Listen, flowers, birds, winds, worlds,
                                                 tell all today that I married
                                                 more than a white girl in the barley -
                                                 for today I took to my human bed
                                                 flower and bird and wind and world,
                                                 and all the living and all the dead.

Dannie Absefrom Epithalamion,
                                                                               Selected Poems, Hutchinson, London, 1970
                                                                                           (Internet recording on Poetry Archive)

The Cookham Resurrection

The Cookham Resurrection, or in its full title, The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard, is one of the greatest of twentieth century English paintings, and in some opinions, the greatest. It offers so many levels of meaning that it can be considered a poem in paint. If it seems odd to speak of a painting as a poem, the parallel is justified in that both can source from comparable emotions.

The biographical background

Since student days Stanley had been intrigued by personal interpretations of the Resurrection, and by 1914 had made a couple of experimental paintings. During the immediate post-war period he resumed biblical themes, including in 1920-21 a smaller Resurrection, Cookham in a stylised 'Vorticist' manner.

Such paintings were making him known to connoisseurs in the art world, and by 1923 he had been commissioned to decorate the Sandham Memorial Chapel under construction at Burghclere. It was while waiting for the Chapel to be completed that he painted this Resurrection (1924-26) with the aim of furthering his name as a painter, making himself financially secure enough to contemplate marriage, and using the painting to demonstrate the metaphysical thinking and vision which was so characteristic of his personality. Stylistically, the painting was to indicate a retreat from the 'Vorticist' influences of his postwar disorentation and a return to the more individual and instinctive creativity of pre-war work.

The painting became a landmark in Stanley’s artistic pilgrimage. Just as the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, climaxing as it does in the endwall Resurrection of the Soldiers, was to represent for him a spiritual resurrection from what he saw as his first great disturber of the peace - the traumas of his Great War experiences (words in red are Stanley's) - so in this Cookham Resurrection he brings himself - and us - face to face with the uncertainties of his second agonizing disturber of the peace - the question whether he should respond to his maturing urges by submitting to marriage, and so face the prospect of the pram in the hall, the encumbering of his artistic freedom with domesticity (one should bear in mind that this was the conventionally accepted procedure in the social ethos of the 1920s, even if not always adhered to.)

Hilda Carline painting : © Stanley Spencer EstateThrough his friend Jas Wood, Stanley had met young artist Richard Carline not long before the outbreak of war. On his return in 1919 he and Gilbert were introduced to all the Carlines, a cultured, lively and artistic family from Oxford who had settled in London in a comfortable house in Downshire Hill in Hampstead. Hilda, the only daughter, was also a trained painter, and both Gilbert and Stanley were attracted to her (as had been others, but she had refused their proposals of marriage.) As things turned out, it was Stanley in whom she became interested and wanted to marry. The feelings she raised in him - she has wonderful thoughts - became so powerful that, for him, only a Resurrection theme could do justice to them. Where else could he set his new picture but in the Cookham of his Cookham-feelings, the boyhood village which was such a creative home for him : and where else in the village could he locate it but at its ancient churchyard, where, the previous year, he and Gilbert had walked a desolate Pa after Ma's funeral, trying to distract him by persuading him to tell tales of the former villagers occupying the graves there?

To paint his picture, Stanley took over Henry Lamb's former studio on an upper floor of the Vale of Health Hotel (Spencer House now) in a hollow of Hampstead Heath. As the studio was only a short walk from Downshire Hill, the Carlines initially offered him lodging. With Hilda able easily to visit him in his studio, it was inevitable that sooner or later their feelings for each other would overcome their social restraints. They first had sex there in the May of 1923. He was 31, and Hilda a year older. It was Stanley's initiation, a revelation so intense that it necessitated unforeseen modifications to the content he had planned for his painting, and forever confirmed Hilda as his ultimate Muse.Yet almost another two years passed before they finally married, renting a second apartment in the hotel as their home.

The painting, we shall suggest, is a masterpiece in every sense, but more remarkable for the fact that not only does it celebrate a personal awakening, but it does so by allowing us to see it happening through the artist's own thoughts, from the first appearances of his dilemmas to their final resolution.

The painting

The picture is large, 9' high by 18' long. At first sight it might appear a formless cluster of odd figures rising haphazardly from their graves. The figures are not the dead rising, however, but contemporaries of Stanley, all very much alive at the time he painted them, and intended to be so. They are his friends, they are his 'loves'. They are helping him 'resurrect' into a new world of enlightenment he is exploring within himself.

In the 1950s, with the spread of television, Stanley was invited to take part in documentary films on the work of contemporary British artists. Filmed at the Tate in 1956 standing in front of the picture, Stanley began his commentary with an introduction intended to set the theme of the painting. Everything has a sort of double meaning for me, he announced, there's the ordinary everyday meaning of things, and the imaginary meaning about it all, and I wanted to bring these things together, and in this first big Resurrection of mine you have a good example of this sort of thing, (i.e. he counts it as one of his more 'visionary' paintings, a successful transcendence for him from the material to the redemptive.)

This, he said, with a sweep of his arm towards the picture behind him, is Cookham church, more or less, and beyond is the river. The view he painted is from an imagined high-angle, with viewpoint raised so that the river is included. It cannot normally be seen from the churchyard at ground level.

At first glance it looks as though the church tower in the painting is missing. But no, the tower is there as the dark green patch to the left of the roof (as one views the painting.) The dark green patch is in fact ivy, painted with Stanley's usual scrupulous attention to detail, because he was recording the church not as it was at the time, but as it was in his inspirational boyhood years.

Holy Trinity Cookham, 1893 The photograph shows the church, Holy Trinity, in 1893, two years after he was born.

But there are oddities to Stanley's depiction of it, as two admirers on a visit noted. They looked hard for the tomb alongside the wall in the painting on which rests a statue of a reclining gentleman. There was no sign of the gentleman, although in his commentary Stanley says That figure was always there. Perhaps this is because it was not in the form he paints it  - this is Cookham church, more or less. Then they noticed another oddity. The windows in Stanley's painting are different from the windows in actuality. It then dawned on them that Stanley's painted windows are the church windows as seen from the interior.
Effigy by the wall
The same could apply to the statue of the reclining gentleman. Such effigies are normally to be found inside a church, and are more usually lying on their back with their head on a carved pillow. But Stanley's gentleman - knight, hero, philanthropist or even a less hairy echo in Stanley's mind of the celebrated Victorian statue of Father Thames - is reclining, apparently deep in thought, on a pillow on a kind of couch - or is the pillow in fact a book or notepad in which the pages have been opened wide and folded back?

[Please note: The cameo pictures shown are enlarged thumbnails and are intended only for illustration. They are not representative of the image quality of the originals in Stanley's painting.]

Putting these facts together suggests that Stanley did not intend his depiction of the church to be realistic. He was deliberately painting it through his memory-feelings - as he usually did such visionary work - even though he was only thirty miles or so away. In these details, he is recreating the peace he often enjoyed in the church, recalling a silence which, as he tells us elsewhere, was on one occasion so breathless that it allowed happy sounds of the nearby river-traffic to filter in, and so gave him the inspiration for his celebrated Swan Upping at Cookham [Tate Gallery]

Stanley is surely stating a major premise for this painting, as for much of his visionary work - that, for him, depiction of detail derived from his facility for contemplation in assembling the memory-feelings vital to its emotion, and that in this picture everything is resurrecting into a state of happiness and peace. Peace in Stanley's vocabulary here is perhaps best interpreted as implying a creatively detached state, unthreatening and uplifting, and persisting even when his surrounding circumstances were distressful physically.

