Old Father Thames and other stories


We’ve had an interesting day today walking a section of the Thames path and exploring the riverside village of Cookham, the birthplace and home of the artist Stanley Spencer. The weather was glorious –  sunny, warm and with hardly a breath of wind. After our walk and a swift pint and a half in the Bel and Dragon, a great pub which dates back to 1471, we visited the gallery devoted to Spencer’s work. Here we were treated to a chronological display of his work which from the beginning fused the everyday with the visionary. A good example is the painting reproduced on the cover of Frances Spalding’s book “British Art since  1900”. “Swan Upping at Cookham” (now in the Tate) was painted between 1915 and 1919 and transforms the annual ritual of marking swans into a scene of divine beauty.

Apart from a period studying at the Slade and service in the First World War, Spencer spent his entire life in and around Cookham. In later life he presented an almost eccentric character, wheeling his easel and painting paraphernalia around the village in an old pram and was often seen painting under an enormous umbrella. He married twice and had two daughters, Shirin and Unity, and it was Unity who carved the stone relief figure you see below and which now hangs in the church.

Spencer is probably best known for his murals which decorate Sandham Memorial Chapel near Newbury which was erected to commemorate lives lost in the First World War. These are not horrific scenes of trench warfare but everyday scenes of comradeship. Soldiers are shown cooking, sorting laundry and making beds. Above the alter is his greatest work, the “Resurrection of the Soldiers,  which depicts a stream of white crosses leading to Christ who stands in the middle distance gathering crosses from the fallen. Soldiers emerge from their graves and shake hands with their comrades, demonstrating once again how everyday life is touched by the immortal.

Our day ended with a visit to Cliveden, situated high above the banks of the Thames. Some of my photographs show the restoration and conservation of the South Terrace which was constructed in the late 17th century and overlooks the parterre. The sun was setting and red kites wheeled overhead. We were drawn down to the river and sat for a few moments watching the stream flow past. I was reminded of one of my favourite novels, “Dusty Answer” by Rosamond Lehmann, which describes so lyrically the coming of age of Judith Earle and in particular I remembered the following scene:

“She went dancingly down the garden, feeling moon-changed, powerful and elated; and paused at the water’s edge. The water shone mildly as it flowed. She scanned it up and down; it was deserted utterly, it was hers alone…she started to swim vigorously downstream…To swim by moonlight alone was a sacred and passionate mystery.”

I am now looking at my edition of “Dusty Answer” which was first published in 1927 and the front cover shows the painting “The Fair-Isle Jumper” by Stanley Cursiter. Do Google it if you like knitting or fashion from the 1920s or for how to wear a blanket scarf …

We are having wonderful holidays and are planning a journey to the sea tomorrow. I will be wrapping up warm in my blanket scarf which I made from a length of Liberty wool fabric in 1983. I love it when fashion comes full circle and I still own an original.




11 thoughts on “Old Father Thames and other stories

  1. Lovely photos, and what an interesting post. It sounds like you had a fantastic day by the river and exploring the village and Cliveden. And how fantastic that you saw red kites. They were so rare at one point. CJ xx


  2. Perfect weather for a day like this. I haven’t been to cliveden but would like to. Rivers and the sea and interesting places to explore- that’s my kind of day! X


  3. What a great trip, I have been wanting to go to Cookham for ages and you have really motivated me to make the effort. I am reading a Frances Spalding book at the moment. It is a biography of Gwen Reverat who was at Slade with Spencer and was a great friend and supporter of his work.. Another book I can reccomend is Crisis of Brilliance by David Boyd Haycock. It is about 5 artists, including Spencer,who studied at the Slade under Tonks and how their lives and works were defined by the First World War.
    Thanks for an interesting post.


  4. Thanks for reminding me how lovely Cookham is. My son and daughter in law used to live in a cottage close to where Spencer lived, and I can now almost always recognise his paintings. Its also great to be inspired to wear ‘classic’ clothes in a classic way. I just love the versatility of scarves and shawls, which are great to wear and so easy to remove. I bet you look great in yours!


  5. I have always liked spencer and now you have made me feel I should really go to cookham. Funny how inaccessible and far away the south east seems! I’m only just a bit more than two and a half hours from London but the more rural south east feels like another world!


  6. What a glorious day out, weather included, and what an interesting post full of things I enjoy most at this time of year including

    What an interesting post following a wonderful day out. We have family in Cookham Dean whom we see quite often, somehow we never get to see much of the village proper. Next time we shall make time to visit the Spencer gallery while we’re there. Thank you for reminding me what we’ve been missing!


  7. I like the sound of your visit very much. We visited Cookham last summer, staying in the Odney Club and it’s such a pretty place, we really enjoyed exploring the area. I hope you got your trip to the coast. x


  8. Thank you for providing me with some very happy memories. We lived in Cookham before we moved to Italy and spend many an afternoon walking by the river or up at Cliveden, you should visit again when the bluebells are flowering, they are magnificent. A very happy New Year to you.


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