Stanley Spencer’s Masterpiece Swan Upping Returns to Cookham

‘Swan Upping at Cookham’, 1915–19. Tate Collections © Estate of Stanley Spencer and the Stanley Spencer Gallery Collection.

Sir Stanley Spencer’s art was inspired by his love for his home village of Cookham, its people and the beautiful river Thames that flows through it. This Thursday the Stanley Spencer Gallery opens the exhibition Painting by the Thames: Swan Upping at Cookham which will bring together more than 20 works by the artist reflecting his love of the river.

The centrepiece of this exhibition is a major loan from the Tate gallery, Swan Upping at Cookham (1915–19) and is one of Spencer’s most important works and is often considered the piece that ignited Spencer’s style and focus for decades to come. The annual practice of ‘Swan Upping’, where mute swans are captured, tagged and released inspired Spencer as he was sitting in the garden of the Holy Trinity church hearing fellow villagers pass by to go to the river. The artist was fascinated by the river and the way of life it supported.

Stanley Spencer with ‘Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta’, in Holy Trinity Church 1958. © Stanley Spencer Gallery Archive

Spencer began his masterpiece work in 1915 as a new graduate of the Slade school of art. The war inevitably interfered with his life and before seeing the front lines of battle, he trained at the Beaufort Hospital for wounded soldiers. War greatly disturbed Spencer emotionally and he would write letters to family and friends fantasising about completing this particular painting once back home.

When he returned in 1918, he initially felt that he could not bring himself to paint again, too troubled by memories of the war. Nevertheless, he used this painting as a creative outlet and completed his masterpiece the following year.

‘View from Cookham Bridge’, 1936. © Estate of Stanley Spencer and Bridgeman Images 2019

This exhibition is very timely as this year sees the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Spencer’s Swan Upping painting. 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.’

Exhibition Dates: 4 November 2019 — 22 March 2020

Stanley Spencer Gallery
High Street, Cookham, Berkshire, SL6 9SJ
t: + (44) 16 28 53 10 92

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