The Stanley Spencer Gallery present Painting by the Thames: Swan Upping at Cookham. 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 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 by 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.
Painting by the Thames: Swan Upping at Cookham runs at the Stanley Spencer Gallery until 22 March. It 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 Spencer’s work to examine the often complex imagery in his paintings.