When soldiers have golden helmets and the wounded have wings

Stanley Spencer infused his war paintings with images of resurrection, as the exhibition Heaven in a Hell of War shows

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War

Somerset House, until 26 January 2014

‘If I go to war, I go on condition I can have Giotto, the Basilica of Assisi book, Fra Angelico in one pocket, and Masaccio, Masolino and Giorgione in the other,’ Stanley Spencer wrote to the artist Henry Lamb in 1914. The sixpenny Gowans & Gray edition of the Masterpieces of Giotto now in a glass case in Somerset House’s exhibition Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War is the one that travelled with him two years later to the Macedonian front, where its imagery fused with his memories of war.

Although the idea of a fresco cycle of war paintings began incubating in Spencer’s mind in Salonika — ‘If I don’t do this on earth,’ he wrote to his sister Florence during a bout of malaria, ‘I’ll do it in Heaven’ — it wasn’t until 1927 that he was able to begin his visionary series of paintings for Sandham Memorial Chapel, 16 of which are temporarily billeted on Somerset House while the National Trust restores the building.

WASHING LOCKERS by Stanley Spencer (1891- 1959) on the south wall at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere, Hampshire.Washing Lockers by Stanley Spencer  on the south wall at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere, Hampshire

The dream of a chapel of one’s own to decorate was easier to realise in Giotto’s day than Spencer’s, but Spencer got lucky. A pair of extraordinarily generous patrons, John Louis and Mary Behrend, commissioned a cycle of paintings and a purpose-built chapel in their home village of Burghclere, Hampshire. ‘What ho, Giotto!’ was Spencer’s response to the news. His patrons had wanted a secular memorial, but Spencer held out for the full Scrovegni works: a chantry chapel consecrated to All Souls and eventually dedicated to the memory of Mary’s brother Harry Sandham, a casualty of Macedonia. In the five years it took to complete the project, its spiralling costs almost cleaned the Behrends out. When a woman visitor to the chapel made the snide comment: ‘It smells of money here, doesn’t it?’ the artist replied: ‘No, only courage.’

Spencer’s art was never anything but personal, and his war paintings record his own experiences as a medical orderly with the Royal Army Medical Corps, first in Bristol and later in Salonika. Rather than commemorating war they celebrate peace, those rare interludes of it that could be snatched amidst the relentless bustle of army life — the forty winks grabbed on a grassy bank while an officer consults a map and other soldiers raid the bilberry bushes, or the halt at a water fountain around which soldiers flit like angels, rain capes flapping. Only Spencer could turn army regulation mackintoshes into wings and upended water bottles into heavenly trumpets.

At 5ft 2in tall, Spencer escaped transfer to an infantry unit until 1918, but as a medical orderly he picked up the pieces. ‘I had buried so many people and saw so many dead bodies,’ he told a reporter at the start of the project, ‘that I felt that death could not be the end of everything.’ Incapable of looking on the dark side like Nevinson or Nash, he infused his war paintings with images of resurrection, from the morning routine of Reveille to the ultimate miracle of ‘The Resurrection of the Soldiers’ in the chapel’s altarpiece, projected on to the exhibition’s end wall.

Detail from BEDMAKING by Stanley Spencer (1891- 1959) on the south wall at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere, Hampshire.Detail from Bedmaking by Stanley Spencer on the south wall at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere, Hampshire. This detail shows the bedmaker and the pin-ups above the bed, one of which is Hilda, the artist’s wife. Another is of the artist’s father at the door of Hedsor Church

 It was a bitty sort of resurrection for the wounded soldiers patched up at Bristol’s Beaufort War Hospital, the heaven in a hell of antiseptic where Spencer started his RAMC service in 1916. His first impressions of the place were grim — ‘Had someone been around in the morning & dusted them with a duster?’ he wondered about the regimented laurels lining the drive — but in his vision of a ‘Convoy Arriving with the Wounded’ the laurels are banks of flowering rhododendrons and the wounded in their white slings and golden helmets have become a busload of angels with clipped wings. Inside the hospital walls we follow the artist on an endless round of floor-mopping, bed-stripping, laundry-sorting and tea-urn-filling that kept the orderlies busy 15 hours a day, with the odd ‘moment of peace’ where they could find it. Spencer found it, typically, ‘in the most unlikely places’, sneaking into a gap between the baths while his fellow orderlies scrubbed down lockers.

If there’s an opposite of machismo, Spencer embodies it. His war art looks for peace in army routine and homeliness in institutional domesticity. A sponge, a stack of buttered bread, a crumpled page torn from the Balkan News, are rendered in hallucinatory detail: ‘At the most important moments in my life,’ he noted, ‘I generally remember the least important facts.’ These are the details modern novelists record, not modern painters, but he wanted people to ‘read’ his pictures.

Spencer’s forms were significant in the wrong way for Roger Fry, but his paintings remain lucidly legible to us.

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The exhibition tours to Pallant House, Chichester from 15 February to June 2014.

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