Get intimate with Stanley Spencer's Heaven in a Hell of War at Pallant House Gallery

By Richard Moss | 20 February 2014

Stanley Spencer's paintings for the Sandham Memorial Chapel are on tour with the last stop at Chichester's Pallant House offering an intimate encounter with a peculiar work of genius

a detail of a painting showing me filling waterbottles at a spring
Stanley Spencer, Filling Waterbottles. 1927 - 1932© the estate of Stanley Spencer 2013. All rights reserved DACS. National Trust images / John Hammond
If you discount his beloved Cookham village home as the setting for a single body of work, the Sandham Memorial Chapel may well be Stanley Spencer’s magnum opus.

Painted over a period of 10 years between 1922 and 1933 as a memorial to Harry Sandham who had died in 1920 as a result of wounds inflicted during the First World War, the commission was as much a piece of targeted patronage for the singularly talented and highly peculiar Spencer as it was an act of remembrance.

Just before the First World War he had left the Slade School of Art and started on ideas for the decoration of Cookham Church, but the project was interrupted by the outbreak of war. Several years later, when Sandham’s sister and brother in law, Mary and John Louis Behrend, chanced upon his drawings they realised that here was a remarkable vision and they determined to help Spencer realise it.

For the uninitiated the remarkable paintings he produced – the Gallery has the complete cycle of predella (narrative scenes) and lunette murals on loan while the memorial chapel is renovated – may seem strange in the context of First World War art.

The subject matter for one is a departure from the familiar paintings of trenches on the Western Front. Rather than shattered trees, dugouts, mud and blood, Spencer documents his own experiences as a medical orderly in a Bristol hospital and as a soldier serving on the Salonika front.  

Whether at home or abroad, his vision of the Great War is a domestic one; a private world of repetitive tasks, isolated moments and quiet contemplation. This is not the apocalyptic vision of Nevinson or Nash; Spencer is not building a new world, but rather creating his own spiritual one.

Spencer’s much thumbed copy of Saint Augustine’s Confessions, which had instilled in him the idea that God or spirituality could be found and celebrated in the smallest and most menial tasks, inspired him to create what he later referred to as a “symphony of rashers of bacon with tea making obligato”.

The deeply religious Spencer was also in thrall to the artists of the Renaissance, principally Giotto and Renaissance altar pieces, but he also carried with him the tension between Modernism and tradition that was a feature of his generation at the Slade.

a painting of soldiers resting as an officer reads a map
Stanley Spencer, Map Raading. 1927 - 1932© the estate of Stanley Spencer 2013. All rights reserved DACS. National Trust images / John Hammond
Yet when you look at his paintings closely there is a real sense of the forms, colours and poses of religious paintings.

There is a disconnectedness to these Biblical figures that is almost medieval. Soldiers are immersed in their tasks; cleaning baths, scrubbing the floors, doing the laundry, eating their toast, drinking from their water bottles, but they never glance at each other.

An officer reads a map as the men sleep, an NCO, ladened with rifle grenades and camouflaged with foliage, arrives in a trench as his comrades absorb themselves in their kit.

Sometimes Spencer casts these self-contained figures as celestial angels or Jesus and the apostles and the parallels with the complicated inner world he created in his beloved Cookham are unmistakeable. At times it seems as though each cherubic figure is the artist incarnate – an innocent locked into his own peculiar world.

In this sense Spencer seems like a Blakean figure - complicated and curious - painting strange yet familiar forms that inhabit a place of his own making, and stylistically there are parallels with contemporaries like Edward Burra and William Roberts. But there is something highly unconventional going on here that makes these paintings much more otherworldly than anything produced by his peers.

The textures are impressive too; the towels, the sponges, the cotton sheets are all rendered in surprizing detail. Intricacies such as the reflections in the water spilled by the soldier as he washes, or the light dappling the interior of a bell tent show the extraordinary amount of care and attention Spencer invested in his painting.

A visit to the memorial chapel is by all accounts a moving experience, but the appreciation of the paintings there is necessarily tempered by the natural light - and on a grey day it can be difficult to discern the finer details.

But here they are lit beautifully, and hung at eye level, which means this exhibition may well be a once in a lifetime opportunity to really get inside Spencer's vision and enjoy an initmate encounter with a heavenly moment in English painting.

Exhibition continues until June 15 2014.

Click below to launch a gallery of pictures from the exhibition.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Stanley Spencer at Pallant House Chichester an absolute 'must see'. A great opportunity to view and study in closeup the detail of these absorbing works. For remember, once they are returned to their rather obscure hanging in the chapel they are in a place of contemplation and part of the architecture rather than artwork in a gallery. Go see soon.
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