after Stanley Spencer’s paintings: ‘Christ in Cookham (Christ calling his disciples)’ & ‘Christ in the Wilderness’
by Phillip Hall
I am again reading some apocryphal gospels on gallery walls, searching for Stanley’s traces of a kind and wonderful fool amidst all this twenty-first century’s muscular christianity: For Stanley, the Cookham twelve are belligerent players, their cross-armed biceps bullying a child’s hopscotch to fenced-in edges: He anticipated the rise of evangelicals as overheated harvesters who order their empty baskets out to a loop of wind and willow, while still raising a host to pleasant escapades, diverting charges of hypocrisy with cozy woolen jumpers and squashy cushions, sowing the seeds of their righteous nostalgia: Whatever happened to stray innocence-of-heart, to bumbling along a path with disciples left enlightened? Now Christ is really in the wilderness, condemned to sackcloth, where even the resurrection is a comfort banished to the perimeters of their moral majority.
In early 2019 I was lucky enough to visit the Art Gallery of Western Australia where I met, for the first time, Stanley Spencer’s series of paintings, ‘Christ in the Wilderness’. This encounter led me back to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and to Spencer’s monumental, ‘Christ in Cookham (Christ calling his disciples)’. I have loved the work of this twentieth century English painter for a long time, and often wonder what he would make of the church today. Not a conventional Christian, Spencer probably would have described himself as a fellow traveller with the Christian socialists. As I planned this poem, I also reread Shusako Endo’s novel, Wonderful Fool (1959): this is a brilliant reimagining of ‘Christ’ as a French traveller (& wise fool) in post-war Japan. I also spent a lot of time with Richard Heathcote & Anna Jug (ed.s), Stanley Spencer: A Twentieth-Century British Master (2016); & Kenneth Pople’s classic biography: Stanley Spencer: A Biography (1991).
Stanley Spencer’s ‘Christ in Cookham (Christ calling his disciples)’ can be viewed at:
Phillip Hall lives in Melbourne, where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. His publications include Sweetened in Coals (Ginninderra Press, 2014), Borroloola Class (IPSI, 2018), Fume (UWAP, 2018) and (as editor) Diwurruwurru: Poetry from the Gulf of Carpentaria (Blank Rune Press, 2015). He also publishes the e-journal Burrow: https://oldwaterratpublishing.com & his forthcoming collection is Cactus, to be published by Recent Work Press in September 2021.