Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War
15 February – 15 May 2014
The artist’s murals based on his experiences of the First World War, previously described as ‘Britain’s answer to the Sistine Chapel’.
Considered by many to be Stanley Spencer's finest achievement, the mural series is temporarily relocated to Chichester while its permanent home - Sandham Memorial Chapel - undergoes major conservation work.
Sandham Chapel was built by John Louis and Mary Behrend specifically to house the artist's painted scenes and this is the first time they have been moved since their completion in 1932.
The murals, produced entirely from memory, represent Spencer's wartime experiences as a hospital orderly in Bristol and as a soldier on the Salonika front, but interestingly, focus on the domestic rather than combative.
Realistic subject matter such as washing lockers, inspecting kit, sorting laundry, scrubbing floors and taking tea, combine with dreamlike visions drawn from Spencer's imagination, the artist describing the paintings as ‘a symphony of rashers of bacon' with ‘tea-making obligato'.
For the artist, the choice to paint daily life rather than experiences from the battlefield, represent the comfort he sought in his domestic routines; 'a heaven in a hell of war'.
This relocation of the paintings is in accord with Spencer's own wishes, as he wrote 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 exhibition also includes a series of Spencer's preparatory sketches, paintings by the artist's friend and contemporary, Henry Lamb and material focused on the patrons of the chapel, John Louis and Mary Behrend.
The first paintings in the series focus on the ten months Spencer served at the Beaufort Military Hospital in 1915, until which time he had never left 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, it was his decision not to represent these scenes of bloodshed.
Images such as Convoy of the Wounded Men Filling Water-Bottles and Map-Reading focus on moments of calm and recuperation between battle, while other paintings, such as Kit Inspection and Stand-To, document the gruelling routine of co-ordinated military drills.