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Sotheby's to offer a self-portrait of Sir Stanley Spencer as a youth painted in the year before his death
Sir Stanley Spencer, Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta: Punts by the River, oil on canvas, 1958. Est. £3,000,000 – 5,000,000. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

LONDON.- Stanley Spencer is an artist for whom the intimate and everyday was inseparable from the eternal and ineffable. His paintings transform ordinary people and familiar places, with his native village of Cookham portrayed as a Holy Land of miracles and divine intervention. Punts by the River belongs to his series ‘Christ Preaching from Cookham Regatta’, envisaged as one of six paintings to accompany his 17-foot-long centre piece of the subject that remained unfinished on his death and which now hangs at the Stanley Spencer gallery in Cookham. Having remained in the same private collection since it was acquired in 1959, the painting will go on view to the public for the first time since 1961, as part of Sotheby's Modern British Week exhibitions on Friday 8 – Tuesday 12 June 2018.

Frances Christie, Sotheby’s Head of Modern & Post-War British Art, said: “The star of this season’s Modern British art offering is a monumental painting by Stanley Spencer from his great series in which he imagined Christ coming to preach at Cookham Regatta. Inspired by the great painters of the early Italian Renaissance, Spencer’s symbolic realism is played out on a majestic scale that is nonetheless familiar as quintessentially British everyday life. We are thrilled to be presenting this work at auction for the first time, and to put it on public view for the first time since 1961.”

Early Regattas often highlighted the social distance between punters and those who were confined to the riverbank. Spencer, as the sixth son of a piano teacher from the Home Counties, had always seen the idea of renting a punt as ‘an unattainable Eden’ reserved only for the upper classes. In this self-portrait – painted in the same year that he received his knighthood – Spencer realises the tantalising desire of floating on the river. The ‘Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta’ series was part of Spencer’s ‘Church House’ project – an ambitious scheme that united all of Spencer’s most personal and visionary paintings. He imagined these work coming together in the ultimate chapel devoted to love and loss, which, after the death of his first wife Hilda in 1950, became something of an obsession. Spencer would write the departed Hilda letters on the progress he had made, continuing the correspondence until he passed away.

Spencer’s art betrays an overriding passion for his hometown, as he re-stages the New Testament within the familiar setting of a Heaven on earth. He was so deeply attached to the unassuming village by the Thames that whilst studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, he was endearingly given the nickname ‘Cookham’. Spencer was also inspired by love for the early Italian Renaissance painters. Famously, when fellow art student Mark Gertler asked Spencer what he thought of the art of Pablo Picasso, he replied: ‘I haven’t got past Piero della Francesca yet.’

This painting encapsulates all of these elements, with lavish attention to detail and texture and a radically modern treatment of form. The lively local girls are depicted as a fleshy, tangled mass of limbs, as a young – and seemingly naked – young man tries to break their cosy circle. Bearing a strong resemblance to Spencer as a youth, the pose is contorted in the manner of a saint in a Renaissance altarpiece – a hint at the divine amidst the earthly pleasures of a village festival.

Spencer lived and worked for the great majority of his life in Cookham until he died in December 1959, at the age of 78, often seen conspicuously carrying his art materials around the village in an old pram in order to paint en plein air.

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