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14 February 2013

Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta: Girls Listening / by Stanley Spencer

Click painting to enlarge.

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) -- knighted the year he died -- was an English painter. He had the most strikingly original vision of any 20th century painter; his work is derivative of no earlier painter I've ever seen, and his life and career path -- well, he seemed instinctively to march opposite the direction of all his more famous contemporaries.

For one thing, he had no use for London or its great academies, or for the explosive art universe of 20th-century Paris. He was born and lived nearly all his life in the obscure village Cookham, on the Thames River, in Berkshire. Wikipedia's Cookham wiki lists Stanley Spencer in its first paragraph; in 1300 years, Stanley Spencer may well be Cookham's most notable townsman.

Most of Spencer's paintings depict events in Christ's life and death, but immediately startling is that the characters -- apostles, kings, Jews, Jesus, Temple priests, Roman soldiers -- are portrayed as his Cookham neighbors. 

On Spencer's deeply moving religious canvases, the Gospels of Christianity are transported from 1st Century Judea to Cookham, England circa 1925. Through Spencer, the familiar, universal sensation that these things happened to far different people long ago and far away becomes a vibrant sense that these things are happening now, and a few miles or a couple of streets away, and to intimately recognizeable people -- to the village neighbors. In his paintings, two millennia and half a world snap to your grandparents and their village.

Spencer described Cookham as "a village in Heaven." Many of his most remarkable achievements are on display at several locations in and around Cookham.

But not all can be found in Cookham, and not all depict the life of Christ. Soon after completing his art studies at the Slade School in London, Spencer enlisted in the British Army medical corps duringthe First World War, serving in Army hospitals in England, and then in Macedonia. Near the War's end, Spencer was asked to join other artists to portray aspects of the devastating struggle in the fine arts. One painting, "Travoys ...", hangs in the Imperial War Museum (Lambeth district of London) as does John Singer Sargent's horrific depiction of blinded soldiers in WWI France, "Gassed."

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