-world contacts could introduce Dorothy and herself to wider outlets than their existing supporters, mainly the Bloomsbury Group.
There was also the point that Stanley had money and by then she did not, a disproportion she evidently felt could be readjusted.
gentle vie-en-rose the two
women had enjoyed in the 1920s had come to an abrupt end in the summer
of 1930 when the Hepworth family
business in Leicester, on which they relied for income, unexpectedly
bankrupt in the worldwide economic
depression of those years. The
suddeness shattered them. With their funding slashed, their Cookham
cottage Moor Thatch, newly built in 1928 and held on a mortgage, was in danger of repossession. They were finding it increasingly difficult to pay their bills (even for whisky and
cigarettes), let alone keep up mortgage repayments.
Hilda away, on those days when Stanley or Patricia was not in
London on professional business or not feeling well (Stanley suffered
acute gallstone pain in 1934, only cleared up after two operations in
Reading), he would work in his garden studio till lunchtime. Then
Patricia would visit him, calling at the butchers on the
way to buy meat for their lunch. When it was ready, she would
tap on the studio window. They would spend the afternoon together in Lindworth
go for walks round Cookham, endlessly arguing their respective views
on life. Sometimes Stanley, his head storming with new ideas - the most exciting thing I ever came
across is myself - would descend in
the evenings on Moor Thatch
to proclaim them interminably into the small hours, impromptu visits
not always welcomed, especially by Dorothy who found him
The village was still as largely rural then as in his boyhood. There was still, for example, no mains drainage. But Stanley was delighted to find changes which could be incorporated as motifs or cameos into his painting. One was a weekly dustbin collection. In his boyhood, kitchen scrap had been put in garden compost bins, and bulky rubbish taken to a central village dump from where it was only periodically cleared. The sight of dustbins lining the High Street on collection day caught Stanley's fancy and towards the end of 1932 inspired a composition - the basis of the painting - which he described in a letter to his friend Gwen Raverat as follows:
Identifying Stanley's detail and figures can be helpful because they then offer a glimpse of the memory-feeling on which the picture was based. He seldom named his figures, because at the level he wished his painting to be understood, they were no longer in their actual personalities, but their likely identity can often be deduced from Stanley's writings. Indeed, the person he chose might be only one candidate among many. They were proxies representing his feelings transfigured.
The dustman and his wife,
must be modelled in this way. The ecstatic moon-face of the small
hints at a similar figure kneeling by the fence in Stanley's
Nativity of 1912, a figure reasonably interpreted
as a Stanley
in the ecstasy of creative comprehension. It is likely that the figure
in this work equates. The big sort of wife
with her straggling grey hair who picks up the small
could reflect his boyhood memory-feelings of the times he was cossetted
by his mother
Ma into the sensations of cosiness in his
later repeated the image of Ma in
his 1940 painting
The Coming of the Wise Men,
indicating her bronchial sufferings and
her straggling hair. Although she had
died in grey-haired old age in 1922, Stanley's acute
sensitivity still reverberated
for him these early maternal memory-feelings.
They were childhood recollections from the 1890s. But now it was the 1930s, and although deeply devoted as always to Hilda, he realised that her lack of interest in Cookham was never likely to make her as effective an icon for him of his joyous boyhood Cookham-feelings as could Patricia, who had settled there because she loved the locality. If the uplifting image of Ma as the big sort of wife could recall early Cookham-feelings, might not the new Cookham-feelings he sought be stirred by transposing the image to the honey-haired Patricia of his present-day?
Another difference between the Cookhams of 1910 and 1930 which intrigued Stanley and used in the painting was the way the village had gone upmarket. The 1910 Cookham was a working village with a farm still in the High Street. Cottagers mostly used their back gardens for growing vegetables. But now, in the 1930s, the same cottages were being snapped up by prosperous incomers like the Hon.Mr.O'Brien who were creating elegant gardens replete with the topiary Stanley emphasises in the painting, unknown in his boyhood. In Stanley's view, Patricia and Dorothy were among these new 'upper-class' newcomers, a topic Patricia played on by claiming her father to have been a Lieutenant-Colonel (army records show him in the rank of substantive Captain, although this does not preclude him from having held a temporary rank of Lieut.Colonel at some time. An accomplished horseman, he was in charge during the Great War of the Remount Depôt of the Welch Regiment.)