The left 'wing' of the painting

Stanley then referred in the film to the cameo of the boats in the top left corner. Holidaymakers are enjoying trips on the river.

Boats on the Thames with passengers The river is of course the Thames. There appear to be two boats. One is at the landing-stage embarking passengers  Presumably the figures are day-trippers mostly from London. The other boat, also crowded, is moving off upstream. It is one of Bond's steam launches from a local Maidenhead firm who worked the river in his youth. 

The cameo has been seen as the dead being ferried across the Styx. If so, they are remarkably happy about it. A piano has been installed on deck for a sing-song. It is more likely that the scene is simply what Stanley said it was - holidaymakers enjoying trips on the river. He originally had a notion to show it as the river of life, with the Cookham landing stage as a halt on the passage from Maidenhead (the past) to Marlow (the future : it was typical of Stanley's 'reversal' thinking to go upstream to the future.) Bond's steam launches did not in fact normally call at Cookham on their journeys, but for Stanley the boatload of passengers going upriver are on their way to the future, while the passengers on the boat at the landing stage pointing downstream are journeying back to the past. But when Stanley came to paint the cameo he found that he lost his vision and failed to catch the idea as he had intended. Nevertheless the emphasis is clearly on the happiness of the participants. 

Happiness for Stanley, as stressed in this website, lay in that desired state in which he found himself able to connect the vagaries of his material existence to the more universal aspirations of humanity we call the spiritual. In their happiness, his boat passengers are translated into the spiritual, but in Stanley's metaphysical terms rather than any theological one.

The red of the distant sky is reflected in the water. Stanley refers in his writings to a Cookham occasion when burning stubble beyond the river went out of control and the sky became to his visionary eye mysteriously red. But equally the red could represent the early morning lightening of the western sky. Shadows over the painting indicate the prevailing light to be from the right, that is from the east - the coming of dawn, the symbol of birth, the start of a lifetime's travel, perhaps the meaning he intended as his lost vision for his boat passenger cameos. There is an of the morning feeling to the imagery, an expression Stanley used for the arrival of a joyous creative comprehension, or, as he sometimes put it, the coming of the Holy Spirit, a concept he was later to develop in a series planned around the biblical notion of The Pentecost. The happiness of the holidaymakers can be seen as taking them into this comprehension, this enlightenment. The fact that they would have been unlikely to be embarking at the crack of a summer dawn is immaterial. In Stanley's visionary work, logic (time) is creative, not rational.

Hilda looking at boats A woman in a gray dress and jacket with gray braid is watching the scene from the steps of a stile (the stile is probably a transposition, as there seems no indication there ever was one at that spot.) She is Hilda. She mooches along and slowly goes over the stile. She had a gliding way of walking on which he often comments. Here he describes it as mooching. She wears a favourite dress of hers. Her dress indeed was a favourite. In 1922, while courting her, he had joined her family on a painting trip to Yugoslavia, and remembered how in the train going to Sarajevo, Hilda and I slept alongside each other fully dressed, head to feet. Hilda was wearing a gray dress and a coat with gray braid. In Sarajevo we only got as far as Hilda taking my arm, but that I can remember - the first direct and deliberate expression of her liking for me. That is a mysterious experience. At stand-offish moments she would take my arm in a more matter-of-fact way, which made it all the more profound.

So there now in Stanley's painting Hilda stands in the same gray braided outfit, a moment of illumination, a memory-feeling of a time of recorded happiness which in his painting becomes fused with the happiness of the holidaymakers at whom she gazes. Her stile has become a plinth and she is comparable on her stile-plinth, one feels, with Mary on her concrete flagstones in The Nativity, a monument raised to the eternal universality of joy.

Two boys - Stanley and his younger brother Gilbert when small? - are at play at the nearby kissing-gate - still there - which leads to Bellrope Meadow and the river. They appear to be looking up at Hilda on her stile-plinth. Is she tilting her head slightly to acknowledge them? Perhaps the detail indicates an honouring by Stanley of his brother, for in the early 1920s both brothers saw Hilda as though on a pedestal and contended for her hand in marriage. When she showed her preference for Stanley, Gilbert bowed out, regretfully, but with fraternal good grace.

Hilda waking up from a doze A little way to the right we find a white-robed woman whom Stanley does not name but who must again be Hilda. Her tombstone suggests an armchair. Unlike the brisk energetic Stanley who needed little sleep, Hilda had a habit of dozing off in the daytime, an event which he delighted to recall after her death in evocative paintings imbued with feeling, such as Silent Prayer, 1951, and Hilda and I in Pond Street, 1954 

Here Hilda appears to be waking from one of her dozes. If so, she is waking into Stanley's new dawn, his new enlightenment. Unlike many of the other resurrecting figures she does not need to climb out of her grave but is simply emerging without struggle into her new world, suggesting that she is already in a state of grace. At her feet an oddly round gravemarker has as its carving a framed painting typical of her work.

Hilda's dress is unusual. It may be a reference to the white wedding dress she had made and of which Stanley had made a drawing, but which she did not wear at their quiet wedding in February 1925 at the church of SS Peter & Paul in the village of Wangford, near Southwold. She wore instead a three-cornered hat, and a long coat with flapping sleeves, both of which Stanley was to remember nostalgically, and she to store as a keepsake. So the white dress in the picture might better represent a baptismal dress, with Hilda metaphorically waking in a newly-baptised state into consciousness of the Stanley-world around her. It is interesting that in Stanley's 1954 Hilda and I in Pond Street, the garment box opened on her lap contains a similar dress. Was she too intended to look back to her Resurrection days in Stanley's memory-feeling?

Two tributes so far to Hilda. But there are yet more.

Down below (the boat and Hilda cameos) the people read their own tombstones, which must be rather wonderful to do.

Tombstones At first sight this cameo seems straightforward enough. The newly-resurrected are intrigued to read the words written on the tombstones they have never seen. But there is no wording on them. Stanley has substituted memorial pictures which seem to be reflections of their interests. Several echo Hilda's paintings, especially those in the foreground showing trees. In fact the cameo suggests visitors examining paintings at an art exhibition, or guests at the Carline family home at 47 Downshire Hill, where every foot of available wall space was covered in family pictures.

Noteworthy is the circular form of many of the tombstones. Stanley does not explain it. They cannot be large headstones as his depiction suggests, or they would topple over. Possibly he has oversized the small stone gravemarkers sometimes seen in cemeteries then (and occasionally in pet cemeteries now) held up by a metal frame at the back like a bookrest : there are examples in his later Port Glasgow Resurrections, especially in the Reunion panel. Or the grave markers may be recollections of Islamic cemetery monuments Stanley saw in Macedonia during the war, or in Yugoslavia on his 1922 visit with Hilda and her family (her brother Richard recalled them spending time together in local cemeteries sketching the unusual monuments.) It has also been suggested that they echo the biblical stone used to seal the tomb in which the crucified Christ was laid. It had to be circular for it to be 'rolled away', an image Stanley was to use specifically in his 1956 Deposition and Rolling Away of the Stone, where - as here - it can be interpreted as indicating a psychological or metaphysical release into the creatively imaginative.

