Power of art
Laura Cartledge discovers how two counties are marking 100 years and celebrating one artist.
War and art go hand in hand.
Whether it is poignant lines of poems penned in the trenches or the propaganda posters which call for you to ‘dig for victory’ and ‘keep mum.’
With this year marking the centenary of the First World War a spotlight is being shone on such work, including that of painter Sir Stanley Spencer.
“It is a very important moment for us to be exhibiting the paintings,” explains Simon Martin, artistic director of Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. “There is a huge amount of interest in the First World War and Spencer’s paintings bring these distant events vividly to life.”
Widely regarded as one of the most important English painters of the 20th century, Spencer’s work offers a ‘behind the scenes view’ of the war front.
“They have an incredible immediacy, and help understand the individual experiences of one man in the war,” Simon agrees.
The canvases show everyday scenes from the lives of soldiers – kit inspections, map-reading and washing lockers – but the colours, techniques and scale propel them to another level, thanks, in part, to numerous biblical symbols.
Subjects such as the laundry room or sitting down to tea, which feature in the paintings of the Beaufort Military Hospital, might not sound revolutionary.
But by documenting the ordinary in such a grand way means Spencer’s work stands out.
“So much ‘official’ war art is focussed on the Western Front,” says Simon, “they give an insight into the home front.”
Spencer’s most famous pieces, his large scale cycle of murals, usually don the walls of Sandham Memorial Chapel in the village of Burghclerre, Hampshire, which, surprisingly, is the only National Trust building dedicated to the First World War.
Hearing the chapel was due to be closed for conservation, Simon worked with National Trust’s assistant curator of paintings Amanda Bradley to bring them to Pallant House in an exhibition, with a difference, which will run until June 15.
“It is a real coup for Pallant House Gallery to be the only art museum to be showing the paintings, and we have presented them in a completely different way to how they are installed in the chapel,” enthuses Simon.
“By hanging the paintings at eye-height in different rooms, we have managed to draw out various connections between the works, and highlight details it is hard to see in the chapel.
“With our important collection of modern British art we have been able to place the Burghclere Chapel paintings in a wider context,” he adds. “Particularly with the Artists’ Studies exhibition, which features studies by several of
The result is impressive, informative and eye opening – an engaging history and art lesson for all ages.
So what has the reaction been like? “I’m absolutely delighted by the response to the show,” Simon replies, “and so proud that we have the exhibition here.”
While the paintings have been on show in Chichester, work has been in full flow at the chapel.
“Up until now the facilities, to ourselves and our visitors, have not done justice to this incredible building,” explains Sandham’s chapel steward Alison Paton. “But, with the support we have received so far, and our fund-raising appeal, we are able to create a wonderful experience for those coming to this place of remembrance and spirituality.”
Working with local communities and charities, including servicemen and women from Help for Heroes, additions include a new garden, improved access and parking.
“We are now better able to tell the story behind this special place, its context within the First World War, and to
capture people’s responses to the chapel,” says Alison. “We are also displaying some of the archive materials relating to the chapel, such as Stanley Spencer’s original sketches.”
Seeing this collection, and the fantastic work by both Sandham Memorial Chapel and Pallant House, you know it is important.
Not just because the artworks are considered to be Spencer’s greatest creative achievement, or because they are listed among the most important British paintings of the time, but because it feels like you are looking through a window to the past.
Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, runs until June 15. To find out more
information, visit www.pallant.org.uk or call 01243 774557.
Sandham Memorial Chapel is re-opening in late summer, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sandham-memorial-chapel or call 01635 278394 for further information
Images thanks to National Trust, John Hammond, © The Estate of Stanley Spencer, The Bridgeman Art Library, Kate Shemilt and Amanda Findlay