Of the other memory-feelings which compose the painting, the figures Stanley described as two small children are more likely to be two adults regressed in feeling to a childhood state of innocence. One is clearly Stanley himself. Innocence for Stanley had best meaning when a state of unawareness preceded a surprising revelation, and in this picture the innocence of the two small children can serve to anticipate the revelations which are emerging for him from his current fascination with Patricia.
A feasible candidate for the other 'small child' in the painting is my maid Elsie whom Stanley describes to Gwen as having lost the thread when recounting her cinema stories, much as Stanley ruefully confesses he felt he might have done in undertaking this picture. A capable young country girl, Elsie had joined the Spencers as a maid or family help at the time Stanley was working on the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere. When they moved to Cookham, she willingly offered to accompany them. There she had met a local boy and they were either about to marry or had by now already done so (they made their first home round the corner from Lindworth in one of a row of cottages demolished now for a small public car-park.)
With Hilda so often away looking after her seriously ill brother, Elsie was for the time being helping keep house for Stanley. Perhaps Stanley chose Elsie as his companion because she was neutral in his current predicament and because he saw her metaphysical situation as matching his own, her innocence about to translate into a new - sexual - revelation for her, if in marriage it had not already done so.
The objects which the couple are holding up from their dustbins recall memory-feelings of Stanley's childhood at Fernlea. The teapot and the jam tin are redolent of Ma's family tea in his young days, memories which persisted into his student days when the evening train brought him home from the Slade to thick slices of bread and butter smothered in jam and washed down by strong cups of tea, a reollection of which he had reminded himself in his Tea in the Ward panel at Burghclere. The old cabbage stalk could well recall that family event of the week, Ma's Sunday dinner, the soporific effect of which he was to depict the following year in his 1935 Bridesmaids at Cana. Once again Stanley links old memory-feelings to validate new sensations.
The group which Stanley describes as a sort of washerwomen onlookers can be interpreted in their down-to-earth representation as women in his circle who were becoming critical of his interest in Patricia. They are presented as aproned housewives. All have abundant hair set differently. Long hair on women, still in fashion from his boyhood, fascinated Stanley. Their groomed hair-styles, vaunting their self-imposed high standards of social correctness, are in striking contrast to the central wife whose free loose hair suggests a wayward element of intimate or sexual abandon.
is intriguing to conjecture who were the figures on whom the
based. The smaller figure in the foreground, her hair dressed
with a comb, might, for example, be Hilda's mother Annie Carline,
protective of her stricken daughter. Her hands are improbably if not
inside-out. This is unlikely to be a pictorial mistake. A more feasible
is that Stanley wanted to draw attention to her relationship with the
in the bottom left corner, hair coiled in a bun, whose hands are
She would be Hilda (he often portrayed Hilda's hair in a bun in
pictures) and we can guess that Stanley is using their 'impossible'
to punningly express his irritation that Hilda and her mother are being
'impossible' about his new interest in Patricia.
The sort of washerwoman on the left with her tight mouth, roundish face and hooded eyelids bears a resemblance to photographs of Gwen, whom Stanley knew he was surprising with his confessions. But it is just as likely that the figure stands for many women in his life who were intrigued at his uncharacteristic behaviour. He knows they are puzzled, and is only too anxious to have them understand the new experience he is undergoing but at the same time realises that in practical terms he must remain circumspect about his situation.
In the background of the painting a woman in a flowered dress - or is it a paint-splashed smock? - stumps away into a cottage of which the latticed windows recall those of Moor Thatch. Could she not be Dorothy Hepworth, who was understandably dubious about her Patricia's association with Stanley?
The only undisturbed figure in the scene is the white cat in the bottom right corner sleeping unconcernedly through it all. Called 'Tiddles', it belonged to Stanley's younger daughter Unity who was with her mother in Hampstead. Stanley was occasionally lending Tiddles to Patricia to cope with field-mice at Moor Thatch, but hastily retrieving it each time Hilda announced she was bringing Unity on one of her visits.
The 'visionary' meaning of the paintingThrough these remembered details Stanley has found appropriate visualisation for the memory-feelings he feels to be relevant. Now he proceeds to use them like pieces in a jigsaw to become pictorial elements in the composition, each image being required to coalesce its memory-feeling into the unified whole to become a totality - an entity - translating his ambivalent Patricia-feelings into harbingers of new Cookham-feelings.