However, perhaps the most straightforward explanation is that Stanley means
the circular headstones to be visual metaphors for the life-values of their owners who, being still alive in the context of his painting, do not qualify for 'real' tombstones. They could single out particular 'loves' who are enriching his life. There is too added interest in the fact that annular or circular forms were appearing in his art for the first time, often, as in the Burghclere Chapel panels, conveying sexual overtones. Hilda and he were reading extensively at this time into Eastern religious beliefs in which the sexual element was essentially a stepping-stone to the creative, particularly with reference to the dual and cyclical nature of existence symbolized in the Hindu Wheel of Life, or the Ouroborous (the circular snake eating its tail.) The couple were drawing inferences from their reading which Stanley was later to attach to his meaning of Love.

Lower left in the cameo, a male figure lies relaxed on a box tomb, his posture replicated in the tombstone facing him (and reminiscent in pose of the gentleman statue by the church wall.) He is gazing at the scene. There are indications that he is James Wood, always known as Jas, one of Stanley's admiring friends. He was a Cambridge-educated man of wide if eclectic erudition, aJas Wood as an artilleryman, 1916 writer, philosopher, art connoisseur, literary critic and philologist whose advice was sought by James Joyce when writing Finnegans Wake. His father had been Mayor of Southport in the prospering days of its Victorian development, and his sister Lucy Boston was a writer whose Perverse and Foolish is a charming evocation of their childhood.

In London, Jas lived in a substantial house in St John's Wood, occasionally holding lively parties for the artist fraternity, such as that described
in her autobiography A Slender Reputation by Kathleen Hale (secretary to Augustus John at the time and later author of Orlando the Marmalade Cat), in which a tableau in Jas' garden, parodying the box tomb is Stanley's painting, suddenly burst open to 'resurrect' into the party a bevy of artschool lovelies.

So why does Stanley choose to honour Jas Wood in the painting over others of his equally supportive friends of the time, such as Henry Lamb, Desmond Chute, Edward Marsh, the Raverats, the Behrends or the Gollanczes? The answer, one suspects, is because Jas had strong affinities with Hilda. It was through Jas that he had first met Richard, the youngest of the Carline family, and then Hilda after the Great War. In earlier days Jas had proposed marriage to Hilda and despite his unsuccess was to remain a lifelong friend to Hilda and Stanley, an 'uncle' to their daughters. So once again we are back to Hilda.

Nobody is in any hurry in this painting, Stanley proclaims in reference to this cameo, those men lying on top of the tombs I like very much, they gave me the feeling that the Resurrection is a peaceful occasion, and very positive. I like the happiness, that's the main idea of the picture.

Hilda and sunflower Further down you see Hilda smelling a flower. She wonders about it, she is curious, she feels how momentous the occasion is, so she pushes it against her face. I feel that that is rather expressive. She here wears a jumper I liked, one that has been pulled into being very floppy from much washing of it.

Stanley lies watching on a nearby box tomb, while Hilda appears to be glancing across at him. His phrase rather expressive is typical of the guarded way he sometimes used coded expressions to convey meaning. The flower seems to be a sunflower, an emblem he earlier used in The Nativity to suggest the blossoming of sexuality, and was to use more ostensibly in later work. Stanley had been celibate before he met Hilda, not from lack of interest in sex but from a monkish devotion to an art which he feared might be contaminated if subjected to a commitment to anyone but himself (an attitude to which he was to return during the last years of his life after Hilda's death.)

In the event, Hilda's curiosity in opening herself to the mystery of her biological destiny ended all Stanley's hesitations about the effects of marriage, and exploded for him the joyous exploration which this painting honours. Their first daughter, Shirin, was born in October 1925.Hilda and Shirin, 1925 Visitors to the studio would sometimes find Stanley washing nappies or using his right hand to continue painting the picture while his left held the sleeping baby. By then  the extra rooms he had taken at the Hotel enabled them to live there as a family.

In the painting Hilda wears a jumper he liked. His interest in her style of dress is further evidenced in other detail. It was for him a loving link to her personality. Some ten years later a similar link, but outside their marriage, was to lead him along strange and unfortunate paths. But at the time of this painting, both partners were responding to the link between sex and divinity. The divine, for Hilda, postulated a loving God who would protect her husband and her family. The Carlines were Christian Scientists. Stanley, although sympathetic to their belief, remained circumspect.

Wives brushing husbandsWith the 'up-in-heaven' joys of domesticity prevailing, Hilda and he were at last two puddles overflowing into one. A nearby cameo shows a trio of married couples who demonstrate his feelings. By the ivy-covered church tower, a wife brushes the earth and grass off her husband. Another woman buttons up a man's coat and another straightens a man's collar, little ordinary intimate happenings which bring me to a new state of awareness. They recapture for Stanley those moments in his boyhood when his mother ('Ma') made sure his father ('Pa') looked neat and tidy before cycling off to give music lessons at the big houses round Cookham, gestures of coupled familiarity and love which awed him as a youth.

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To continue our exposition we now move to the right side of the painting as viewed. Ignoring for the time being the figures ranged along the church wall - Stanley's sort of prophets - we pick up his comments again at the cameo of the three girls.]

The right 'wing' of the painting

Three girlsI am very fond of the three girls taking it easy seen just below the prophets. Especially I love the girl in the black velvet dress with a black velvet rose gathered at the waist. Hilda had a dress like this. I love the unawesome way she uses the very shape of the headstone to loll against, the casual gesture of the other girl with arms flung back over the other stone. The entire race is destined to peace and joy.

in Stanley's usage meant a dreaded prospect which had the potential to destroy his peace and so damage his creative outlook. Its converse, unawesome, inferred an unthreatening, reassuring situation.

Stanley shows two of the girls gossipping as he recalls his sisters doing in his boyhood, while the 'girl' in the black dress looks on. The girl on the right, talking agitatedly, might emotionally represent his elder sister Annie. All the Spencers were voluble talkers, and Annie especially, yap, yap, yap, all the time, he said of her, although what she says is very interesting. In his depiction, their headstones have become armchairs against which they relax, as did Hilda in her earlier cameo, symbols to him of their being 'home'.

Annie Spencer with Stanley and Gilbert The photograph on the right shows Annie in earlier years with Stanley (on her right) and Gilbert. They are dressed in the unisex garb fashionable for toddlers at that period who were still not yet fully potty-trained.

In the cameo, the girl with her back to us might then be his sister Florence, by this time widow of J M Image, a Cambridge don who not long after their marriage was sadly a victim of the 1918 influenza outbreak. She did not remarry, and her devotion to the Spencer family was such that she continued throughout her life to act as its 'postmistress', keeping them all in touch by letter and by exchange of visits.

Florence in the centre The accompanying family photo shows one such visit, with Florence seated in the centre, Stanley and Hilda to her left and Gilbert's wife Ursula to her right.

In the painting cameo, Stanley appears to have left 'Florence's' arms bare, suggesting, if not nudity, at least partial unclothing. Indeed, it could be that the third 'girl' to her left is wearing the black dress she has taken off.

The notion may not be as outlandish as it first seems. If the concept of love meant to Stanley the giving of oneself to others - and receiving part of them into oneself - then the Florence figure can be interpreted as sharing part of herself with the 'girl' in black, binding her as integral to the Spencer family.

This, then, raises the intriguing question as to who is this third 'girl', seeing that Stanley had only two sisters? Facially she is recognisably Stanley himself, and the black dress - the love-symbol - he has acquired from Florence matches a black dress of Hilda's which he liked. Hilda had a dress like this. So in his labyrinthine associations Stanley can be seen to have incorporated into what at first appears to be a straightforward cameo a hymn to the transforming power of love, even though expressed through a microcosm of personal family life. It will be recalled that Stanley was educated at the Spencer 'dame school' in a hut in the neighbouring garden, founded originally by his father and later staffed by Annie and Florence as teachers. Indeed, the basic function of the image could serve as a tribute to the value of the education he was given in his progressive household.

