Those who aspire to filling the gap and claiming a form of art with a notable heritage can do no better than go and see the new exhibition Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War at Somerset House in the Strand in London. The exhibition of paintings from "Britain's answer to the Sistine Chapel" opened last week and continues until 26 January 2014.
I'm a big fan of Spencer and really enjoyed this completely different perspective on the First World War.
|View of the room in Somerset House where the original paintings|
by Sir Stanley Spencer are on display
(click to see larger version)
Below you can find:
- details of the exhibition
- details of the 16 paintings in the exhibition
Built to honour the 'forgotten dead' of the First World War, who were not remembered on any official memorials, the series was inspired by Spencer’s own experiences as a medical orderly and soldier on the Salonika front, and is peppered with personal and unexpected details. The paintings took six years to complete in all, and are considered by many to be the artist’s finest achievement, drawing such praise as 'Britain’s answer to the Sistine Chapel'.National TrustThe plan is that after the exhibition closes in London in January, the exhibition will then transfer to the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, and be on show there from 15 February to June 2014 - prior to reinstatement back at the Chapel.
The exhibitionThe exhibition includes:
- preparatory sketches by Spencer,
- paintings by Spencer’s fellow war artist, friend and contemporary, Henry Lamb,
- material on the patrons of the chapel, John Louis Behrend and his wife Mary - who developed the largest collectoion of Spencer's works
- 16 paintings from the Chapel
- a projection of the huge painting behind the altar
|Top row (left to right):|
Convoy arriving with the wounded; Ablutions; Kit Inspection; Dug-Out (or Stand-To)
Bottom row (left to right):
Scrubbing the floor; Sorting and Moving Kit bags; Sorting the Laundry; Filling Tea Urns
|Top row (left to right):|
Reveille; Filling water Bottles; Map-reading; Firebelt
Bottom row (left to right):
Frostbite; Tea in the Hospital Ward; Bed-making; Washing Lockers
What I found fascinating was that he chose to focus this important contribution to war art on wartime chores. However you soon begin to realise that it's the meditative qualities of the routine which enables people like Spencer to cope and deal with some of the duties he faced.
His paintings show the banality and tell the stories of the daily routines and the apparently inconsequential aspects of being in the field or serving in a hospital for the wounded and those made mentally frail by the war. They are however - lest we ever forget - ‘heaven in a hell of war.’ Spencer called the paintings
‘a symphony of rashers of bacon’ with ‘tea-making obligato’We'd have no idea about this aspect of war were it not for these paintings. Click this link to the hospital where he served in Bristol to see photographs of the hospital as it was at the time that Spencer worked there. Note the contrast between the nice tidy regimented photographs of those staying and working in the hospital with the paintings of the duties and grind of daily life as recorded by Spencer.
It's a classic case of how paintings can tell us more than photographs ever can.
|The Resurrection of the Soldiers|
(this is a projection - the original remains
on canvas glued to the wall behind the High Altar in Sandham Chapel)
‘ ... a lot of people ... might give me a job if they saw these picture in London.’
At a later date he wrote:
‘I think the arched & predella pictures arranged ... round a gallery would be impressive .... they would blow the ‘Gallery’ atmosphere to the four corners of the heavens.’ (October 3rd 1932)
Other reviews of the exhibition
- The Independent - Making tea is heaven in the hell of war: Stanley Spencer's soldiers away from the Front
- The Guardian - Stanley Spencer's first world war paintings to go on UK tour
- BBC (slideshow) - In Pictures: Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War - this provides excellent close up views of the paintings and parts of paintings and makes me wonder why I wasn't allowed to take any photos!
Events and talks
- Heaven in a Hell of War: Stanley Spencer, the Sandham Paintings and his legacy A panel discussion exploring the British painter's life and legacy in greater detail, most notably focusing the Sandham canvases
- Location: Strand, London, Greater London, England, WC2R 1LA
- Date: 13 November 2013
The paintingsBelow are links to the National Trust website where you can see each of the paintings. The web page for each painting also explains and comments on the topic of each painting. The explanations are repeated in a small paper guide to the paintings which is available free in the exhibition.
- Convoy arriving with Wounded - an open-topped bus arrives at the gates of Beaufort Military Hospital in Bristol. These were described by Spencer "as massive and as high as the gates of Hell".
- Ablutions - this painting employs the curious top down perspective sometimes used by Spencer and reveals his fascination with different textures
- Kit Inspection - this canvas is set at Tweseldown, a camp near Farnham, Surrey where Spencer was sent to train before he left for the Macedonian front.
- Dug-Out (or Stand-To)
- Scrubbing the Floor - a shell-shocked soldier lies protrate on the floor - scrubbing
- Sorting and Moving Kitbags - the rituals of new soldiers arriving
- Sorting the Laundry
- Filling Tea Urns
- Reveille - the mosquitos up at the top of the tent are reminders of the malaria suffered by both Spencer and other soldiers during time in Macedonia
- Filling water Bottles - the capes of the soldiers resemble the wings of angels
- Map-reading - this painting seems like a curious mixture of Macedonia and Cookham
- Frostbite - this paintings shows an orderly scraping the feet of a patient with frostbite - which is a task that Spencer used to undertake
- Tea in the Hospital Ward - this was the last of the paintings to be painted. I was struck by the chap at the back who is combing his hair in what appears to be a contorted way - until you realise he only has one arm.
- Washing Lockers