This week has seen many events marking the one hundred year anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War and remembering those who gave their lives. It is fitting then that the Sandham Memorial Chapel which is home to Stanley Spencers powerful cycle of paintings which depict scenes from his own wartime experiences should re-open it’s doors to the public following a major renovation.
It has been my intention to visit the chapel for many years and so far have not managed the trip, so I was thrilled to hear that the paintings, though minus the remarkable altar wall painting of The Resurrection of the Soldiers were to tour to London’s Somerset House and the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester.
I first visited the paintings in Somerset House last Autumn and was both staggered and humbled by the power of these works. They were placed as they would be in their home setting, double hung with the predella panels below and the lunettes placed up high. The room in which they were displayed seemed to me to be of a similar size to what I would find at the chapel judging by the scale of the reproduction of The Resurrection of the Soldiers which was displayed close-by. (The original being far too fragile to be moved). The paintings were beautifully lit, every detail could clearly be seen by natural light.
I was told by the Spencer family that a visit to the exhibition at the wonderful Pallant House was well worth the trip as the hang there was dramatically different, enabling the viewer to be able to see the paintings anew. So off to Chichester I went.
The paintings were hung in two separate rooms, with the predella panels hung together in one while the upper lunette paintings were placed together in the second. This meant that all the paintings were displayed for the first time at the same level so it was possible to really examine up close the lunette paintings in particular which would normally be way up beyond eye-level. The format of the predella paintings follows the traditional structure of Renaissance altarpieces, and following the formation of such fresco cycles as Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Spencer was a great admirer of the Giotto fresco’s.
Stanley Spencer had enlisted with the Royal Army medical corps in July 1915 and he was posted to the Beaufort War Hospital where he worked as a medical orderly. It was his experiences while at the hospital that were to inspire and inform the eight predella paintings. Within each of these predella paintings Stanley Spencer focuses on the unheroic, the everyday and the mundane. They reflect the artists belief that religion and spirituality could be found in the everyday, which is all around us. From scrubbing furniture and floors to filling the tea urn, making beds or sorting the laundry, these menial tasks are portrayed with an acute observation and tenderness.
The lunette paintings which were created between 1927-39 are all based on Spencers time as a soldier in Macedonia. These compositions are inspired by Spencers experiences within the ‘field of war’ and they depict the day to day, scenes of ordinary soldiers going about their daily life, from kit inspection and map-reading, daily ablutions to the convoy of the wounded arriving at the hospital gates.
Unlike so many paintings about the First World War, here Stanley Spencer does not show the bloodshed and horror of war but Heaven in a Hell of War. His concern is to show the sanctity of the ordinary and in this incredible series of paintings Spencer transforms everyday experiences into something sublime, everyday tasks that have for him a spiritual resonance.
The paintings are now installed back in their home at Burghclere. Here Stanley Spencers totally unique vision creates from the horror and futility of war a series of paintings which resonate with spirituality and peace.