Sir Stanley Spencer

Swan Upping at Cookham


Not on display

Sir Stanley Spencer 1891–1959
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1480 × 1162 mm
frame: 1665 × 1355 × 80 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1962

Display caption

This painting shows an annual ritual on the Thames that continues to this day. Unmarked swans on the river belong to the British Crown. Those owned by two guilds, the Companies of Vintners and Dyers, are marked in a ‘swan upping’ ceremony every year. Here the swans are being brought ashore at Cookham. Spencer said he was inspired to make this work while he was in church and could hear people on the river outside: ‘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.

Gallery label, October 2020

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Catalogue entry


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

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