Stanley Spencer chapel ups sticks at Somerset House for First World War centenary

By Mark Sheerin | 06 November 2013

Exhibition review: Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War, Somerset House, London, until January 26 2014

An image of a painting of various people sitting around a table buttering slices of bread
Stanley Spencer, Tea in the Hospital Ward. At Sandham Memorial Chapel. National Trust / John Hammond© DACS 2013
Stanley Spencer is the perfect war artist for our times. He knows how to look on the bright side. He does not go in for blood and guts. And he commemorates the Great War, ie; the touchstone for all subsequent remembrance and commemoration.

He also knew how to keep calm and carry on. After serving in the Royal Army medical Corps he volunteered for the Berkshire Regiment.

His 14 arched panels and predella usually found in the Sandham Memorial chapel near Newbury in Hampshire depict the armed forces as a busy lot. If they’re not washing, they’re inspecting kit; if they’re not filling water bottles, they’re doing the laundry; and so on.

Spencer himself called these paintings “a symphony of rashers of bacon” with “tea-making obligato”. If a modern day squaddie came back from Afghanistan with a similar report, he might well be sent to an army shrink. But the boy from Cookham was a pupil of the Slade and was asked to paint for the War Artists Advisory Committee.

But these panels, commissioned by the family of Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham, have been called our country’s Sistine Chapel and Spencer is a serious visionary. His vision is twofold: on the one hand you have the cosiness and piety which he goes to such lengths to maintain; but on the other hand you have the artist’s wild compositions.

Spencer does draftsmanship which, for daring and complexity, has few equals: from the first panel (into which hospital gates and a bus of soldiers can barely squeeze) to the backdrop of the altar (a poignant resurrection of soldiers amidst a tangle of wooden crosses).

It should be pointed out that this climactic work is painted on the Memorial Chapel wall and could not be bought to Somerset House. A high quality projection fills the gallery wall here, while the Sandham home to all these paintings is undergoing restoration in time for the WWI centenary in 2014.

Spencer is a great dramatist and knows a thing or two about crowding a picture plane. But one cannot escape the notion that, in the line of duty, he took the bubble of his beloved home village, Cookham, all the way to the front and back.

The result is an everyday war art that mitigates the real horrors he must have seen. His determination not to represent them is comment enough.

  • Admission free. Open 10am-6pm daily.

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An image of a painting of a man looking at various wartime paintings hanging on a wall
Bedmaking© DACS 2013

An image of a painting of a chapel
Sandham Memorial Chapel interior. National Trust / John Hammond© DACS 2013
An image of a painting of various people crowded around a bathtub
Washing Lockers. National Trust / John Hammond© DACS 2013
An image of a self-portrait of a male painter in a suit and tie in oil
Self-Portrait (1923). Oil on canvas. Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham (Barbara Karmel Bequest)© DACS 2013
An image of a painting of various people as part of a war memorial
Map-Reading. National Trust / John Hammond© DACS 2013

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First World War Centenary Partnership announces 2014 exhibitions and events

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