Stanley's interest in female apparel extended into his occasionally trying on Hilda's dresses when she was away, acts which brought her close to him and were interpreted as an expression of love, whatever their physical sensations for him. But as we shall find illustrated in later cameos in the painting, the three-girls imagery may be less concerned with cross-dressing than with cross-gender. In its apparent rôle-reversal and in its black-dress association, it can represent a Stanley-Hilda concept of the integration of the two halves of existence - the male and female - into that composite entity which was to become so profound a conviction for them both. When their second daughter was born in 1930, they named her Unity.

Girl among flowersJust below the three girls a young girl rises from a cluster of moon-daisies, her dress in matching decoration. For Stanley, flowers in bloom - especially wildflowers - were always symbolic of the natural urge of creation, and as such they proliferate in the painting. The rational Jas Wood had cautioned him against overdoing them (logic dictates that few wildflowers have the chance to grow in well-trimmed graveyards) but Stanley replied, if I emptied the whole of Sutton's illustrated catalogue of flowers into the painting, there would not be a petal too many. His churchyard in the painting was to him the flowered summer meadows of his Cookham Paradise, a recreated Garden of Eden, in the way his admired Renaissance painters sometimes represented Paradise as a return of the saved to the biblical Garden of Eden. Moon-daisies - marguerites - were often used in such paintings as tokens of the innocence of St Margaret, and the girl here must have had some sexual if innocent association for him. Hence, perhaps her circular headstone.

Despite Stanley's early resolve to curb his normal male instincts in the cause of art, he had on his return from the Great War become interested in a dentist's daughter called Nancy, from Reading, and she in him, a budding romance ended abruptly by her disapproving father. But long before the War, Stanley and Gilbert had become boyishly attracted to two daughters of a Cookham master-butcher by the name of Worster, celebrated in the locality for his excellent sausages and chronicled in Stanley's painting, The Sausage Shop, 1951. Both girls were contemporaneous pupils at the Spencer family dame-school, and Stanley formed an attachment to the elder, Dorothy ('Dot'), making little drawings on scraps of paper for her which she kept all her life. Gilbert favoured the younger, Emily. Dorothy acted as the model for Stanley's early drawing of The Fairy on the Waterlily Leaf, and both girls appear in his pre-war painting Two Girls and a Beehive, in which Dorothy has the same long fair hair as the girl here and shows similar facial features.

Stanley's description of her is Below the girls in black velvet is a girl rising from her grave, and the profusion of wildflowers and long grass flop over her as her grave opens. Because she liked flower-patterned dresses, she is resurrecting in a dress where the pattern is not very dissimilar from the wildflowers around her.

She is young, she likes pretty dresses, she is flaunting her cosmic femininity. It is a tender image.

After a finishing school in Folkestone, Dorothy returned to Cookham and presently married Eddie Remington, a racing driver and motor engineer who owned a garage in the High Street. Stanley enjoyed calling on them in later years, often dropping in for tea, and in 1929 bought his first (and only) car from them  (Emily became a nurse in the Great War and married an Australian soldier, emigrating to be with him.) A photograph shows Stanley and his new car outside Remington's Garage in Cookham. On his right Jas Wood is correctly dressed, even to the gloves, for teaching Stanley to drive (no driving test then.) Hilda sits on the battery box, daughter Shirin balances on the running board, while Hilda's mother, Annie Carline, keeps a watchful eye on her. Stanley was never a confident driver, and after a minor collision with a lorry in Maidenhead, preferred Hilda to drive. She thoroughly enjoyed it.

Below this are two men who rise under hoods of earth.

Boat cameo This short comment seems surprisingly dismissive. Dare one suspect a touch of caution, even pique? Stanley certainly interjected into the filmed interview one of his unexpected asides as he adds they are not meant to be wicked, there's just a slight check to them [in clambering out of the grave] I don't want anyone to think they're wicked. so they come out in a different way.

The rear figure is unquestionably Stanley and the front figure a strong young man, face half-concealed. They are both rising from a joint grave in the shape of a small boat or dinghy. Two puzzles are what is the front figure carrying in his hand, and why are they are both climbing out with some difficulty?

The most likely candidate for the young man is Guy Lacey, son of a Cookham boatbuilder who swam with Stanley and taught him watercraft (the object he is carrying in the cameo is probably the stern rowlock of the dinghy in which he taught Stanley to scull.) Guy was an admired schoolfriend who was, like Dorothy, a contemporary at the Spencer family school. One of Stanley's earliest paintings, now lost, recollected Guy and Dorothy at the school break leaning against an orchard wall to talk. They are part of what to me is meaning and so are auspicious, he said of them.

Although Guy was a year or so younger than Stanley, he was a powerfully-built lad. Perhaps one can infer an element of hero-worship on Stanley's part, and indeed he later supported Edward Marsh's admiration of male physique by writing him a paean of praise for Guy's (Marsh was then private secretary to Winston Churchill and a friend to Rupert Brooke.) In his letter, Stanley compared Guy's build to a plaster cast of a Gladiator he had drawn during his initial training at Maidenhead Technical School, his muscles are not "bumpy" but evenly developed over his whole body, Stanley enthused, I love to see the vapour rising from his body when he comes out of the water. 

If there is homo-eroticism on Stanley's part here it was obviously suppressed - I don't want anyone to think they are wicked. He would have found such feelings disturbing when adolescent, even though normal to those years. Showing the pair of them climbing with difficulty out of a boat-shaped grave can be interpreted as Stanley's muted way of handling suppressed feelings of admiration which he felt could have been misinterpreted.

Guy, like Stanley, survived the Great War, for Stanley incorporated him into his 1920 picture The Bridge, where he is the lone figure on the right. The painting shows young men lining both sides of a stylised Cookham Bridge as though gathered to watch a regatta on the river below. A woman with a girl passes between them but few of the men take any notice. Stanley intended the painting to capture (unsuccessfully, he later decided) a postwar
atmosphere in Cookham, and the imagery most likely conveys the rootlessness which he and the demobbed young men felt in trying to recapture the rhythm of their pre-1914 lives. Guy's Airedale dog Tinker, sprawled at his feet, echoes his mood. 

Two girls at graveTo the right of the main painting, near the edge and below the virginia creeper, two girls read notes to each other. One is 'alive', the other resurrecting.
One girl shows the other the ticket on the wreath, which the other girl has put on her grave. She thanks her for it. Stanley says elsewhere that the notion came to him when in the churchyard one day he saw a girl bringing a wreath to the grave of her dead friend and thought how wonderful it would be if her dead companion could read the note on the wreath and respond to the gift.

Stanley's love of flowers, trees and plants shows itself in the subtlety with which his artist's eye portrays them in this painting ... the way ivy likes to collect itself into great clumps, and virginia creeper likes to fall like soft green icicles, and the cypress tree likes to stand stiff and upright, and grasses like to rank themselves in little armies, and cow parsley likes to range itself alongside of a hedge and so on. It expressed for him the joy of individual inclination bringing about variety, an element which pervades the entire picture, and which touches on his philosophical ideas about identity.