There was, of course, the danger that the highly self-referential transposition he was proposing would be too recondite to be publicly comprehensible. After all, few viewers would see a painting of a small dustman as having deep significance.
to Stanley the danger did not exist. In composing the picture, he
cannot conceive an alternative other than to expect the viewer to be
intelligent enough to appreciate that the imagery is representative
of a universal hope and joy. To express it he has had to
use relevant personal associations. He has, for example, made
use in it of those objects - dustbins, old teapots, cabbage stalks -
him. But in reaching for an understanding of the
painting, it scarcely matters
to us as viewers what they are, for Stanley is using them as symbols.
We too in our own lives also rummage for those
items which once gave us joy, and offer devotion to whatever represents
for us Stanley's
Holy Trinity of
Thus his dustman becomes for us our individual emblem of joy made manifest. In Stanley's depiction he wears the prevailing symbols of his calling, corduroy trousers tied at the knees and held at the waist by a stout leather belt. His mate stands behind him, shirt half-off, hoping that he too, like the ragged old man behind him, will be given a ride, that is, taken into joy and understanding.
If Stanley can reveal Patricia as an intrinsic element in the central cameo, will not the phoenix image of a new Cookham-feeling be evoked, to be greeted with sanctified joy by a delighted Stanley and a loyal Elsie, who was always happy for him when he excitedly explained his ecstasies to her, even though she seldom understood them? A lovely man, was her verdict on him.Then why did Stanley not depict Patricia recognizably in the picture, seeing that the other figures in the painting are depicted identifiably - even the cat - and she is not? If she remained incognito, how would viewers know that the central wife was to be viewed as a transformation from Ma to her?
Stanley's uncertainty was understandable. Patricia, the business partner under whose name Dorothy's work was sold, may have glimpsed his idealism but was too practical to set much value to it. Dorothy, a talented if conventional painter, deplored the vagaries of his imagination, and cautioned against involvement. Privately, both thought him a little mad at times (it must be the only explanation an angry Patricia scrawled in her diary after one spat.) When she later consented to model for his celebrated nudes of her, she vociferously tried to prohibit their public display.
For these reasons Stanley may have felt he should avoid depicting Patricia in person in the painting. But he still needed to allude to her presence. If one had stood outside Lindworth on dustbin day and looked down his line of dustbins, one would have been looking in the direction of Moor Thatch. The cottage wouldn't have been visible, but in his painting Stanley has in effect imagined it to be in view, compressing the High Street by eliminating everything between Lindworth and Moor Thatch except the topiaried garden (the Hon.O'Brien's revamped Fernlea?) Emotionally his composition can be understood as linking him where he stands at one end of High Street to Patricia where she dwells at the other (Moor Thatch can be seen in Stanley's landscape Cookham Moor [Manchester City Art Gallery] reproduced on the Cookham website. It is the cottage with the decorated thatch roof on the far right, obliterated in the photograph by the tree. The west end of Cookham High Street is in the centre distance, debouching on to the often-flooded Moor in the foreground.)
Another method of suggesting Patricia's presence was to indicate reproach, or at least suspicion, in the attitudes of Stanley's washerwomen onlookers as they watch his antics with the wife in the central cameo. He is using the film-making technique of conveying the impact of an offscreen event by showing only the reactions of bystanders. Gwen's severe attitude in the painting, for example, could reflect an equivalent episode of her own some twenty years earlier, when her husband-to-be Jacques suggested a triangular marriage with their mutual friend Ka Cox as his sensual mistress and herself as his inspirational wife, a proposal she resolutely stamped on. Friends of Stanley like Gwen who knew what was happening would understand his imagery. Others, he consoled himself, would have to wait until developing events would allow them to appreciate the creative enthusiasm he was deriving from his obsession with Patricia.
In the meantime, Stanley could enjoy the joyous consequence of one of his inspirational insights in the form of a sexual liberation which startled him at first. His original Cookham-feelings, creative though they were, had excluded direct reference to his more esoteric sexual urges, so socially censured in the ethos of his day. This did not prevent them breaking through at times into some of his compositions as a kind of sub-text, a feature he had found puzzling and not a little alarming. But now Patricia was candidly offering him allurements which openly raised these sexual urges for him, vividly described in a letter he wrote later to Hilda, I gave myself completely to the excruciating exquisiteness I found in her and I wish you could have seen how lovely she looked arrayed in the hundreds of dresses I got her. There was a sort of passionate intensity and meaning in her loveliness and perfect shape and appearance ....her high heels and straight walk used to give me a sexual itch..... More significantly, these feelings were dissipating for him the guilt which had formerly prevented their use in his art.At the time of the painting, these new feelings were still unclarified. Stanley's expression hoping for a ride in his letter to Gwen should not be read in modern usage as implying full sex. His relationship with Patricia was nowhere near that familiarity as yet. The riding phrase is more likely to be a throwback to Stanley's recorded memories of boyhood days when he and brother Gilbert were carried on the backs of the family maids in games of knights-on-horseback and Stanley found that the friction gave him a surprising warm glow, equivalent to those he was now achieving from the sexual fetishism in which Patricia was nonchalantly indulging him and which in his letter to Gwen he summarised as his little trouble.
