As odd as his ideas – and indeed, many of his subjects – might be considered, this painting, Turk's Boatyard Cookham offers a more conventional subject, painted with Spencer's distinctive and attractive style. A small flotilla of boats rests upon a cracked concrete foreground, clearly indicating that the boatyard has been there for years and has seen some hard use in that time. Indeed, the boatyard is still there today! The boats in the image are decorative, wooden and seemingly highly polished – the sort of boats that day-trippers hire for an hour or so to mess about on the river, get thoroughly splashed and work up an appetite for the invariable picnic or pub-lunch that is to follow.
One boat is in the water, tied up alongside the bank and ready for the artist, one feels, to step into wobbling, and set off across the river. Across the river – perhaps an island in the middle, if not the opposite bank – a small house can be seen, seemingly a single-roomed construction, the purpose of which is not clear, but given its proximity to the river bank, perhaps it is a boat-house or the dwelling of someone employed to keep an eye on the dock?
The whole is charmingly portrayed, with carefully accurate perspective and proportions – one feels one could overlay a photograph onto the painting and find few, if any, differences – and yet the colours, the way the paint is laid onto the canvas and the tremendous joie de vivre of the painter is clearly displayed. The realism and almost cartoonishly simple colour combinations make Spencer's paintings unique and instantly recognisable, whether looking at his portraits or his many observational works detailing scenes and moments from his every day life in and around Cookham.
This work and its contemporaries are in sharp contrast to Spencer's earlier work which appears to be technically more difficult and much more sombre in tone, using elements of cubism along with an almost pre-Raphaelite realism, to produce works that demand more examination and thought and do not, like this relatively simple scene raise a smile of pleasure when regarding it. And pleasurable it is. There are few people who can gaze upon such a scene without recalling a moment from their youth, being taken to feed the ducks or perhaps enjoy a boat ride in just such a vessel, and feeling, even if just for a second, a pang of delighted nostalgia. The painting, oil on canvas, is in the hands of the Tate Gallery in London.