Stanley Spencer
Spencer's View from Cookham Bridge', 1936

Stanley Spencer’s Swan Upping returns to Cookham

The Stanley Spencer Gallery is delighted to present Painting by the Thames: Swan Upping at Cookham, which has opened this November. 

Built around one of the artist’s most celebrated works, Swan Upping at Cookham (1915 -1919), the exhibition brings together rarely seen paintings and drawings from the Gallery’s collection to reveal one of Spencer’s inspirations, the River Thames.

The title work, which is on loan from the Tate, depicts the practice of ‘Swan Upping’, where mute swans are caught, marked and then released. Spencer was moved to capture this annual ceremony as he sat in Holy Trinity church at Cookham and heard the people of the village walking by on their way to the nearby river. The beautiful Berkshire village of his birth was his constant inspiration and much of his life was spent there.

Swan Upping at Cookham
Spencer's famous Swan Upping at Cookham Artwork

The artist was fascinated by the river for its beauty and the way of life it supported. Early morning swims in sunlight ‘were the times for visitations,’ he said. This fusion of the everyday and the divine is significant, for it was a vision that was to became a mainstay of Spencer’s paintings. This is perfectly illustrated the show’s largest work, his 1959 masterpiece, Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta, which depicts the son of God addressing a congregation of local people, rich and poor, from the old ferry barge.

Stanley Spencer with 'Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta'
Stanley Spencer with 'Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta'

The presentation is timely, in that it marks the 100th anniversary of the completion of Swan Upping. He began work on the painting 1915, the same year he left for service in the Great War. His time as a medical orderly and then in the infantry on the front in Macedonia had a profound effect on Spencer. On his return, he said, ‘It is not proper or sensible to expect to paint after such experience’. Nevertheless, he did complete the work in 1919, and then went on to capture the Thames in other memorable paintings and works on paper.

Painting by the Thames: Swan Upping at Cookham, which runs until March 22, 2020, is the first of the Gallery’s ‘Picture in Focus’ Winter Series, a new strand of programming devised to encourage aficionados and those new to his work to examine the often complex imagery in his paintings.

Says a Gallery spokesperson: “We are delighted to begin our new Winter Series with this exhibition, and especially grateful for the loan of Swan Upping at Cookham by the Tate. The show offers a fascinating glimpse of Spencer’s deep-rooted love for the Thames and the inspiration he derived from his native village.’’

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