Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex, and the National Trust are delighted to present Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War, an exhibition of Stanley Spencer’s celebrated murals based on his experiences of the First World War, which have drawn such praise as ‘Britain’s answer to the Sistine Chapel’.
Stanley Spencer, Tea in the Hospital Ward, South wall at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere, Hampshire, 1927-1932 © the estate of Stanley Spencer 2013. All rights reserved Bridgeman Artists Copyright Service. National Trust Images / John Hammond
The large-scale canvas panels, which are considered by many to be the artist's finest achievement, will come to the Gallery to mark the centenary of the First World War, having left their permanent home at the National Trust's Sandham Memorial Chapel where they have been since its completion in 1932. Built by John Louis and Mary Behrend to house the products of Spencer's artistic genius, the chapel was later dedicated to Mary Behrend's brother, Harry Sandham, who had died of an illness he had contracted during the First World War, whilst fighting in the ‘forgotten' front of Salonika.
Created between 1927 and 1932 the murals represent Spencer's wartime experiences as a hospital orderly in Bristol and as a soldier on the Salonika front. His recollections, painted entirely from memory, focus on the domestic rather than combative and evoke everyday experience - washing lockers, inspecting kit, sorting laundry, scrubbing floors and taking tea - in which he found spiritual resonance and sustenance.
Peppered with personal and unexpected details, the murals combine the realism of everyday life with dreamlike visions drawn from his imagination. In his own words, the paintings are ‘a symphony of rashers of bacon' with ‘tea-making obligato' and describe the banal daily life that, to those from the battlefield, represented a ‘heaven in a hell of war.' For Spencer, the menial became the miraculous; a form of reconciliation.
The temporary relocation of the paintings while the chapel undergoes major conservation work, offers a unique opportunity to see the murals in a gallery setting alongside works by many of Spencer's contemporaries who are represented in Pallant House Gallery's extensive collection of modern British art. It also reflects Spencer's own wishes, which he recorded in a letter to Mary Behrend: ‘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."
The first paintings in the series focus on the ten months Spencer served at the Beaufort Military Hospital in 1915, a difficult and challenging episode in his life which, until that point, had never taken him beyond his family home in Cookham. Convoy Arriving with Wounded captures the artist's first impression of the hospital with its imposing Victorian architecture, distinctive high railings and gated entrance that he later described to his brother Gilbert as the "gates of hell". Conversely works such as Tea in the Hospital Ward show some of the camaraderie and tenderness he witnessed between the patients.
In May 1916 Spencer left Beaufort to undertake overseas service and was drafted to Salonika, Macedonia where he endured 18 months hard labour with the field ambulance. Although he saw first-hand the devastating effects of military action Spencer avoided representing scenes of bloodshed. Images such as Convoy of the Wounded Men Filling Water-Bottles and Map-Reading are outwardly restful, focusing on moments of calm and recuperation between battle. In other paintings such as Kit Inspection and Stand-To the gruelling routine chores at Beaufort hospital spill over into his depictions of co-ordinated military drills.
The culmination of the mural paintings is Spencer's visionary interpretation of the Resurrection which he painted directly onto the vast end wall of the chapel. Transplanted onto a Macedonian battlefield, the artist viewed this religious scene as a tremendous ‘conglomeration of happenings' that both paid tribute to the men who fell and provided a symbol of hope for their resurrection.The composition will be represented in the exhibition at Pallant House Gallery by large-scale working cartoons, which are significant for their demonstration of Spencer's incredible skill in designing complex figurative schemes.
Co-curated by Amanda Bradley and David Taylor from the National Trust, the exhibition includes the complete cycle of predella and luneete paintings displayed at eye level for the first time alongside preparatory sketches by Spencer, paintings by Spencer's friend and contemporary, Henry Lamb, along with material on the patrons of the chapel, John Louis and Mary Behrend.
It will include key loans from the Fitzwilliam Museum, National Portrait Gallery, National Trust, Stanley Spencer Gallery Cookham, Tate and others including two rarely-seen studies on loan from the University of Chichester, further examples of which feature in a complementary exhibition at the Otter Gallery 'Fields to Factories: Women's Work on the Home Front in the First World War.'
The mural cycle comes to Pallant House Gallery from Somerset House, London and will return to Sandham Memorial Chapel in November 2014.