You can love them just as graphic design but Stanley Spencer’s paintings are also disturbing, uplifting and moving. Last weekend I went to the Pallant Gallery in the West Sussex city of Chichester to see the Spencer exhibition Heaven In A Hell Of War which has moved to Sussex while the paintings’ permanent home, Sandham Memorial Chapel in the village of Burghclere, Hampshire is restored.
Filling The Tea Urns, 1927, by Stanley Spencer
The paintings were commissioned by Mary and Louis Behrend for the Modernist chapel dedicated to the “forgotten dead” of the First World War and to the memory of Mary’s brother Lt. Henry Sandham who died at the end of the war as a result of an infection caught on the front line. Stanley Spencer’s paintings reflect his experience as a volunteer medical orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps and subsequently as an infantryman in the Macedonia campaign. Undoubtedly he saw terrible things in both environments and these pictures with their quietly detached figures going about the mundane duties that have to continue no matter what horrors lie behind them. Spencer’s figures are making beds, scraping frost bite from a soldier’s feet, scrubbing hospital furniture and in their work they bear witness to the catastrophe of war in a movingly oblique and unique way. The man almost hiding between the bath tubs could well be hiding in the trenches and, in Spencer’s symbolic spirituality, also waiting in fear for resurrection.
Washing Lockers, 1932, by Stanley Spencer
Spencer didn’t hide away from the realities of the First World War as enacted in the brutal but less well-known Macedonian campaign. His paintings help us to see the humanity that was exposed to barbarism otherwise only seen in grainy war-time photographs.
The First World War in Macedonia.
Spencer’s 1923 Self-Portrait shows a man who has seen horrors and great sadness looking for some way forward beyond the memories. He wouldn’t be human if Spencer, the painter, didn’t also give himself the romantic, if slightly narcissistic, look of a later day Hamlet.
Self-portrait, 1923, by Stanley Spencer
Sandham Memorial Chapel, Hampshire
I had long intended to visit Sandham Memorial Chapel which is not that far away from where I live but instead the chapel has come to me and brought the paintings down to eye level in Chichester’s inspiring exhibition. The chapel will open again in August, restored in tribute to the centenary of the 1914-1918 War. If you miss the exhibition or even if you’ve seen it, it will be well worth your time in going to Hampshire to see the paintings as originally imagined.
Spencer was thinking of the early Renaissance artist Giotto when he devised his memorial tribute and you only need to see a photograph of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, to see how Spencer planned a very contemporary re-imaging of Giotto’s vision of Heaven and Earth.
The Resurrection of the Soldiers, 1932, by Stanley Spencer
Dug Out, 1932, by Stanley Spencer
In Dug Out, he imagines what it would have been like when in those trenches, the soldiers suddenly realised that the war was over and they emerge discarding their equipment to a new day of peaceful calm. Resurrection, or maybe, realisation, lies at the heart of Spencer’s work and it seems a good a way as any for us to remember that war of 1914-1918.
I emerged slightly shocked but inspired by these paintings in the lovely modern gallery near Chichester’s great Gothic cathedral where I often sang as a choirboy. Pallant House Gallery is to be thanked for this exhibition but also for the impressive permanent collection housed in its beautifully designed rooms.
I try not to be an envious person but while my home town of Lewes is busy planning a major redevelopment of a brown field site, it feels like an opportunity lost that there are no plans for a modern custom built art gallery for our art hungry residents. I’d love to pick up this building and fly it to Lewes.
Until that day, it was up to our Lewes contingent to make its way over to Chichester for art, beer and tea. A great exhibition can take you to the darkest of places but bring you out again newly inspired by a Spring day’s sweetness and light.
I’m going to be appearing with three of my fellow Ward Wood writers in Greenwich, London tomorrow, Wednesday, 30th April. Come along if you can – it would be good to see you.
STEPHEN DEARSLEY’S SUMMER OF LOVE BY COLIN BELL
My novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love, was published on 31 October 2013. It is the story of a young fogey living in Brighton in 1967 who has a lot to learn when the flowering hippie counter culture changes him and the world around him.
It is now available as a paperback or on Kindle (go to your region’s Amazon site for Kindle orders)
You can order the book from the publishers, Ward Wood Publishing: