Stanley Spencer, Chatham Docks and the dignity of labour

I was invited to the launch of a new Stanley Spencer exhibition, called Resonance and Renewal, the other day at the Chatham Dockyards in Kent where Spencer’s set of eight giant paintings of the Glasgow shipbuilders, recently restored, can be seen together, as intended, in their full glory for the first time.

I have always enjoyed Spencer’s weirdly optimistic work, especially his wonderful Resurrection painting where friends and neighbours from his home village of Cookham clamber gently and dreamily out of their cozy tombs on Doomsday.

The Resurrection, Cookham, 1924-7 , Tate Gallery

So it didn’t take much persuasion to make me travel out of Sussex to this new exhibition space opened in the restored but sadly no longer working docklands at Chatham where you can still walk around this historical site where men and women have laboured at making ships since the Sixteenth Century when King Henry VIII established the docks that would be eventually closed by another powerful leader, Margaret Thatcher.

Men and  women were still at work here when I arrived, not making ships but restoring them…..

or making art about other men and women, in earlier times, who made Britain an engineering wonder of the World. There was James Taylor, the jazz musician and son of a Chatham docker who was performing a sequence of pieces inspired by the scenes that had inspired Stanley Spencer’s dockland paintings.

The James Taylor Quartet were giving the first performance of the eight pieces each related to each of the Spencer pictures where men, and some women, weld, rivet and generally manhandle gigantic amounts of steel into the boats that would circle the globe.

Jazz is hard work too of course and the quartet built up a fair amount of sweat in the toweringly impressive restored building that was also opening that day, the home of the exhibition, the No. 1 Smithery where old fashioned “real” jobs were done like making giant anchors from steel.

 A woman was at work too……..

Kent poet, Patience Agbabi, has been poet in residence here at the Chatham Docks all year and, to celebrate the opening of this, the final building at the docklands to be restored, the 1808 Smithery 

which opens this week as an exhibition space for maritime related art and for an impressive, schoolboy’s dream full of historical ship models from the National Maritime Museum,  the final link in this impressive 400 acre dockland museum site.

 photo James Brittain
 Patience Agbabi read part of her sonnet sequence which evokes the heroism, the hardship, the pioneering spirit and the inspiration that still echoes around this historic site. As a humble practitioner of poetry myself, I can add the work of poetry to that of heavy engineering without embarrassment and I look forward to seeing the complete “corona” sequence when it is put on display with older more obviously tougher tools of the trade which have now taken on a new beauty in the silence of their museum spaces.
I loved the beauty and the poignancy of these implements that had once been handled with such brutal force against heavy metals and which now lie quietly as a memorial to the workers whose jobs have long since disappeared. 

I was here for the Stanley Spencer painting though and to admire the new art gallery at the heart of this majestic and slightly frightening building where arty types can tread in fear of the time honoured sneers of people who have, or had,  “real jobs.”

I suspect Spencer had to confront some of those mocking comments when he set off to make this magnificent set of paintings about the shipyards at Port Glasgow in 1940…….


 Stanley Spencer (1891 – 1959)
….but he was a little man with a lot of charm and, so we are told, he soon became a welcome and intriguing presence in this environment where men were men and artists were, well, something else.
It is inspirational that the Chatham Docklands orgnanizers of this exhibition have included artefacts from the Chatham shipyards in close proximity to these giant paintings and Spencer’s many preliminary sketches. 

Just as in his Cookham Resurrection paintings, the Port Glasgow series is a benign and optimistic take on a world which could be seen as a Hell with its furnaces and back-breaking labour. Stanley Spencer sees beyond that with a love of community coming together to create something greater than its parts, the dignity of the sweat of a man’s brow, the joy of  making things with our hands and, as always with Spencer, his own uniquely loving sense of the human body with all its curves, frailties and imperfections .

The exhibition begins tomorrow and continues until 12th. December when, I am told, there is a real danger that these eight pieces may never be seen together again. As the son of a Scottish military engineer I couldn’t help but love these scenes from the glory days of British industrial might when work might have been tough, brutal and unpleasant but it was also capable of being inspirational, meaningful and satisfying to the many workers that made our docklands such vital and dramatic places and who have now been silenced if not forgotten. Try to get there, it will make you think.


  1. Thanks for such prompt and informative on the Spencer works at Chatham. You inspire me to go next Saturday. If you admire Spencer's work, have you been to the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Newbury? A very distinctive evocation of life in WW1.

  2. Thanks Chris…..delighted if this has made you plan a trip to Chatham…well worth it.

    I haven't been to the Sandham Chapel but would love to…I have admired the photographs of it that I have seen….I find Spencer very encouraging and up-lifting and, nicely weird.

  3. Fascinating review of the show – and great to see the photographs, too. I was a curator at the NMM till last year, but sadly didn't make it on to the guest list for the opening!

    Like Chris says, do try and visit Sandham – really I think Spencer's greatest work (along with his Cookham Ressurection). And can I recommend my own book, if you've not seen it, "A Crisis of Brilliance: 5 Young British Artists and the Great War", all about Spencer and his Slade School contemporaries – Paul Nash, Mark Gertler et al.

  4. Thanks David, I shall definitely try to get to Sandham one of these days and I will also look out for your book. I really like Gertler too. Sorry not to have met you at Chatham.

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