Garden Path, Cookham Rise oil on canvas 76.2 x 50.8 cm. (30 x 20 in.) Painted in 1949
PROVENANCE: Purchased for £250 by Thomas Lawrence Dale, RIBA, from the 1950 Royal Academy exhibition Thence by family descent
EXHIBITED: London, The Royal Academy of Arts, The Exhibition of the Royal Academy of the Arts, 29 April-7 August 1950, cat.no.66; this exhibition traveled to Huddersfield, Halesowen, Burnley, Swindon, West Hartlepool and Newport, Wales entitled A Selection from the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 1950, 1950-1951
LITERATURE: Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer; A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, Phaidon Press Ltd., London, 1992, p.484, cat.no.343 (ill.b&w)
Created in 1949, Garden Path, Cookham Rise was exhibited the following year at the Royal Academy where it was purchased for 250 pounds -- 50 pounds over the asking price. This was among the highest prices realized to that date for a Spencer landscape of this size, probably reflecting his dealer, Dudley Tooth's, estimation of the work as one of the finest views painted by the artist in the post-war years. The valuation may also have reflected Spencer's burgeoning reputation. Not only had he rejoined the Royal Academy in 1950 (he had briefly been an associate member from 1932-35 but resigned over a disagreement with the hanging committee), he was then immediately elected RA, as well as being created CBE. Tooth no doubt saw an ideal opportunity to take advantage of the artist's newly enhanced standing in the British art world.
The present work foregrounds a close-up view of a gate and sign, followed by a steep recession along the flower-lined garden path, a compositional format first developed by Spencer in the late 1920s in paintings like The Tarry Stone, Cookham, 1929, and perfected during the following years in a whole series of fine urban landscapes, such as Swiss Skittle Alley: Saas Fee, 1933; Gardens in the Pound, Cookham, 1936 (Leeds Art Gallery); and The Jubilee Tree, Cookham, 1936 (Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario).
Spencer had begun making dedicated landscape studies as early as 1906, when he made drawings of Cookham (Liza's Cottage and Swift's Cottage) and the surrounding neighbourhood (Widbroke Common and Cockmarsh from the Hill, 1906-7). Sites in Cookham also provided settings for his early figure paintings, notably Two Girls and a Beehive, 1910; The Nativity, 1912 (University of London); and Zacharias and Elizabeth, this last painted from the staircase window of "Wisteria Cottage" looking towards Cliveden Woods. From then on, he painted village scenes whenever possible, the present painting being one of a series of such works produced after he completed his Shipbuilding on the Clyde series for the War Artists Advisory Committee in 1946.
Spencer frequently complained that most people preferred his landscape paintings to his figurative works, particularly after 1932 when he began work on the "Church House" narrative subjects, which occupied much of his attention for the remainder of his life. These paintings, with their preoccupation with a very personal conception of sex and religion, were, as Dudley Tooth remarked, "difficult" and therefore slow to sell and then only at comparatively poor prices. As early as 1920, Spencer had come to the realization "that [in order] to earn I had to do them [landscapes] (Spencer note book, Tate Gallery Archives). Spencer was probably reacting to the quick purchase by his Burclere Chapel patrons, the Behrends, of three Dorset landscapes and other similar sales. In 1922, he joined the Carline family on a landscape painting trip to Yugoslavia and, thenceforth, he supplemented his Cookham landscapes with new subjects from other parts of Britain. The economic burden of a wife and children after 1925, followed by the financially disastrous preoccupation with Patricia Preece, whom he married in 1937, led to an increased reliance on landscape sales, pressed upon him by Dudley Tooth.
Tooth was prepared to promote the figure paintings, but in exchange he required a steady supply of landscapes, encouraging Spencer with reports of eager clients and good prices. By 1938, Spencer was so far in debt that he rushed to complete nineteen still-life and landscape paintings between February and August of that year. It was not until after the war that financial pressures eased somewhat and Spencer was able to take more time over the landscapes, producing a series of superb paintings, especially of Cookham, among which The Garden Path, Cookham is a particularly fine example.
Spencer's complaints about the pressures of producing landscape paintings were understandable, but his objections to expending "herculean labour" (letter to Tooth, 1936) on such works were often tempered by cheerful accounts of periods when time was not an issue and the weather was fine. Writing again to Tooth on 26 May 1943, Spencer reported: "I am tucked away in a deserted corner of a Cookham meadow where there is much may tree and stinging nettle and wild flowers. One of the may trees was dying off when I got to it so of course it is that colour in the painting." Spencer's frequent practice of adding new flowers and foliage as they appeared and overpainting the dead ones probably also occurred during the creation of The Garden Path, as his painstaking observation of detail meant that the picture undoubtedly took several months to complete.
Although virtually all the exhibitions of Spencer's work contained at least some landscape and still-life subjects, reviewers tended to focus attention on the figurative works. Thus, Anthony Blunt in The Spectator (11.7.36) commented disparagingly of the landscapes in Spencer's first exhibition at Tooths that they were fillers "which seem to be included to show he can paint prettily if he wants to." Others, however, were much more positive, including the critic who covered the same show for the Scotsman (2:7:36):
"Personally I think Spencer is in the tradition of British Pre-Raphaelitism...the poetic naturalistic kind of Hunt, Brown and the young Millais. Spencer paints landscape as they did, not so minutely of course, but with the same prodigious delight in all the facts of nature for their own sake. He loves to paint nettles and grasses leaf by leaf, blade by blade, as they did. He loves it all too much to leave anything out."
Spencer, for his own part, when not under pressure to produce, was willing to be more reflective about his landscapes, telling his friend and confidant Desmond Chute in 1927:
"This stinging nettle one [Stinging Nettles, painted at Wangford, Suffolk] is more imaginative as a composition [than some other paintings]. I had real feelings about it and something is growing in me as a result of having painted it, this last fact is what has made me feel that my desire to be able to paint a landscape is not without reason."
We are grateful to Professor Keith Bell for compiling this catalogue entry.