Illustrated companion

The vision of Stanley Spencer was formed by his early life in the village of Cookham-on-Thames, not far from London. Here he spent a childhood and youth of such unalloyed happiness that it appeared to him that the village must be a kind of paradise and everything in it possessed of mystical significance. This led him in the early part of his career particularly, to paint a series of pictures in which he imagined biblical events taking place in his native village, interwoven with his own feelings and the events of his own life. This painting is the largest and most complex of these and marks the climax of this phase of his art. The resurrection is one of the most challenging of all traditional Bible subjects but Spencer, by the power of his personal approach, has created a triumphant masterpiece. The picture created a sensation when shown in his one-man exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in London in 1927 and was bought immediately for the national collections for one thousand pounds. The critic of The Times called it '... the most important picture painted by any English artist in the present century ...' and even the Bloomsbury critic Roger Fry, who generally disapproved of narrative painting, wrote 'it is highly arresting and intriguing ... a very personal conception carried through with unfailing nerve and conviction.'

The setting is Cookham Churchyard with the River Thames in the background. Christ, with children in his arms, appears enthroned in the church doorway in the centre of the painting, with God the Father leaning over the back of the throne. Along the wall of the church is a row of prophets including Moses, with a dark beard, holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The rest of the churchyard is filled with people resurrecting from their tombs. The group of black people emerging from sun-baked soil implies that Spencer's conception embraces the whole of humanity. Spencer made it clear that his Resurrection was a joyous event and that the resurrected are already in Heaven: '... in the main they resurrect to such a state of joy that they are content ... to remain where they are.' Even 'the punishment of the Bad', said Spencer, 'was to be no more than that their coming out of the graves was not so easy as in the case of the Good'.

'The Resurrection, Cookham' was painted at a turning point in Spencer's life, as it was started about a year before his marriage, in February 1925, to the painter Hilda Carline; the painting contains strong autobiographical elements, whose precise significance remains a mystery. The central nude figure supporting himself on two gravestones is Spencer himself, as is the clothed figure lying on the brick tombs in the lower right corner. The kneeling nude figure is his new brother-in-law the painter Richard Carline. Hilda Carline appears at least three times: most notably, she is the half-hidden figure in a striped dress in the ivy covered tomb in the centre foreground, surrounded by a spiked fence. She is thus contained in a protective bower but is directly linked by the line of her body, and by proximity, to her brother and husband.

Spencer returned to the Resurrection theme in 1947-50 when he painted 'The Resurrection: Port Glasgow', also in the Tate Gallery [N05961].

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.137