Stanley Spencer painted the present work in 1938 shortly before he left Cookham and shortly after his estranged wife, Patricia Preece, decided to sell 'Lindworth', the house he had made over to her some time earlier. Faced with large debts incurred during his courtship of Patricia, as well as ongoing maintenance payments and support for his daughters from his first marriage, Shirin and Unity, Spencer was compelled to produce as many paintings as possible to pay off his expenses. Encouraged by his dealer, Dudley Tooth, the artist chose to reserve his winters for figurative painting (which were considered 'difficult' and hard to sell) and to dedicate his summers to painting landscapes which were easier to place and fetched higher prices.
A notebook entry made by Spencer in 1936 gives an indication of the pressure he was under to produce, particularly as Tooth often had clients lining up for yet-to-be-completed paintings:
'In a weeks time I will finish Tree landscape. Aug 15 - Sept 10. I will in the morning do a big view, and in afternoon do the Cookham Rise Cottages now just begun. Then I will do Odney Club with leaves turning in the morning and view from Mr Wiggs in afternoon and the ducks in the yard when I can.' (Tate Gallery Archives, TA 733.3.39,231).
Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that a few of the paintings produced during this period show signs of the rush. For the most part, however, the landscapes and garden scenes are of a remarkably high quality, and this is demonstrably true of The Bridle Path, Cookham. While Spencer frequently complained to Tooth that he found landscape work less satisfying than his imaginative, figurative work, it is clear that he often found pleasure in setting up his easel and addressing the subject before him. In a letter dated 17 November 1927, he described these unexpected rewards to his friend Desmond Chute:
'This stinging nettle one [Stinging Nettles, painted at Wangford, Suffolk] is more imaginative as a composition [than some of his 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 some reason.'
Spencer described his special feelings for the landscapes of Cookham in a letter written while on war service in Salonika in 1916. Imagining how he might feel returning home after the war, he described the scene that opened in his mind's eye:
'Then I get up and look out of the dining room window down our garden and over the gardens on either side of us and over a big orchard at the bottom of the gardens on either side of us and over a big orchard at the bottom of the garden but I am more particularly looking at the yew tree which is framed by the walnut tree forming the background. The fir tree has many apertures, openings which greatly excites [sic] my imagination. They all seem holy and secret.'
In practice, however, the 'holy' gardens of Cookham turned out to present some very down-to-earth frustrations as an artistic subject, as Spencer revealed in an amusing letter written to Dudley Tooth on 26 May 1943:
'In my landscape, I am tucked away in a deserted corner of a Cookham meadow where there is a maytree, stinging nettles and wild flowers. One of these maytrees was dying off when I got to it, so of course, needless to say, soon after I started, the place was visited by men who are dashing all over the place in queer shaped vehicles [a military exercise], but my plot is still alright. As soon as they were gone, I thought 'now all is quiet' but when I went up yesterday, I listened and paused on my way there; whence cometh then this bleating in my ear? As a grim visaged Samuel I approached. The vast field was white in the sun with sheep and lambs.'
In addition to providing inspiration for a number of fine landscapes, Cookham was also the setting for many of Spencer's most important figurative paintings, beginning with The Nativity (1912, Slade School of Fine Art), which features a view in the direction of Sir George Young's estate, and continuing through Love on the Moor (completed 1954, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum), a site which was also the subject of a landscape, Cookham Moor (1937, City of Manchester Art Galleries). Indeed, after the completion of the Sandham Memorial paintings at Burghclere, Spencer deliberately set out to 'marry' his deep attachment to Cookham with his new, adult feelings on love in a series of narrative paintings intended for display in a special building to be called the Church House. While the building (which was never realized) was not meant to include pure landscapes, Spencer's intense feelings for the village and the surrounding countryside meant that he took great care in painting them.
Unlike the busy figure paintings, the landscapes are devoid of people and invite the viewer to concentrate on experiencing the pleasure of the place without distraction. In The Bridle Path, Cookham, Spencer used approximately the same size and format he had employed for a series of important landscapes painted in circa 1930-31. In Cottages at Burghclere, for example, he perfected the combination of human settlement with a profusion of plant-life that seems about to overwhelm it. The Burghclere painting was a great critical success, and the work was immediately acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and subsequently included in almost all the major Spencer exhibitions. As in the Burghclere painting, the foreground of The Bridle Path, Cookham is closely observed with every plant or post sharply delineated, so that the viewer has a sense of experiencing the same intimate observation of place as the artist, planted comfortably among the greenery with his easel and paints. As the critic for the Scotsman remarked of the landscapes in Spencer's one-man exhibition at Tooth's in 1936:
'Spencer paints landscape as they [the Pre-Raphaelites Hunt, Brown and Millais] 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.'
We are very grateful to Professor Keith Bell for preparing this catalogue entry.
In a letter to Stanley Spencer on 14 July 1938 Arthur Tooth wrote, 'Your last canvas 'The bridle path to Cookham' is, in our opinion, one of the best you have painted, and we shall have no difficulty in finding a good home for it' (Tate Archives, 733.4.5).
The Bridle Path is off Long Lane in Cookham Dean, looking down towards Maidenhead, visible in the present work on the right and Windsor in the further distance on the left. Windsor Castle is visible towards the left of the painting's edge. The track is still a public bridleway today. Spencer painted another work in this location, titled The Sabbath Breakers, 1952 (private collection) in which the bridle path is just visible in the upper left of the picture, in the junction of ploughed land and crops.
We are very grateful to Carolyn Leder for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.
In the 1963 Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue, the owner of the present picture, Thelma Cazalet-Keir, comments, 'I have never been able to draw a straight line, or for that matter a crooked one, but because I have loved paintings, I have loved collecting them for a very long time'.