 Two further cameos occupy the foreground of this right-hand 'wing'. Stanley's comment on the lower figure is, at the Henry Slesserbottom of the picture is a grand sort of mayor in robes rising out of a much-wreathed grave (more or less a portrait of Sir Henry Slesser.) I don't think he liked flowers but I liked him very much, and I couldn't help putting nice flowers, those wreaths on to the grave, which was [intended to be portrayed as] just meadowland, just wild meadowland, and you have the wild flowers inside the wreath, and you have clover, plantain and daisies and so on and the lilies and hothouse flowers around it, that mixture to me is almost like the mixture of this life and the resurrected life, those flowers [Stanley points] and those flowers, and the bringing of them together is the contrast that brings me to this special meaning I am so keen on.

Surely this revealing comment stresses the value to Stanley of the principle of counterpoint - those flowers and those flowers - in attaining that special meaning which meant so much to him (discussed in connection with this painting more fully later.)

Sir Henry Slesser was an ambitious lawyer and judge who was appointed Solicitor-General in Baldwin's Labour Government of 1924. He and his wife Margaret lived across the river from Cookham, and when Stanley's brothers returned from the war with their new families and Fernlea became overcrowded, they provided him with a year's accommodation in their riverside house called Cornerways. Stanley was profoundly grateful and painted several pictures for their private chapel built into the loft of their boathouse, of which the most celebrated is his 1922 version of The Last Supper.

Slesser evidently did not entirely appreciate Stanley's depiction of him in the picture, but Stanley certainly liked him. So he made him a grand figure by putting him in his ceremonial robes and wig (he looks almost Dantean) and stresses his importance by allotting him fine wreaths of hothouse flowers. The halo-like tombstone behind him can imply Stanley's honouring of his varied interests

Stanley on tombstone The other cameo indisputably shows Stanley lying on two slabs of a broken tomb, a portrait of myself, lying back in the fold of two stones. To emphasise the place and bare fact of myself, I have thought of an open book....when you read a book you settle down to it, and it may be that the open book and getting to a state of rest and contentment are associated, and this me, settling down between the two lids of that tomb, is my signature to the painting.

The comment reminds us that Stanley was a voracious absorber of the classics. He read with great deliberation in order to make sense of the gist. He rested himself on Milton and Dante and was particularly attracted to the English metaphysical poets. In one of his letters he suggests how the Resurrection provided symbolism for this painting. He mentions that John Donne speaks in one of his sermons of the particular resurrection and the general resurrection. The particular is the resurrection after death and the general is [the prelude to] Judgment Day. In my picture I have misunderstood Donne once more to considerable advantage [a wry dig at his more formally educated friends like Jas Wood who tried to straitjacket his thinking into orthodox logic] by taking his general resurrection as being the final perfection of all things. Each individual is rising into a world which is just the kind of world he or she wanted. Each person is behaving perfectly [according to his or her 'universal' nature in Stanley's timeless sense] and is happy [they are in a Stanley-paradise.]

In Stanley's complex metaphysics, it appears from the preceding that he sees the particular resurrection as the climactic event specific to the Christian canon, whereas the term general resurrection refers to the idea or concept of resurrection : in other words, the painting is intended as a 'Stanley Spencer' interpretation of the theme, and not as an imagined representation of the event.

In Stanley's version, his term resurrection defines those mysterious moments when we come into a state of perfection through happiness. Such moments - epiphanies - imply glimpses of a metaphorical continuum envisaged in biblical terms as Heaven. They offer a kind of rehearsal or foretaste of the unique event presumed after death and symbolised in Stanley's paradigm language as the Judgment Day or The Last Day. He has depicted in his cameos people he knew who seemed to him to mirror this insight. With one or two exceptions, the figures were in positions I had noticed people in when in a happy, interested, studious or inspired state, he later told Richard Carline. The churchyard of the painting is thus rendered for him a holy suburb of heaven. A surprising deduction for him was that because in our universality we all experience such moments of happiness and heaven, we must all be judged at least partially redeemed, and so there could be no wicked people.

So far, so good. But it is clear that there is no common denominator between the cameos in each wing of the painting. Those on the left wing extol Stanley's conjugal experiences with Hilda, those on the the right recall events before Hilda entered his life. If Stanley is to link them in order to express the emotional transformation he is experiencing, he will have to provide the dynamism needed to convey the sense of one situation flowing into the other, the right wing in course of becoming transfigured into the left, the transposition telling of the impact of Hilda in his life.

Although Stanley married Hilda during the painting of this picture, its gestation and composition were based on his earlier doubts about committing himself. The memory-feelings he had selected for these doubts were already settled in his mind. Most artists, one imagines, would simply discard them. But not Stanley. If his early contemplation had brought them to mind as contributing to the 'atmosphere' of his theme, then they were 'eternal', even though their visualisation was as yet unformed. They would still have to be included in the painting. But how?

Stanley's solution was to use them to provide the central 'barriers' or obstacles in a mighty counterpoint which would link his two 'wings'. Emotionally, the task would tax him to the limit. But if he could manage it, the painting would take the form of a triptych, with his original doubt-cameos now acting as a central 'barrier' across which the 'before-Hilda' and 'after-Hilda' wings would become linked into revelation by a form of mutual metamorphosis. In effect, the painting would become an altarpiece (and in the manner it was so splendidly presented in the Tate 2001 Exhibition.)

[Stanley's use of counterpoint and the function of 'barriers' in his visionary compositions are analysed and illustrated in the Unravelling section of this website.]

The central 'barriers'

Defining the central 'barriers' of the picture is a matter of viewer choice. One can argue that they occupy the centre section of the painting in which the strong foreground elements, seen from Stanley's imagined high-angle viewpoint, converge on the figures in the church porch, a perspective different from the one diverging to the boats (left wing) and that to the girls by the hedge (right wing.) 

Hilda on tombstoneOf these central cameos, the dark, railed tomb in the centre dominates. The image was based on Stanley's memories of a tomb in Cookham churchyard which, like the tower then, was ivy-covered. As a youngster, he recalled looking down on the top of the tomb and imagining the overlapping ivy forming a sort of nest. In his cameo, the ivy half-conceals another Hilda who is again asleep or resting, and it is worth noting Stanley's comment here: The light on the wall of the church is rather in feeling like the light I could see when swimming under water; it was the only thing I could see and felt drawn towards [his meaning of light in the painting is given later.] But as I thought of that sunlit wall, its wonder seemed to increase as I saw there was some large dark object practically eclipsing the light or merging into it, and this was the dark ivy-clad tombstone. The ivy, bunched up, made a kind of nest-shaped top to the tomb, and I wanted this bird-in-the-nest feel.

Stanley's bird-in-the-nest feel is another synonym he sometimes used for the cosiness, the hand-holding, the peace of his Cookham-feelings. But it is significant that his language here is more diffident than in his factual comments until now, suggesting that whereas his memory-feelings for the 'wings' of the painting raised clear images to define his emotions, he is now, in these central 'barrier' panels, having to delve so deep into his subconscious that the emerging images are hazier. Stanley is evidently in dilemma over his metamorphosis. The central 'barrier' images, necessary as he insists they are to his compositional process, are not dissolving as readily into the metaphysical entities he wants.

Perhaps a way of appreciating Stanley's problem is to compare the new imagery he is seeking with that which occurs in dreams. We are told that dream imagery wells up into our subconscious as a means of communicating emotions deeply lodged in our unconscious. The imagery reaches our conscious self as relevant ('attached') to the emotions, but also as vividly, bewilderingly - and sometimes frighteningly - incoherent in any logical sense ('detached' from actuality.)

