National Trust takes Stanley Spencer's ‘Sistine Chapel’ on tour for First World War centenary

By Richard Moss | 10 October 2013

They capture the seemingly banal side of military service during the First World War and Stanley Spencer himself described his paintings as ‘a symphony of rashers of bacon’ with ‘tea-making obligato’. But the large-scale canvas panels comprising the National Trust’s Sandham Memorial Chapel are today thought by some to be 'Britain’s answer to the Sistine Chapel’.

a photo of a seated man on a sofa looking towards a wall of pictures and photographs
Stanley Spencer at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Bedmaking.© Photo NT John Hammond
Spencer painted them between 1926 and 1932, drawing heavily on his own experiences as a medical orderly in Bristol and as a soldier on the oft-forgotten Salonika front. Now they are about to go on tour to mark the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.

The paintings, which focus on domestic chores such as washing lockers, inspecting kit, sorting laundry, scrubbing floors and taking tea, are leaving their permanent home at the Trust’s Chapel near Newbury in Hampshire to be exhibited in a temporary exhibition at Somerset House this autumn and Pallant House Gallery in Chichester for Spring 2014.

Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War will feature 16 of the paintings together with preparatory sketches and paintings by Spencer’s friend and contemporary, Henry Lamb, along with material on the patrons of the chapel, John Louis and Mary Behrend.

The Bherends built the chapel, which is to be restored while the paintings are on tour, both as a memorial to Mary’s brother Harry Sandham, who died on the Salonika front, and as a "castle in the sky" to house Spencer’s paintings, which the artist regarded as a form of reconciliation after his wartime experiences.

He was so pleased with the results that he wrote to Mary Behrend, “...a lot of people...might give me a job if they saw these picture in London.”

Amanda Bradley, the Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture for the National Trust, describes Sandham Memorial Chapel as “one of the greatest glories of art in Northern Europe”.

“It is Stanley Spencer’s masterpiece and is arguably one of the greatest Modern British artistic schemes ever conceived.

“We are excited to be taking 16 of the paintings to Somerset House; it offers a rare opportunity to re-consider these paintings in terms of their art historical importance and to view them in a gallery setting as Spencer had wanted.”

The pictures have become available thanks to a major conservation project on the Grade I-listed chapel and its almshouses. Local communities and charities, including servicemen and women from Help for Heroes, will be involved in the creation of new visitor facilities and a commemorative garden, for which the Trust needs to raise £400,000. 

After the exhibition at Somerset House (November 7 2013 - January 6 2014) the exhibition travels to Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex (February 15  - June 2014).

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More pictures:

an interior view of the Sandham Memorial Chapel with paintings by Stanley Spencer
Sandham Memorial Chapel interior.© Photo NT John Hammond
a painted panel showing men in two dugouts
Stanley Spencer at Standham Memorial Chapel, Dug Out (or stand to).© Photo NT John Hammond
a painting of men in hospital blue suits eating toast
Stanley Spencer at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Tea in the Hospital Ward© Photo NT John Hammond
a painting showing men washing large shelf units in bath tubs
Stanley Spencer at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Washing Lockers© Photo NT John Hammond
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