Bringing Stanley back to life: anthology of poets inspired by Spencer's art

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To Cookham Dean village hall in Berkshire on Friday night, for the Stanley Spencer poetry competition anthology reading. The hall was packed with more than 30 poets waiting their turn to read – around half of the number that were longlisted and published in the anthology, from over 250 entries.

Many of the poems, as you might expect, were ekphrastic – inspired by Spencer’s remarkable paintings, many of which immortalised his Home Counties surroundings, linking Cookham to Biblical scenes. Others looked at the artist’s frank interest in sex, and some reflected his wartime service. In some respects it makes the anthology resemble an art catalogue, albeit without the paintings themselves, with titles like ‘Christ in the Wilderness’, ‘Double Nude Portrait 1937’, ‘The Resurrection, Cookham’, and ‘Hilda, Unity, and Dolls’. Its introduction by Peter Robinson, one of the three judges, and poetry editor at Reading’s Two Rivers Press, says: “The great justification for these kinds of poems must be this: since the works that inspire them are eloquently silent, in their giving voice to a painting’s appearance and significance, they can draw out more explicitly its themes and implications.”

He also points out that although “Cookham predominates, and a number of the writers evidently visiting the Stanley Spencer Gallery before composing their entries, inspiration has been drawn from a great many aspects of the artist’s life and work”.

So we had ‘Don’t those background figures look like cricketers?’ by Michael Bartholomew-Biggs, conjuring up “that July when war stopped play”, and based on Spencer’s painting Unveiling a War Memorial at Cookham (1921). This was immediately followed at the reading by Denise Bennett’s ‘Shrines’, written in the voice of Spencer, who was posted to Macedonia as a medical orderly in the first world war, and is after the painting Washing Lockers. Giles Goodland’s poem ‘Spencer, Private no. 40812, C Company’ places him in the same location, while Gill Learner’s ‘A long way from home’ finds him on the Clyde in the second world war, painting shipyard workers as a war artist.

Jim Campbell’s ‘An Incident in Cookham Churchyard’ begins thus: “At first and last it seems quite ordinary, / as though upheavals such as this occur / on many Friday afternoons in June”. Tony Lucas goes further with the same painting, The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-7), saying that


     My wayward aunt, who claimed to be his cousin,

     once confided that this picture caused

     some scandal in the village. Stanley had shown

     couples rising up, embracing the wrong partners,

     hinting at local gossip, known affairs.


Naughty, Stanley. Andy Draper’s poem ‘Double Nude Portrait 1937’, a painting also known sometimes as Leg of Mutton Nude because of the inclusion of a joint of meat, is about Spencer’s explicit painting of himself and his second wife Patricia. The poem has Spencer poring over the painting’s “unresponsive bodies”, and thinking back to his war service, too.  

Maeve Henry’s ‘Two PaIntings of Hilda Carline’ foreshadows the difficult life and tensions Spencer had with his first wife Hilda as early as their wedding, when in the picture “Stanley has painted himself pulling her chair away”. ‘Hilda, Unity and Dolls’, by Jean Watkins, based on Spencer’s 1937 painting, talks of Hilda being depicted “as though he knew, not knowing, that her apathy / came not from cussedness but illness”. Watkins’ concluding comments about the dolls will also delight those in the biographical know.   

Other themes and places visited included Spencer’s work at the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, Hampshire, in poems such as Karen Izod’s ‘Just a minor detail’ – a title that recalls Spencer’s overriding interest in detail, that irritated some in the art world.   

This competition and its £2,500 first prize was launched last year by the area’s local MP Theresa May, when she was still home secretary, as a way of marking the Cookham festival’s 50th anniversary. At the end of Friday’s reading a shortlist of 12 poems was announced, with the winners to be unveiled this coming Friday at the Stanley Spencer gallery in Cookham.

Last Friday’s reading included a few moments of silence at the beginning to mark the death of Oxford-based poet Helen Kidd last month, whose poem ‘Blue Doughnut Annunciation’ is included in the anthology, and whose funeral had been held earlier the same day. Her poem was read by her friend Rip Bulkeley.

Maybe the last words in this review should go to Stanley Spencer himself. ‘Deletions, Dear Desmond (August 1916)’ was written by Shez-Courtenay-Smith, custodian of the Stanley Spencer Gallery. Or rather, it wasn’t. She explained that the poem represented the “distillation” of a letter by Spencer to his friend Desmond Chute, with “nothing added, nothing changed, just some things taken out”. The letter refers to Cookham Moor on a Tuesday afternoon, the blacksmith’s shop and malt houses, children singing in the school, the milk cart, and the butcher’s - all the details that he loved. And Spencer, who resigned from the Royal Academy in the 1930s after some of his pictures were rejected, and who was knighted in 1959, might have smiled - at the fact that his words didn’t make the final poetry shortlist.   

Greg Freeman


Stanley Spencer Poems An Anthology, ed. by Peter Robinson, Jane Draycott and Carolyn Leder, Two Rivers Press, £9.99


Pictures from the reading 





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Greg Freeman

Tue 16th May 2017 11:59

Cheers, Colin! It's an excellent anthology, if anyone feels like parting with a tenner. Spencer was a fascinating character, embedded in his community, painting out of doors and happy to discuss his pictures with passers-by. I went along to the reading because I was sure that it would make an interesting piece - glad that you thought so, too.

<Deleted User> (13762)

Tue 16th May 2017 10:19

Your article Greg brought back memories of visiting Cookham and nearby Cliveden many years ago. I remember visiting the gallery but only very vaguely. My grandparents (as featured in a recent poem) had splashed out in their retirement on a static caravan and boat on the Thames near Marlow. For a few years we enjoyed pretending we had more money than we did but my enduring memories are of quaint villages, kingfishers and messing about on the river.

Spencer's figures often put me in mind of Beryl Cook's but maybe his fans wouldn't appreciate that comparison. We have had several examples of ekphrastic poetry on WoL in the recent past. I have to admit it wasn't a term I had previously come across although combining art and poetry seems such an obvious path of inspiration.

Thanks for this and all your other articles that you take so much time and trouble over. I hope you have some secret counter that lets you know how many people are reading them as they do deserve reading.


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