So if we suppose that the creativity in Stanley is striving to convey the deeply-held emotions or feelings he senses are there in his unconscious - the function of the artist in all ages - then in his efforts to reach them he will instinctively attempt to reproduce the process. The nearer he approaches the latent emotion, the more the images he draws from his unconscious will, like dream images, reflect ('attach to') the emotion he wants to convey, but when they reach consciousness will arrive as 'detached' - vivid, but often bewildering. Their incoherence must somehow be tamed into imagery which the rest of us can match to our own experience (that is, by 'attaching it' to Stanley's), and so enter the dream world he is trying to reproduce in his struggle to honour the virtually inexpressible emotion lying deep beneath.

If this argument is accepted, then Stanley's subsequent comments make sense. The nest shape, suggesting a house, made me want both a husband and wife on the tomb but it would not work and I felt very put-off, as one person seemed lonely - nasty single-bed feeling...At last I became so unloving [emotionally detached], I asked myself if I loved anything at all in the world... just anything, any port of call in a storm, and [glancing around I noticed that] Hilda was wearing her old jumper and I saw her hand overlapped by it, her hand in its nest made by her sleeve. And I felt, yes, I love that. I came to rest there, and in it went (but 'dream-modified' to show her wearing once more her 'baptismal' dress, not her old jumper.)

The uncertainty of imagery is indicative of dream-like incoherence (I became so unloving would not work) but in this case was fortuitously followed by the arrival of a highly-associative memory-feeling (her hand in its nest made by her sleeve), an image, maybe a derived sexual one (I have always been impressed with the idea of emergence - a train coming out of a tuinnel, for example) equating with the bird-in-the nest feeling he wanted, and was to use in a similar context in further paintings such as the Frostbite panel at Burghclere or in the robes of Christ in the several panels of Christ in the Wilderness.

The account is remarkable in its indication of the creative way Stanley's mind functioned when contemplating. In order to deal with the ' barrier' images of this painting - so much less well-defined in his mind than the cameos on each wing - he is having to bring up such powerful memory-feelings from his subconscious that they take on the characteristics of a semi-conscious rêverie. As in a dream, the initial scene he 'sees' is filled with imagery such as the light on the wall - it was the only thing I could see and felt drawn towards - and this suffuses him with feelings of creative happiness. But then gradually a new image begins to insert itself, an item from his initial contemplation for the picture. It is of a large dark object practically eclipsing the light. As the daydream unrolls, this intruder brings feelings of bewilderment. It is evidently a product of subconscious tension relating to his earlier marriage-doubts.

As Stanley's contemplation continues, a creative struggle takes place. Because it remains essential that these new bewilderment images should match the theme of the painting (be redeemed to convey happiness), his subconscious resolves the large dark object for him into a shape resembling a house, a family home suggesting a marriage bed. But this image does not match his churchyard setting, so Stanley's conscious self tells him the bed-notion is better conceived as a tomb, with two people lying on it. They will be Hilda and himself.

Stanley is about to enjoy the happiness-feelings this image provides when his subconscious reminds him that this cannot be. If his doubts about marrying underlay the 'shapes' from which his subconscious composed the 'barriers', then he and Hilda must remain visually separate. So the tomb shape (formerly the house, then the bed shape - symbols of a married life to which his subconscious cannot 'attach') - is unable to accommodate himself and Hilda. Only her figure can appear on it.

But then the image of a lone Hilda is equally disturbing for Stanley - nasty single-bed feeling. Somehow its feeling must be recovered back to happiness. Suddenly he catches sight of her hand emerging from the sleeve of her pullover. The image is a moment from the past for him, an epiphany, a sexual emblem signifying their unity. To his delight and relief, its appearance instantly switches his feelings back to happiness - and I felt yes, I love that. I came to rest there, and in it went.

Negroes If that cameo is born of dream-like incoherence, then the one above it in the painting is even more so, and we begin to realise that Stanley is in fact using the mysterious 'barrier' images in the centre of the painting to tell of a number of similar dream incidents through which he struggled to resolve subconscious tensions into reassuring happiness.

The image shows a group of negroes resurrecting from trench-like graves in some kind of enclosure. It is not clear what the enclosure is - it has a floor of thin mud drying into patterns of cracks, and could be the floor of a roofless hut, although its boat-like shape is un-African. Most of the occupants are looking to the east, to Stanley's new dawn, and appear to be pausing from various activities involving the use of their hands.

It has been proposed earlier in this website that one way of accessing meaning in Stanley's more puzzling images is to look for biographical sources for the memory-feelings they suggest. Here we can turn to a letter he wrote to Hilda in 1924 in which he discussed his master drawing for the picture, explaining to her that all the figures in it are intended to recreate feelings of joy. Of those in this particular cameo, he writes I don't know yet what the three rows of figures mean. They may be black people; they may be the joy of intercourse and communion of people generally, like the talks after the testimony [in some religious meetings.] Or it may be the joy of touching and feeling. Then there is the joy of the earth giving birth to joy, sometimes through hard sunburnt cracks, sometimes through soft grassy or flowery openings, just according to how they would prefer.

The comments are fascinatingly redolent of the uncertainty of incoherence - I don't know yet.... They may be....or it may be ... . They reveal the artist as explorer, pilgrim. The search, plainly, is to find imagery for this cameo attachable from his experience as meaningful of joy. But the way to it is fraught.

It appears from Stanley's subsequent attribution of an unexpected subtitle to the painting - The Saving of the Black and White Races : the Instinctive and the Intellectual - that his mind at the time was running an associated subtext linking the happiness of his marriage unity with a concept of universal harmony in which instinct, as exemplified by then-contemporary ideas of the Black Races, is counterpointed with reason as indicative of the intellectual ethos of the White Races. It may even have been intended as the deep 'message' of the painting. If so, the incoherence in this 'negroes' cameo testifies to his then inability to resolve it into convincing imagery (his difficulty may have been that he had not yet fully formulated the metaphysical notions of 'love' which ten years later were to motivate his solution to the problem, his 1935 painting Love Among the Nations.)

Stanley probably settled on negroes as his figures because during the months he had lodged with the Carline family he had absorbed many of their interests. One such was the then new topic of African art. An older brother of Hilda was Keeper of Ethnic Art in the Bankside Museum in Halifax, while Richard was not only to publish on the subject, but to help set up the first exhibition of such art in this country. If I could have my life over again, Stanley murmured in his last illness, I would learn from the Africans.

What would he have learned? Perhaps, like Picasso, that their ritual art served the same purpose as his, its apparent grotesqueness being an instinctive reaching into the spiritual as defence against the fears and as celebration of the joys common to humanity.

Stanley, compelled by his creative subconscious to pay service to what he saw as African instinct, but never having been to Africa (he caught sight only of its tip in the Great War when sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar) had to fall back for his imagery on shapes from relevant memory-feelings. Thus his sunburnt cracks could be from the thin layer of dried mud inside the former Cookham horse-ferry barge, beached and derelict (the same barge which, recalled in the Regatta days of his boyhood, was to recur more gloriously as Christ's pontoon in Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta.) The trenches from which the negroes rise could image the wartime trenches he knew in Macedonia - they were to re-appear in the Stand-to panel at Burghclere. The joy of touching and feeling could be recalled from his memory of the rough stones he was ordered to carry to repair a road in wartime Macedonia (illustrated at Burghclere at the altar end of the left wall frieze), the conical pile of sand echoes the one through which he ran his fingers on returning as an infantryman to the abandoned dug-out near Kalinova which he and a RAMC mate had made two years earlier, I was glad to get back to this deserted spot to a little dugout....almost filled and covered by a whitish sand that accumulated from the rocky nature of the ground there.... I felt something wonderful would happen here ...."and the redeemed shall walk there". The concept of redemption, introduced here, is significant. In these 'barrier' images he is redeeming  memories associated with times of uncreative sterility into longed-for feelings of happiness.   

