Sir Stanley Spencer

Swan Upping at Cookham

1915–9

On display at Tate Britain

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1480 x 1162 mm
frame: 1665 x 1355 x 80 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1962
Reference
T00525

Display caption

‘Swan upping’, when the swans are marked, is an annual ritual on the Thames. Spencer said this work was inspired while he was in church and could hear people on the river outside. He explained: ‘the village seemed as much a part of the atmosphere prevalent in the church as the most holy part of the church.’ This fusion of the everyday and the divine was typical of his attitude to his Christian faith. The completion of this work was delayed by Spencer’s involvement in the First World War. He had trouble when he returned to it, as he said ‘it is not proper or sensible to expect to paint after such experience’.

Gallery label, September 2016

Catalogue entry

T00525 SWAN UPPING AT COOKHAM 1914–19

Inscr. ‘S. Spencer. 1915 1919’ on back of stretcher.
Canvas, 58 1/4×45 3/4 (148×115·5).
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1962.
Coll: Purchased by J. L. Behrend from the artist and sold by him to the Friends of the Tate Gallery through the Leicester Galleries 1962.
Exh: N.E.A.C., January 1920 (69); C.A.S., Paintings and Drawings, Grosvenor House, June–July 1923 (87); Goupil Gallery, February 1927 (82); British Institute of Adult Education, touring exhibition, A Loan Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, 1935–6; Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1939 (15); British Council, U.S.A. tour of exhibits from the Golden Gate exhibition, 1941–2; British Council, Contemporary British Art, Ottawa, 1943–4; Temple Newsam, Leeds, July–September 1947 (4); C.A.S., The Private Collector, Tate Gallery, March–April 1950 (257); Arts Council, British Life, New Burlington Galleries, May–July 1953 (52); Tate Gallery, November–December 1955 (13); Masters of British Painting 1800–1950, Museum of Modern Art, New York, October–December 1956 (95), St Louis, January–March 1957 (95), and San Francisco, March–May 1957 (95, repr. in commemorative catalogue, p.111); Cookham, May–June 1958 (6); The J. L. Behrend Collection, Leicester Galleries, May 1962 (47, repr. p.16).
Lit: Wilenski, 1924, pp.16–17, repr. pl.10; Johnson, 1932, pp.329–30, repr. p.47b; Chamot, 1937, p.73; Rothenstein, 1945, pp:10–11, repr. p.20 (in colour); James Thrall Soby, Contemporary Painters, New York, 1948, p.124, repr. p.125; Spencer, 1961, pp.112, 135, 152; Collis, 1962, pp.65, 243.
Repr: Newton, 1947, pl.6.

In August of each year officials of the Companies of Vintners and Dyers, who by Royal Licence own the swans on the River Thames, take up the young birds for marking, hence swan-upping or swan-hopping.

This painting which shows the swans being brought ashore in carpenters' bags outside Turk's Boat House near the Ferry Hotel, Cookham, was partly thought out in church where the artist could hear boats being hauled in and out of the river and the sound of oars. In this way, projecting his mind down the river, he imagined the scene as something very wonderful; it was also linked to a religious background. He made no studies by the river as he did not wish to be dominated by outside influences. He painted a small study now in the Behrend Collection; then looked at the place afterwards. The two women in the Tate painting were daughters of the proprietor of the Crown Hotel.

The painting was begun in 1914–15 when approximately the top two-thirds was done; the remainder was finished in 1919 after demobilization.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II