The consequence of Stanley's compositional procedure in this painting - as in all his visionary paintings - is that his assembly of images becomes creatively complex. Once again he displays a visionary's ability to see the material and the metaphysical simultaneously on two separate levels, yet translatable the one from the other. Each is woven into the other in a rotationary interlacing.The effect is almost as though he is standing outside himself and watching himself undergoing the experience he is depicting.
To achieve this translation between the physicality of his obsession with Patricia and its re-creation as the metaphysical spirituality of his feelings for Cookham, Stanley uses his favoured method of adapting the musical form of counterpoint to the pictorial composition.
can be seen in the painting. To the left of the central cameo
is one of the counterpoint elements, the three women. To the right is
counterpoint theme consisting of the dustmen
and the figures in
the top right. They are males who understand the urges of manhood and
to join the small dustman being lifted into
joy. To Stanley these figures do more than represent the compulsion
of the life-force which is driving him in his infatuation, they justify it. Frequently used in his
visionary paintings, he called them
disciples, implying a
with those followers of Christ who adhered to His example as a paradigm
of the universality in humanity. In this picture, as in many of the
coming sex-pictures, the
the appearance of ecstatic bearded men. It
accords with the contrapuntal feelings in the painting to presume that
Stanley was using them, as with that of the ragged
old man, to honour his father Pa
in the way he has
already celebrated his Ma.
Pa, the professional-musician father who had taught Stanley the impact of counterpoint, had died aged eighty-two in the icy flu-ridden January of 1928. For Stanley he had always been the bequeather of his life-force, of its sexuality, its creativity and its spirituality. Alert even into his penurious and ragged old age - publishing poetry, upsetting the vicar of Cookham by deploring the inadequacy of the C of E village school, promoting proto-unitarian views of Christ-as-a-Man opposed to Cookham Church's consecration to the Holy Trinity - Pa had still continued his search for the enlightenments of his younger days, even if deprived of their sexual energy. Do echoes of those more potent days - he had fathered eleven Spencer children - stand before him in the form of the bearded figure representing him at the same age as Stanley now, and another behind him in the vigour of his younger manhood?
Where the two counterpoint themes merge, that is, where the whole becomes greater than its parts, we find the cameo of the small dustman and the large wife. In that image Ma-memories equate with Patricia-hopes, the old Cookham-feelings adumbrate the hoped-for new. The metaphysical unity of the imagery combines the two contrasting themes into Stanley's major insight - the possibility of the coming of new Cookham-feelings - and to emphasise their spiritual significance, he inserts himself and his female companion (Elsie?) as worshippers offering a secular Holy Communion of sacred - that is, of remembered (restored, as he calls them) - Fernlea objects.
At this level, everything physical in the painting has become de-materialised, and is unveiled in its sacramental attributes. In Stanley's mind, the washerwomen bottom left are no longer in a state of disapproval, but have been uplifted into a state of anticipation and gratitude to each other as they come into understanding of his message. The significance of the place and its people has progressed beyond their actuality, and their derivation from Stanley's memory-feelings has no further significance. His Cookham-feelings have become a power-house, a vortex of pure creative energy resonating in whatever field of experience - emotional, metaphysical, spiritual, biblical, religious - he or we, the viewer, find most demanding.
language is there to describe such ecstasy? Only poetry perhaps,
transforming the painting into another of Stanley's visual poems. He
was no poet, so had to invent a visual language of his own to convey
Whenever we read his descriptions of this and others of his visionary
we must accept his words not as literal, but as part of his thought-world.
The picture stands as a landmark in his pilgrimage,
the first in a series in
which he allowed his imaginative
composition to float
free from the anchor of his boyhood reticence about sexual exploration.
It was an experience he
found exhilarating and not a little bewildering, as his letters
to Gwen indicate - I do not seem to
got all my beloved self into it somehow. But the message
visionary. The painting is in effect a triptych, an
altarpiece, as holy
for him in its meaning as the altar on which for the devout the bread
wine in transubstantiation become the body and blood of Christ.