The historian Eric Hobsbawm used to refer to “invented traditions”; the peculiar process of swan upping is what he might have called a re-invented tradition.
Its origins go back many centuries, perhaps as far as the 12th century when the mute swan gained Royal status meaning that, if a privately owned swan escaped, it became the property of the Crown. (That might have made the swan-escape sequence in Hot Fuzz even funnier if the Queen had turned up…) By 1378 there was an official post of Keeper of the King’s Swans and the unfortunate bird was known for a long time as a culinary delicacy.
The process of swan upping on the Thames involves identifying swans and their cygnets, weighing them and checking their health. It now takes place during the third week of July each year. The Royal Swan Uppers, who wear the scarlet uniform of Her Majesty The Queen, travel in traditional rowing skiffs together with Swan Uppers from the Vintners’ and Dyers’ livery companies (now the only owners of private swans on the Thames). Nowadays the emphasis is heavily on education. The Swan Uppers make over a dozen stops over the course of four days, starting at Romney Lock, the nearest lock to Windsor Castle, and finishing at Moulsford. A number of these stops involve meeting local schoolchildren and briefing them on the work of the Swan Uppers – and, of course, offering the opportunity to get up close and fluffy with a cygnet or two…
It looks like a simple memorial stone, until you delve into the story of Stanley Spencer’s life, in which nothing was simple.
His was not an especially long life, though the times changed considerably; he was born into a late Victorian world and died as post-war Britain was just beginning to enjoy a little affluence. If it’s a good idea never to be detached from your roots, Stanley followed this maxim more closely than most. He was born in Cookham, died there and spent much of his life in the rural idyll that slowly became a town. The marvels of modern public transport even enabled him to commute to and from London for his undergraduate studies at UCL’s Slade School of Fine Art, where his nickname was “Cookham”.
Stanley was active in both World Wars, in the second as an official war artist painting the shipbuilders on the Clyde. He had long since divorced Hilda by the time of his death, but she remained the love of his life despite a second (unsuccessful) marriage to Patricia Preece. Missing the honeymoon was probably not a great start – Patricia went with another artist, Dorothy Hepworth, with whom Stanley had had an affair.
His paintings often combine memories of the Bible stories which his father used to read the family after mealtimes with depictions of the Cookham that Stanley knew so well. Perhaps the best example is, ironically, unfinished: Christ preaching at Cookham Regatta which now hangs in the Stanley Spencer Gallery, a small white square of a building on the corner of the High Street. Holy Trinity churchyard, where Stanley is buried, is the setting for The Resurrection Cookham, a bizarre but joyous scene of people who mattered to Stanley coming up out of their graves, having conversations and then taking the footpath down to the river to catch the boat to Heaven.
The fact that two of Stanley’s paintings fetched about £2 million between them at auction in 1990 might have bemused him – and annoyed him too, as he was never rich in his lifetime, partly due to the maintenance payments he made to Patricia. But those sums do show how Stanley Spencer is now widely recognised as one of the 20th century’s most significant British artists.