Rediscovered sketchbook to give new insight into Stanley Spencer

James Harrison

James Harrison

Rediscovered sketchbook to give new insight into Stanley Spencer

Pictures courtesy of the Spencer family

A newly rediscovered sketchbook is set to give a new generation of art lovers a fresh insight into the mind and talent of one of Britain’s greatest artists.

The journal, thought to contain some of the earliest work of late Cookham painter Sir Stanley Spencer, is due to go on display at a new exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield gallery, in West Yorkshire, titled Stanley Spencer: Of Angels and Dirt.

The artefact was uncovered by the art centre’s curator, Eleanor Clayton, on a research visit to the Spencer family home, in London.

Dated to 1907, when Spencer was a teenager growing up in Cookham and studying art at the Maidenhead Technical Institute, it contains some of his first sketches, including imaginings of childhood stories and nursery rhymes, such as the Pied Piper of Hamlin and Old Mother Goose, and even a short story.

Speaking about the find, she said: “It’s fascinating to see, even at the age of 15-and-a-half, Spencer’s love of the Cookham landscape in detailed depictions of local flora and fauna, as well as his eccentric imagination, through fantastical images of guards riding on giant snails with the caption ‘patience is a virtue’, mermaids and characters from fairy tales.”

The book will form a focal point of the exhibition, which brings together about 70 pieces, spanning a 45-year career, in what is thought to be the first major retrospective on Spencer’s portfolio for about 15 years.

Described as a ‘prolific writer’, the artist often claimed his paintings were incomprehensible without reference to his diaries and autobiography, fragments of which will also be shown alongside the sketchbook.

Although known for his association with Cookham, Spencer also had a long association with West Yorkshire, regularly holidaying in Halifax during the 1920s.

And it’s a relationship the Stanley Spencer Gallery, in Cookham High Street, has been keen to strengthen, with a loan of 15 pictures for the duration of the exhibition to the Hepworth Wakefield.

Speaking about the exchange, Stuart Conlin, chairman of the gallery’s trustees since 2009, said: “It’s a very significant contribution to their exhibition – some of the jewels in the crown of our collection.

“We've also given them a lot of our expertise and advice and they’ve been down to look at our archives.

“But we get a lot out of it as well. We’re here to promote the memory and the legacy of Stanley Spencer and by reaching out we’re able to get that to a new audience.”

And although it’s a part of the world more associated with the likes of David Hockney and Barbara Hepworth, after whom the gallery is named, he is convinced the exhibition will be a success.

“There’s something for everyone in Spencer’s art,” he added.

Stanley Spencer: Of Angels and Dirt opens at the Hepworth Wakefield gallery, in Wakefield, on June 24. Visit


June 30, 1891 – Stanley Spencer born in Fernlea, Cookham High Street
1907 – Studied art at Maidenhead Technical Institute
1908-12 – Student at the Slade School of Art, in London, where he was nicknamed Cookham
1915-18 – Served in the First World War, originally with the Royal Army Medical Corps
1920 – Painted the Last Supper, one of his most famous works
February, 1925 – Married the artist Hilda Carline
November, 1925 – First daughter, Shirin, born
May, 1930 – Second daughter, Unity, born
1932 – Elected an associate of the Royal Academy
1937 – Divorced by Hilda and marries Patricia Preece
1959 – Received a knighthood and died at the Canadian Memorial Hospital, in Cliveden


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