Sir Stanley Spencer
Sir Stanley Spencer's 'Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta: Punts by the River', 1958, is to be offered at Sotheby's. Image: © Sotheby’s.

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The oil on canvas Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta: Punts by the River was painted in 1958 and sold in 1959. It has not been seen in public since 1961 and has remained in the same private collection until now.

Sotheby’s will display it in London as part of its Modern British Week exhibitions, from June 8-12, ahead of its auction at its Modern and Post-War British art evening sale on June 12 where it carries an estimate of £3m-5m.

The large-scale painting, which includes a self-portrait of himself as a younger man in the background, was completed a year before Spencer’s death and the year he received his knighthood.

It depicts his beloved Cookham, a village in Berkshire that inspired him.

Frances Christie, Sotheby’s head of modern & post-war British art, said: “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.”

Spencer (1891-1959) portrayed Cookham as a “Holy Land of miracles and divine intervention” and this painting belongs to a series of six paintings to accompany a 17-foot-long centrepiece to be displayed in a church’s chapel. The project remained unfinished on his death and the centrepiece now hangs at the Stanley Spencer gallery in the Berkshire village. 

Spencer had hoped his project would culminate in a chapel devoted to love and loss. He left his first wife Hilda Carline after starting an affair with Patricia Preece. Carline and Spencer divorced in 1937 and he quickly married Preece but he remained close to Carline. After Carline's death in 1950 Spencer continued to write to her about the progress he had made on his project.

Sotheby’s noted that Spencer’s representation of regattas focused on the difference between the middle class people watching on the riverbank and the upper classes who could rent a punt. Spencer believed the idea of renting a punt as ‘an unattainable Eden’ reserved only for the upper classes.

The current record for a Spencer painting was set in 2013 at Christie’s for Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta: Conversation Between Punts which sold at £5.3m. This outsold the Sunflower and Dog Worship from 1937 that took £4.8m at Sotheby's sale of the Evill/Frost collection in 2011.