Sir Stanley Spencer

Christ Carrying the Cross


Not on display

Sir Stanley Spencer 1891–1959
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1530 × 1429 mm
frame: 1777 × 1670 × 68 mm
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1925

Display caption

Here Spencer depicts a scene from the end of Christ’s life taking place in his own hometown. In the biblical account, Christ carries the cross through Jerusalem, but Spencer sets the scene in the English village of Cookham. Spencer believed that religious feeling was present in everyday settings and events. This painting was partly inspired by watching builders carrying ladders down a Cookham street. These figures are present in the painting, following behind Christ. The Virgin Mary sits by a railing in the foreground. The brick house is the artist’s family home.

Gallery label, October 2020

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Catalogue entry


Not inscribed.
Canvas, 60 1/4×56 1/4 (153×143).
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1925.
Coll: Purchased by the C.A.S. from the artist through the Grosvenor Galleries 1921.
Exh: Nameless Exhibition, Grosvenor Galleries, June 1921 (19); C.A.S., Paintings and Drawings, Grosvenor House, June–July 1923 (122); Tate Gallery, November–December 1955 (17).
Lit: Wilenski, 1924, pp.27–8, repr. pl.15; Johnson, 1932, p.331; Wilenski, 1933, pp.284–5, repr. pl.131; Chamot, 1937, p.74; A. Bertram, A Century of British Painting, 1851–1951, 1951, p.105, repr. p.190 (in colour); Spencer, 1961, pp.158, 167; Collis, 1962, pp.20, 25, 68–9, 243.
Repr: Rothenstein, 1945, pl.14; Newton, 1947, pl.3 (in colour).

Painted in 1920 whilst the artist was staying with Sir Henry Slesser and his family at Corner-ways, Bourne End, Buckinghamshire, the idea for this picture was partly suggested by a newspaper report of Queen Victoria's funeral recounted by Sir Henry. A sentence, which ran somewhat as follows, ‘Women publicly wept, and strong men broke down in side streets’, suggested that in that more tragic circumstance the Virgin might have passed into a side street to be unobserved. The house is the artist's in Cookham and the ivy-covered cottage is his grandmother's. The Virgin is in the foreground. When he was thinking of the picture and wishing it would come into the light of day the artist saw builder's men go past carrying ladders and this seemed one part of the ‘fact’ of Christ Carrying the Cross. His feeling was one not of sadness but of joy. ‘It was joy and all the common everyday occurrences in the village were re-assuring, comforting occurrences of that joy.... I had as a child no thought than that Christ had made everything wonderful and glorious and that I might be able later on to join in that glory.’

The artist described to the compiler in conversations and letters at the time of the Tate Gallery exhibition in 1955 how the painting underwent various changes in composition. ‘The movement of the way to Calvary passes from the right to the left. Rather the movement of a breaker approaching a shore... The Cross as far as its position in the picture is concerned is right enough, but I still feel it a pity that I failed to arrive at the notion I hoped for. I had made several drawing attempts of the Cross and disciples ranged somewhat procession-wise either side of it, some of the soldiers helping in the carrying of the Cross,...some escorting them.’ This idea was considerably modified to obtain greater clarity of composition.

The action is partly inspired by childhood scenes of Cookham life. ‘As youths we stood with other village youths in a gate opposite our house (“Fernlea”) and watched the people go by on Sundays and in evenings... The window of the ivy-covered cottage (“Belmont”) is associated in my mind with my liking to be up in a large yew tree from which I could survey the worlds not only of our own garden but other gardens beyond, and also from liking to stick small branching springs of Yew in the cracks of the nursery floor, making a small forest of trees over the floor and cutting out cardboard figures and putting them up in these trees.’

A pencil and sepia wash working drawing for this composition (14 1/2×13 3/8 in.) was lent by Richard Carline to the Arts Council's Drawings by Stanley Spencer exhibition, 1955 (25), and was acquired by Carline from the Goupil Gallery exhibition, 1927 (15). Another drawing (10×9 in.), showing a detail of the house on the left, was presented by G. G. Shiel to the Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham, and is reproduced in that gallery's exhibition catalogue, summer 1963 (27).

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


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