Stanley and RichardIf the viewer feels that Stanley's use of wartime experiences seems incongruous in the context of the painting, perhaps it helps to appreciate that only four years had passed since they were fresh in his mind. Moreover he was frequently interrupting the painting of this picture to visit Burghclere where his chapel was under construction, and so was continually mulling in his mind the wartime memory-feelings which would comprise its imagery. It need be no surprise that some might filter into his current Resurrection, bearing in mind that, as in all his visionary cameos, it was not the memory-images which Stanley was recalling for their own sake, but the redemptive feelings he distilled from them. Thus they can recur in the adjacent cameo of the two nude males. The one on the right is Stanley, looking towards both his before-Hilda life and the light which represents the coming of his new enlightenment. The figure looking to the left, towards Stanley's life with Hilda, is her brother Richard. It is an evocative cameo.

Stanley at one point says the nudes indicate beauty through the form of the human body, the facility to appreciate beauty evidently being one of the elements creating joy for him. Not all of us see Beauty as sourced from God, as Stanley evidently did - In my Flesh I see God. But most of have notions of ideal beauty, even if in real life few of us are sure of recognizing them in ourselves.

Richard CarlineRichard was well-made, good-looking, and physically adventurous, attributes in which Stanley may have felt himself less gifted. Before the Great War, Richard had enjoyed crewing a schooner in a voyage up the Amazon and then, during the War, using his art training to map enemy lines as a Royal Flying Corps observer. It is tempting to suggest that Stanley, by amalgamating the two images, is seeing himself and Richard as a composite up-in-heaven shape, counterpointed from two complememtary personae.

If the idea sounds unorthodox, there is an item of evidence which could support it. Richard in his cameo is drawing attention to a swelling on his leg looking like a woman's breast. If it has any erotic associations, they must lie deep in Stanley's psyche. More practically, the image could derive from yet another of Stanley's wartime experiences, an abscess in his leg which in 1917 sent him down the line to hospital in Salonika. Recovered, he opened his movement order expecting to return to his former comrades only to find that he was being directed to a quite different unit. The change may not sound particularly drastic, but old soldiers - and youngsters who have to move from a school where they have friends and are happy - will know the disorientation it can cause. The sensation always greatly troubled Stanley, who resented any break in the cosiness, the peace of mind, the bird-in-the nest feelings he had established for himself in a situation.

However, in the wartime instance he was relieved to discover after the initial shock that his new unit was just as friendly and reassuring as the old one : I fitted in...and was pleased to note that families in their nice characteristics are not so dissimilar. The wartime memory-feeling could match the 'message' of the present painting in that a comparable emotional readjustment was taking place for him through his marriage with Hilda. He was finding that he fitted in to his new lifestyle and that in its nice characteristics his new Carline family life was not so dissimilar from the comforts of his own Spencers.

Stanley, one feels, is using such memory-feelings to venerate the nature or process of the transformation he is expressing. He is using a number of mini-counterpoints, so to speak, to lubricate the 'awesome' sense of the emotional movement he wishes to convey as the main 'message' of the painting. In the process, he becomes one with the other figures in his picture, no longer a detached 'bachelor' composing his picture from the outside, but an up-in-heaven, 'married', fused creator, taking part in the common universality.

Box tombs Equally unexpected are the images in the foreground of the 'centre panel' which show ambiguous male figures restraining women from climbing out of their tombs by holding their hair. Stanley's pictures seldom show violence, but when they do they usually reflect feelings of indignation on his part. He later came to regret introducing this detail into a painting celebrating joy and peace, I had in the box-shaped tombs some wicked people being prevented from getting out of the graves. Apart from the fact that I did not think there were any 'wicked' people at all, I found that the idea disturbed the genuine tranquillity of the main outlook... I would like to have altered or expunged this detail, but the deed was done, and the compositional balance would have been upset.

The fact that the struggling figures are women cannot be attributed to misogyny on Stanley's part, or to modern ideas about feminism. On the contrary, they can be seen as a reference to the many like his two sisters whose talents for literature and music were cruelly thwarted by lack of opportunity in the Victorian ethos of their years. Perhaps as sublimation, Stanley has used them to suggest the feminine side of our human nature - the creating, nurturing, 'spiritual' side - held back by the more aggressive, 'physical' demands of our masculine element. In this sense the cameos could be composites again, with the figures holding back their victims as representing those who through ignorance and the misuse of power deny to others the opportunity of fulfilling the creative spirituality of which they are capable.

Stanley's odd comment that I did not think there were any wicked people in the world must be the artist in him voicing the artist's universal right to rise above the confusions of the everyday. Wickedness in this context is seen not as the product of Original Sin nor of disobedience of the prevailing moral code, but as failure through ignorance or powerlessness to achieve those joyful resurrections into the perfectness of humanity which give us happiness in finding our down-to-earth moments successfully translated into our up-in-heaven understandings of them.

The aside by Stanley regretting inclusion of this cameo reinforces the difficulties he was having in presenting his main theme. His feelings were strong in the subtance of the matter, but once again he was not happy with the associations he had raised to depict them. One is led to the conclusion that all these central cameos show Stanley struggling to formulate strong emotions which as yet he was unable to translate into correspondingly meaningful visuals.  

Stanley was later to clarify this 'holding-back' theme in his depictions of the panels at Burghclere, several of which subtly indicate his desperation about the attitudes of his comrades, whose male nobilities and bonding he admired, but whose lack of creative instincts - and of comprehension of his ideas - he deplored. He longed to resurrect or 'redeem' the trivialities of their outlook - beer, football and the 'pictures' - into his spiritual enlightenment (and does so in the splendid Resurrection of the Soldiers there.) In a Great War letter to his parents he complained of his comrades' lack of imagination, his sentiments implying gentle gratitude for his own upbringing. His liberalist father opened his dame-school because he rejected what he saw as the inadequate teaching offered in the village National School, and Stanley followed his father in bitterly lamenting the limitations of the higher education of his day which nearly blocked his own art training. Such deprivation kept men and women from becoming aware of their full creative potential. It is wicked to think we might be able to keep a man from the Kingdom of Heaven.

The unifying image

Church porchIf Stanley's box tomb women are being wickedly held back from his Kingdom of Heaven, the reverse applies to himself in the penultimate cameo, the breathtaking group in the church porch surrounded by roses, which he describes in his film commentary, I do not know about the porch. I know that "The Roses round the door made me love the Resurrection more". I think it clinched the matter. I wanted the roses to be those little white roses with a curious scent such as grew on the porch, I think they are called "Seven Sisters". Under the roses and sitting in the porch is Christ with babies in His arms. God is behind the seat and affectionately holds his hand in Christ's hair. I feel the nude babe in Christ's arm will be content to lie there for ever.

The sentence "The Roses round the door made me love the Resurrection more" could be a piece of self-invented doggerel, or could allude to a song or saying popular at the time. The imagery itself could be an association, as there seems no evidence that the porch of Cookham church was ever as rose-bowered as he shows it. In his filmed interview Stanley grumbled to himself that in his efforts to paint the roses they got too big, everything seems to get too big with me, and those roses got too big. Their disproportion surely provides an indication of the intensity of his memory-feeling about them. If the rose image clinched the matter, it may have done so in reflection of Stanley's affinities with flowered depictions of the Virgin and Child in Italian and Northern painting (the rose is traditionally the Virgin's flower-symbol.). In their nature, their existence, their identity, the roses give the cameo the attribute of perfectness he seeks, after the manner of the roses outside the study window of transcendalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, which make no reference to former roses or to better roses; they are for what they are. They exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence..... its nature is satisfied.

