During the years immediately following the Second World War, Spencer worked hard to complete two large painting series: Shipbuilding on the Clyde, his official war artist's commission, and the Port Glasgow Resurrection Series, inspired by the graveyard above the town of Port Glasgow. Both series were greeted with critical acclaim, and Spencer's reputation, which had declined during the immediate pre- war period, was elevated to the extent that in 1950, he was created a C.B.E. and (having rejoined the Royal Academy) elected R.A. He was knighted in 1958. Meanwhile, retrospective exhibitions of his work were mounted at Temple Newsam in Leeds in 1947 and at the Tate Gallery in 1955. Sales of his paintings, skillfully promoted by his dealer, Dudley Tooth, increased in lock-step with his rising reputation, and his formerly precarious financial situation improved considerably. Spencer was able to return permanently to Cookham, where he was greeted as a great artist and celebrity by a community that, before the war, had sometimes treated him as a social outcast.
Given these more settled circumstances, Spencer was able to reinstate Cookham as the principal subject of his painting and return to his Church House scheme. This was a highly ambitious program of paintings, begun in the early 1930s and more or less abandoned during the war, that depicted the village and its inhabitants in the days after the Resurrection. Inspired by the success of his paintings for the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere (1926-32), Spencer hoped to bring his Cookham paintings together in a similar manner in a labyrinthine building - the eponymous Church House - to be constructed in Cookham. In this way, all the related Cookham paintings might be kept together as a coherent whole, rather than dispersed to various collectors. While such a project was never really viable (there was no possibility of a patron like the Behrends at Burghclere), the idea was vivid enough in Spencer's imagination to keep him engaged in the project for the remainder of his life.
As Spencer had conceived it before the war, the Church House was a complex project, with numerous painting series clearly set out. By the time he returned to thisplan, a few of the paintings existed as completed works, with the remainder as preparatory drawings. To this opus, the artist now proceeded to add another series, featuring Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta. The present painting is among its number. The idea for the series had first occurred to Spencer in the late twenties, when he made a small drawing of Christ preaching from the horse ferry barge, sitting out in the Thames, surrounded by punts filled with elegantly dressed visitors to the regatta. Spencer deemed this drawing 'not satisfactory' and only returned briefly to the idea in 1938 when he made a number of further studies. These in turn were left unrealised, until 1949, when he finally began painting, selecting scenes from a series of sixty-eight red conté studies of the regatta.
Initially, Spencer probably intended the Regatta paintings to consist of a large central 'altarpiece', showing Christ preaching, surrounded by a predella of smaller paintings - a format he had recently used for the Shipbuilding on the Clyde series. In the event, Spencer abandoned the idea of a unified scheme and settled instead for a limited number of scenes of various shapes and sizes which were sold separately at his dealer's urging. Only one painting, the big, unfinished Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta, retained some of the original cohesive intention. In this respect, Christ Preaching is similar to another large, incomplete narrative painting, Hampstead Heath, Litter, which - though it may seem at first to be simply over-ambitious - was actually a serious attempt to preserve the most important elements of an indivisible vision.
The Regatta series fitted easily into the notion of the Church House, since it placed the celebration of the Resurrection in the context of Cookham Regatta. Here we see the villagers and visitors down from London for the day listening as Christ preaches from the horse ferry barge on the Last Day. The present work is one of three paintings (the others being Listening from Punts, 1954, and Punts Meeting, 1953) that depict the onlookers on the river; the other paintings in the series (Girls Listening, 1953, and Dinner on the Hotel Lawn, 1957) show the activities on the riverbank. Spencer probably chose these subjects as a representative selection of scenes from the sixty-eight drawings, which, if brought together, would provide an abbreviated notion of his original idea.
Conversation Between Punts is the only painting in the series which is vertical in format, with the punts and their occupants filling the entire composition. This is the most accomplished of the punting paintings, with the figures fitting comfortably into the forms of the boats, in a similar way to the shipyard workers who nestle among the sections of the partially built ships of the Shipbuilding on the Clyde series (Imperial War Museum, London) of a few years earlier.
In the smaller paintings in the Regatta scheme, Spencer effectively ignored the religious aspects of the big, unfinished Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta, concentrating instead on creating the atmosphere and appearance of his Edwardian childhood. As Spencer's brother, Gilbert, recalled in his memoir, those early Regattas always highlighted the social distance between the punters and those confined to the riverbank: 'The Regatta always emphasised class distinctions ... those on the river collected themselves according to rank, and floated about together, holding onto one another's boats and punts, looking like gay floating islands' (V. Gollancz, Stanley Spencer, 1961, p. 85). Stanley Spencer himself recalled that he could not afford a punt and could only watch the festivities from the sidelines. Consequently, the idea of going on the river remained a tantalising desire that could only be fulfilled through his paintings.
The late Mrs Audrey Burton, O.B.E., and her husband Stanley were keen philanthropists who dedicated their lives to the funding of the arts. Mrs Burton, a graduate from the Plymouth School of Art and talented needle worker and interior designer, was instrumental in the establishment of Modern British art in Leeds. In 1970 the Burtons aided the founding of the Leeds University Art Gallery, funding the acquisition of many remarkable works and introducing them to names such as Sir Stanley Spencer and William Scott. After Stanley Burton's death in 1991 Audrey continued to support the project and in 2008 gave the art collection a dedicated space, with all the specialist facilities, where one could view the works. Always an advocate for the education of the arts Audrey wanted to see more of the collection on permanent display where it could be accessible to all. Transformed and enhanced, the gallery was re-launched as The Stanley and Audrey Burton gallery in March 2008 and within ten months of re-opening, visitors had doubled all previous annual records. Audrey immersed herself in the organisation of the first exhibition in the new Gallery, giving further items from her collection, including Patrick Heron's Images in Red, painted in 1958. Following her death, the Trustees of her estate have presented the gallery with a further group of pictures, which included works by Terry Frost and Ivon Hitchens. Audrey's quiet acts of charity and generosity have left a lasting legacy for Leeds University Art Gallery and have provided people with a rich education of Modern British art. The present work was undoubtedly the centrepiece of her collection.
We are very grateful to Professor Keith Bell for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.