Tuesday, November 12, 2013

'Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War' at Somerset House

I've been lamenting for a while the fact that we no longer see large figurative paintings of groups of people.

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)
It's also the first exhibition by the National Trust in London for a very long time.  More to the point, I can't ever remember there being an exhibition of Spencer's work in London in my lifetime - more's the pity!

Below you can find:
  • details of the exhibition
  • details of the 16 paintings in the exhibition
The paintings are in London because there's a major conservation project underway at Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, Hampshire where they can normally be seen.  The Grade 1 listed building needs essential work to improve accessibility, visitor experience and facilities and won't reopen until July next year.
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 Trust
The 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 exhibition

The 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
Click the images to see larger versions - kindly provided by Sam Roberts Photography and Somerset House Trust.

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
The important thing to remember about Spencer is that he was particularly key figure in the development of figurative art in England in the first half of the 20th century. The exhibition gives us an excellent opportunity to take a good close look at how he painted - especially as the paintings are both lower on the wall and better lit than they are when seen in the chapel.

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)
Spencer always wanted them to be shown in London. He wrote that they should be exhibited there
‘ ... 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

Events and talks

The paintings

Below 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.

About Stanley Spencer - English Painter

I've finally got round to making some progress with my website About Stanley Spencer - English Painter.   My aim is to catalogue all the paintings - but these all need to be tracked down first.


  1. Definitely an exhibition worth highlighting. Re the Tate, they have a poor record I agree but they are not that bad! What about http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/stanley-spencer

  2. Thanks Robert. My note was based on what I was told last week - so presumably they weren't aware of this one either. Plus I did a big search looking for exhibitions of Spencer in London and the only one that came up was the 1955 one.

    So many thanks for your contribution - and I shall revise the post!

  3. I am sure I remember going to a Spencer exhibition at the Barbican. But I cant remember the year. 70's 80's maybe?
    I remember seeing him with his painting pram at Cookham when I was a child.


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