'Heaven in a Hell of War' masterpieces by British war artist, Sir Stanley Spencer, on show in London

Posted on centenarynews.com on 18 November 2013
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Paintings by one of Britain's most acclaimed war artists, Sir Stanley Spencer, are being displayed at a special exhibition in London to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.

The exhibition, Stanley Spencer: 'Heaven in a Hell of War', is being held at Somerset House, formerly the home of the registrar of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales, and now one of the capital's major arts and cultural centres overlooking the River Thames. 

Using a series of large scale canvas panels, Spencer captures poignant memories of his own wartime service. The paintings were inspired by his experiences as a hospital orderly in Bristol, and also as a soldier on what became known as the Salonika front against the Central Powers in northern Greece.  

Completed in 1932 after six years' work, the murals are widely considered to be his finest achievement, drawing praise as "Britain's answer to the Sistine Chapel."   

Spiritual resonance

Spencer’s 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 Spencer's own words, they describe the banal daily life that, to those from the battlefield, represented a ‘heaven in a hell of war.’ For him the menial became the miraculous; a form of reconciliation.

The murals have been temporarily brought to London from their permanent home at Sandham Memorial Chapel, near the village of Burghclere in Hampshire, where they are in the care of the National Trust, the charity dedicated to conserving historic buildings and countryside in England and Wales.

The Chapel was built by John Louis and Mary Behrend primarily to house the products of Spencer’s artistic genius. It was later dedicated to Mary's brother, Harry Sandham, who died of an illness he'd contracted while fighting on the "forgotten front" of Salonika.

Amanda Bradley, Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture for the National Trust, said: “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.”

Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War is on at Terrace Rooms, Somerset House, London, from November 7th 2013 until January 26th 2014.

The exhibition then tours to the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex from February to June 2014, before returning to Sandham Memorial Chapel in July 2014.

Source: Somerset House press release

Images courtesy of Somerset House

Posted by: Peter Alhadeff, Centenary News