The Resurrection is a recurring theme in the art of Stanley Spencer. His most famous depiction of the subject is the enormous canvas (274.3 cm × 548.6 cm) The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-1927), that was exhibited in 1927 as part of Spencer’s first one-man show at the Groupil Gallery in London. Years earlier, while staying with fellow painter Henry Lamb in Pool in 1922-1923, he created a detailed drawing of the composition and subsequently worked on the painting in Lamb’s studio in London. The painting received great acclaim and The Times stated it was “the most important picture painted by any English artist in the present century”. It was immediately purchased by Lord Duveen for Tate’s permanent collection, where it remains today.
The setting of The Resurrection, Cookham is the Cookham churchyard with the river Thames in the background. Spencer spent most of his life in Cookham and developed a special connection to the village, which he referred to as ‘a suburb of heaven’. In his religious paintings, Spencer combined the heavenly and the earthly. In The Resurrection, Cookham, mundane people are rising from their graves, they are not reborn as celestial creatures but are entering an earthly version of heaven – the village of Cookham.
The Resurrection, Cookham depicts biblical figures alongside the artist’s friends, neighbors, and family. God the Father and Christ are overseeing the event on the Church porch, and near them are prophets and thinkers like Moses. The dead are seen struggling to emerge from the graves and are led to the corners of their tombs. Spencer explored this motif in an earlier pair of paintings The Resurrection of the Good and Bad (1913): “…when I did the first biggish paintings of “The Resurrection”, in 1913, the punishment of the Bad was to be no more than that coming out of the graves was not so easy as in the case of the Good.”
In The Resurrection, Cookham, the scene is populated by both black and white figures, to give the work a more universal quality. The black figures, however, were not based on individuals, and they served a symbolic purpose for the artist. Across the composition, people are engaged in a variety of activities: peacefully lying on the graves, reading the tombstones, and dusting each other off from the dirt. These small intimate acts were significant for Spencer: the act of dusting each other’s clothes reminded the artist of his mother preparing his father for a trip to London. Similarly, the figures help spruce each other up, wanting to look their best when entering paradise. Spencer also included himself in the scene, he is seen beneath the porch, naked looking over to the side while reclining on a tombstone. His first wife Hilda appears in the painting three times: in the overgrown grave in the foreground, smelling a flower on the left, and in the distance, she is climbing steps that lead to the river. For Spencer, The Resurrection: Cookham depicted a blissful awakening, that symbolized joy, optimism, and love.