National Trust to Exhibit Stanley Spencer’s ‘Heaven in a Hell of War’ at Somerset House

Stanley Spencer’s poignant memories of war, which have drawn such praise as ‘Britain’s answer to the Sistine Chapel’, are leaving their permanent home at the National Trust’s Sandham Memorial Chapel to be exhibited in a one-off, temporary exhibition at Somerset House this autumn. This exhibition marks the National Trust’s first major art exhibition in London for 18 years.

Leading up to the 100th commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War, the exhibition: Stanley Spencer: ‘Heaven in a Hell of War’, will feature a series of large scale canvas panels from one of the most original and acclaimed British painters of the 20th century . The exhibition then tours to Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex from 15 February until June 2014.

The Chapel was built by John Louis and Mary Behrend primarily to house the products of Spencer’s artistic genius – his ‘castle in the sky’, as they called it.  It was later dedicated to Mary Behrend’s brother, Harry Sandham, who had died of an illness he had contracted during the First World War, whilst fighting in the forgotten front of Salonika.

Spencer painted scenes of his own wartime experiences, as a hospital orderly in Bristol and as a soldier, also on the Salonika front.  His recollections, painted entirely from memory, focus on the domestic rather than combative and evoke everyday experience – washing lockers, inspecting kit, sorting laundry, scrubbing floors and taking tea – in which he found spiritual resonance and sustenance.  

Peppered with personal and unexpected details, they combine the realism of everyday life with dreamlike visions drawn from his imagination.  In his own words, the paintings are ‘a symphony of rashers of bacon’ with ‘tea-making obligato’ and describe the banal daily life that, to those from the battlefield, represented a ‘heaven in a hell of war.’ For Spencer, the menial became the miraculous; a form of reconciliation.

The paintings, which took six years to create and were completed in 1932, are considered by many to be the artist’s finest achievement, As well as being one of Britain’s most important war artists, Spencer was a key figure in the development of figurative art in 20th century Britain and this exhibition provides an opportunity to look up close at his accomplished paintwork, sensitive use of colour, and masterly still-life. As the UK’s involvement in the current Afghan conflict draws to a close in 2014 – the centenary of the First World War – this exhibition also serves as a timely reminder that the wartime chores depicted in his painting are as relevant now as they were back then.

Co-curated by Amanda Bradley and David Taylor from the National Trust, and designed by acclaimed exhibition designers Casson Mann, the exhibition will also include preparatory sketches by Spencer, paintings by Spencer’s friend and contemporary, Henry Lamb, along with material on the patrons of the chapel, John Louis and Mary Behrend.

Amanda Bradley, Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture for the National Trust, adds:

Sandham Memorial Chapel is one of the greatest glories of art in Northern Europe. It is Stanley Spencer’s masterpiece and is arguably one of the greatest Modern British artistic schemes ever conceived.

We are excited to be taking 16 of the paintings to Somerset House; it offers a rare opportunity to re-consider these paintings in terms of their art historical importance and to view them in a gallery setting as Spencer had wanted.

Spencer always wanted them to be shown in London, writing to Mary Behrend that they should be exhibited there: ‘ … a lot of people … might give me a job if they saw these picture in London.’ At a later date he wrote: ‘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.’ (October 3rd 1932)

The pictures have become available thanks to a major conservation project at Sandham. This will see essential work carried out on the Grade 1 listed chapel and its almshouses, to improve accessibility, visitor experience and facilities. Local communities and charities, including servicemen and women from Help for Heroes, will be involved in the creation of new visitor facilities and a commemorative garden, for which the Trust needs to raise £400,000.

To accompany the exhibition, there will be a catalogue with photography provided by DACS and essays by Paul Gough, Amanda Bradley, David Taylor, Simon Martin and Katy Norris, priced TBC.

Dates: 7 November 2013 – 26 January 2014
Opening Hours: 10am – 6pm, Daily.
Address: Terrace Rooms, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R1LA
Admission: FREE   

Jonny Mardling

Jonny Mardling

Jonny Mardling is the Editor of The History Herald. He has a keen interest in Second World War and Cold War history, and with a great grandfather who was killed during the Battle of the Somme, he also has a fascination with First World War history.

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