Stanley Spencer’s Heaven in a Hell of War at Somerset House is a remarkable exhibition which speaks volumes about war and conflict.
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the First World War and reflect on this week’s Remembrance Day, it seems appropriate that this exhibition should be showing in London.
Spencer’s paintings present a very different view of conflict from many other war artists. Rather than the horrors of battle, his presentation of war focuses on the daily lives of the soldiers away from the front line.
Having had a grandfather who served in the First World War, it made me reflect on what life must have been like for him, far away from his home city of Liverpool.
The powerful images captured in Spencer’s works are haunting and compelling because they provide a window into the world of the average soldier and his daily routines.
I have no photos of my grandfather as a young man serving in the First World War so perhaps these paintings help to fill the gap in my family’s visual history.
Stanley Spencer was one of Britain’s most important war artists, as well as being an important figure in the British art scene during the early-mid 20th Century.
Spencer served in the First World War as a medical orderly and chronicled his experiences in Macedonia with the Field Ambulance Unit and later with the Berkshire Regiment.
He was commissioned as a war artist which resulted in some of the most distinctive war images ever captured on canvas.
When I studied the First World War war poets at school I remember how their work was entrenched on the front line.
Their visions of the war were largely those of trenches, the muddy battle fields of the Somme and the terrible sound of guns and grenades.
Whilst Spencer doesn’t skirt the impact of war, his work is very different, as reflected in the murals he was commissioned to paint for the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere.
Dedicated to the war dead, these visionary paintings are as much about the spirit and honest endeavour of the soldiers as their courage in terrible circumstances.
Spencer’s Heaven in a Hell of War series of paintings has been has been called the “UK’s Sistine Chapel”.
It’s easy to understand the comparison with Michelangelo’s Rome masterpiece but Spencer’s enormous wall panels remind me more of Giotto’s Scrovegni chapel in Padua.
It’s an elegy, a larger than life vivid diary of a soldier’s life, a narrative cycle full of symbolic meanings and nuance.
On first sight, I was struck by the incredible detail and sheer scale of the work which provokes a gasp of amazement when visitors walk into the space from the smaller gallery that precedes it.
A soldier’s life
The works are usually on permanent display at the National Trust’s Sandham Memorial Chapel but are being exhibited at Somerset House during restoration work on the chapel. It’s a treat to see them in London.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the work is the way Spencer elevates the mundane into something extraordinary.
Spencer painted the scenes of his own wartime experiences entirely from memory between 1927-1932, a remarkable feat considering the amount of detail.
The paintings focus on the domestic rather than combative aspects of war and depict everyday experiences from scenes of the men washing lockers, inspecting kit, sorting laundry, scrubbing floors and even drinking tea.
Many illustrate Beaufort Military Hospital near Bristol where wounded men were taken to recuperate or receive treatment for their injuries.
Spencer described the hospital as “massive and as high as the gate of Hell” but managed to find some sense of spiritual escape from war there.
Washing Lockers (pictured below) illustrates the ritual of scrubbing bedside lockers at the Beaufort Hospital which was overseen by the scary Sister Hunter who made sure no nook or cranny was missed.
Spencer appears in the painting squeezing himself between the bath tubs where he found some personal space despite the menial nature of the task.
A soldier’s symphony
The paintings combine the realism of everyday life with dreamlike visions drawn from Spencer’s imagination.
Spencer described the paintings as “a symphony of rashers of bacon” and “tea-making” but for me they’re much more that that.
The contemplative quality of the paintings provides an interesting alternative view of soldiers in wartime Britain.
The works depict the banal daily life which represented a “heaven in a hell of war” for those returning from the battlefield.
Tea in the Hospital Ward (pictured below) shows the wounded men at Beaufort Military Hospital enjoying their tea time, one of the highlights of the day.
Dug-Out is the first panel in the series which takes us right to the battle lines with its scene at the Macedonian front.
It shows soldiers in the trenches preparing their kit and equipment for a ‘stand-to’ order.
I found this darker and more brooding than the earlier hospital paintings in the series with its sombre dark brown tones and grim, foreboding clouds.
The paintings, which took six years to create, are considered by many to be the artist’s finest achievement.
Perhaps the highlight of the series is the large canvas called Resurrection of the Soldiers which is presented as a huge projection in this exhibition.
This is Spencer’s vision of the end of war which features a series of white crosses marching across the painting like signboards of hope – and perhaps recalling the graves of the men who have been lost.
The original painting is adhered to the wall of the high altar at Sandham Memorial church but the projection is an effective way of showing the art work (which is best seen in situ in the chapel itself).
What makes these works so powerful is that they combine realism and a dream-like quality. For Spencer the menial side of war was something of an escape from the horrors of the battle field.
It made me wonder if this was his response to post traumatic stress syndrome – a chance to revisit and re-imagine the places and people he’d seen.
For Spencer, perhaps the paintings represent a sense of reconciliation and coming to terms with his war memories.
As the centenary of the First World War beckons, this exhibition is a timely reminder that we should never lose sight of the impact of the First World War.
With the recent death of the ‘Last Tommy Soldier’ from World War One this has become more important than ever as first-hand wartime accounts die too.
My grandfather never stopped talking about his wartime memories. Like Spencer, he returned home from the front line and gained some sense of reconciliation from reflecting on this traumatic war.
Tammy’s top tips
Stanley Spencer’s Heaven in a Hell of War exhibition is at the main wing of Somerset House until 26 January 2014. It’s open daily 10:00-18:00. Admission is free. This excellent exhibition is a must-see show in London this winter.
Somerset House is located on The Strand. The nearest Tube stations are Charing Cross, Temple and Covent Garden whilst regular bus services run along The Strand.
The exhibition transfers to the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex from 15 February-June 2014.
To find out more about Sandham Memorial Church in Hampshire visit the National Trust website. The church is currently closed for restoration until the end of July 2014.
To discover more about Stanley Spencer why not visit his official website featuring the artist and information about the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham.
Whilst in the vicinity of Somerset House, take a trip to the Courtauld Gallery next door with its splendid collection of paintings and changing exhibition programme.