Whatever the source for Stanley of the perfectness of the roses, the associative 'perfection' of the Hilda figuration took form only after the 'incoherence' of even more prolonged memory-searching. Numerous preliminary drawings show him feeling his way towards the image he finally found. In it, Stanley's material Hilda has at last been transfigured into his up-in-heaven world. She has become in her baptismal dress a Great Mother image akin to (and from his drawings no doubt derived from) religious images of the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ. In her right arm in his rendering she holds two babies, but the figure in her left arm will indubitably be content to lie there for ever. Is it not Stanley himself, reduced to the nakedness of love? Eat me, darling, let me become you, he passionately implores in one of his letters to her, in the midst of your belly I cry out my love for you.

If Stanley has become the Christ-figure in Mary's (Hilda's) lap, dare one suggest that he is also the God or Father-figure standing behind Hilda-Mary and stroking the long auburn hair he so admired? At some stage he scumbled the face, perhaps because he would have been misunderstood by pious viewers, or perhaps because Hilda objected to such apparent sacrilege. But if the image is examined in close-up, sufficient detail remains to make the notion possible, and in terms of the painting, valid.

The cameo is Stanley's climax to his picture. Hilda had finally resolved his indecision about marriage. The effect of their wedding half-way through his work on the picture was such that he was able at last to find a path through his central panels and reach the visceral source of his emotion, the 'calm' at the centre of his 'vortex'. He and Hilda had become one in the deepest spiritual sense. Love, in his special meaning, had redeemed his innate doubts about the meaning of his sexual impulses.

The prophets

Prophets Finally, along the wall of the church the line of figures which Stanley refers to as sort of prophets sit in their 'armchairs', each one rapt in thought. In fact these express, so to speak, the resurrection of thought and their gestures indicate some stage of contemplation. I wanted this peaceful thinking to be one of the most active and positive parts of the picture. It is arguable that the line of figures continues into the left 'panel' as the contemplative figure of the gentleman statue on his tomb, who serves as a similar 'frieze'. 

As usual with Stanley, the figures are based on real people. Some he identifies. 'Moses', the bearded figure towards the left of the line, protectively clutching the broken tablets of the Ten Commandments, redundant now in this new world, was based on a photograph of Jas Wood's father which Stanley saw at his house. The figure in the centre clutching his forelock (an image of himself in contemplation) echoes a habit of Richard's when he was thinking. The figure of the gentleman lying on his tomb in the continuation on the left may well be meant as the erudite and literary Jas Wood, lying on a symbolically opened book.

Why are they there? They surely suggest the men who value reason, the thinkers, the philosophers, the lawgivers, the scientists, the writers whose combined experience is enshrined in the great books they wrote and from which Stanley drew such inspiration  Do they not reflect the second aspect of Stanley's subtitle to the painting, the Instinctive and the Intellectual?

But all the figures are in baptismal dresses. Even they, the Intellectuals in Stanley's 'message', must come into harmony with the Instinctive which his painting honours. They are bathed in the light along the church wall, and several look towards it. Is it the coming of understanding? I think of light as being the holy presence, the substance of God, he told Hilda, so that everything is in part of that substance...I think all shapes and forms so love the fact of light that... in this way light influences and suggests to form what shape it should be...I think my "big pic" (this Cookham Resurrection ) is full of it. She would have understood his meaning, interpreting it as the light of understanding, of revelation, of redemption into that other world which he so ardently investigated and advocated.

Some years later Stanley was asked what the Resurrection meant to him. He replied John Donne describes the churchyard as being "the holy suburb of heaven". When it comes to why and how I came to concentrate so much on the subject of the Resurrection, I think I can explain. My wish is to reveal the meaning of things. I am aware that there is a special meaning in what I experience that I love and wish to express clearly. I begin to search for the means of doing this and this search brings me to the contemplation of the Resurrection... A sort of reciprocity begins. This life being the key to the next tells me something of the next life and causes the resurrected life to tell me more of what the resurrection in this life is like. This intercourse brings out the meaning I see in this world. In the picture the resurrection has, so to speak, partially taken place through the already perfectness of some things...The contemplation of the Resurrection throws back into this life a light which picks on this life's perfection and its special meanings that I so much love and seek.

In other words, Stanley's special meanings came to him in those unexpected - and happily frequent - ecstasies in which he achieved recognition of life's perfection. They were, so to speak, flashes of lightning which illuminated another world for him, his up-in-heaven. They were harbingers of the more perfect world - Heaven - to come. They were the core of his Cookham-feelings.  

More of what Stanley meant by this life's perfection and its special meanings that I so much love and seek becomes apparent when we study his later paintings. But at this stage, one asks who will be so bold as to challenge his magnificent use of such an archetypal paradigm as The Resurrection, the Christian symbol of man's ancient search for immortality?

The paradigm transforms the painting into a Spencerian Ode to Joy, so that Hilda becomes the Daughter of Elysium. It is a great shout of exultation, a vast antiphon in which the choir of one wing alternates in answer to the other, both resounding to the glory of the revelation which Stanley honours in the central cameo of the church porch, the whole an altar raised to the majesty of that translation into an overwhelming new enlightenment which constitutes the essence of all redemption.
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A watershed in art, one can see the painting as a hymn to the discovery of sex. If so, it is to sex in its sublimated, redemptive attributes. In painting the picture Stanley found the means to approach the metamorphosis of physical senses he had largely tried to exclude from his work till then - the sensuality of sight in the profusion of wildflowers and in his recall of Hilda's dresses, of smell in his response to Hilda with her sunflower and in the cascade of roses round the porch, of touch in the sensation of Hilda's dresses next his skin and in the instinctive pleasure of the Africans' handling of natural things, in sound in the holiday joviality of the river trippers and the trio of women talking. Only taste seems missing, and that was to be handled in later work. But never again was he to compress so much meaning into such a seminal painting.

Finished in 1926,  the picture formed the centrepiece of Stanley's first one-man exhibition a year later at William Marchant's Goupil Galleries in Regent Street. To get it there the large studio window had to be dismantled so that the painting could be lowered on ropes (the window can be seen in Henry Lamb's 1914 portrait of Lytton Strachey painted in the studio - Google, Bloomsbury Images) At the exhibition, it caused a sensation, although opinion was polarised for or against it. Through the Duveen Trust it was purchased for the Tate Gallery for £1000 (a considerable sum then), and having in time suffered some paint decomposition in the lower right as a result of steam from a kettle left boiling by Stanley on the Pither stove in his studio, there in Tate Britain it has remained since. 

Stanley's aims had been achieved. He had become a media celebrity, he had found both the emotional and the financial means to maintain a family life with Hilda, and he had honoured his metaphysical thinking in the forms of art. Later that year he left the Vale of Health and settled at Burghclere to begin work on that companion masterpiece, his Sandham Memorial Chapel.

The above interpretation uses as sources Stanley Spencer's writings and letters held in the Tate Gallery Archive, together with comments on the painting he recorded in his filmed interview. Colour reproductions are © Tate Gallery London. Family photos are by kind permission of the Stanley Spencer Estate.