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Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War

[ Exhibition )

Mural by Stanley Spencer of a group of soldiers sleeping, surrounded by flowers and grass, with their commanding officer at the centre reading a map

Map reading, National Trust

Sir Stanley Spencer (1891‐1959) is one of the most important English painters of the 20th century, best‐known for his paintings that elevate ordinary village life to an epic scale and grandeur.

Spencer’s most famous work is the cycle of murals at the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, Hampshire, based on his experiences during the First World War. This fine achievement has been called ‘Britain’s answer to the Sistine Chapel’.

The large-scale canvas panels came to the Gallery to mark the centenary of the First World War, leaving their permanent home while the chapel underwent conservation. Co-curated by Amanda Bradley and David Taylor from the National Trust, this exhibition displayed the complete cycle of paintings at eye level for the first time, alongside the work of Spencer’s contemporaries from the Gallery’s collection.

This display acted on Spencer’s own wishes, “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.”

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 the combative. In his own words, the paintings are ‘a symphony of rashers of bacon’ with ‘tea-making obligato’ and describe the banal daily life that represented a ‘heaven in a hell of war’ to those on the battlefield . For Spencer, the menial became the miraculous.

The exhibition included loans from the National Portrait Gallery, National Trust, Tate and others, including two rarely-seen studies on loan from the University of Chichester. A complementary exhibition at the Otter Gallery featured further examples, ‘Fields to Factories: Women’s Work on the Home Front in the First World War.’

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