Art: Stanley Spencer Heaven in a Hell of War

Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War presents Spencer's series of large-scale canvas panels depicting life during the war which form part of the Sandham Memorial Chapel. It is a rare opportunity to view them up close at Somerset House and appreciate them for their beauty and modernity.

The panels are based on his experiences as a hospital orderly and as a soldier, focusing on the mundane, the banal and his recollections of his experiences of the time. What is astonishing about the works is how they feel so modern yet also from a different time and place. Everyday activities such as cleaning are elevated to a form of spiritual retreat. Realism and dreamlike settings combine to astonishing effect. The altar, which could not be removed from the chapel is recreated here as well to give a sense of the scale of how the pieces worked together.


The exhibition presents the panels (displayed above) alongside other sketches. There are also paintings by his friend Henry Lamb and information on the background of the chapel.

Stanley Spencer was an English painter known for his large-scale religious scenes and was appointed as a war artist after his return to England from the front line in 1918. It is his wartime experiences in Bristol and the Balkans that were brought together in these series of paintings for the chapel, which is modelled on Giotto's Arena Chapel in Padua.

The exhibition will no doubt arouse interest in future visits to Sandham Memorial Chapel. The Grade I listed chapel is closed for a major restoration and will reopen in July 2014 in time to mark the centenary events for the outbreak of the First World War. The exhibition runs at Somerset House until the end of January. Admission is free. The paintings will then travel to Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex from 15 February until June 2014 before returning to the chapel for the reopening.

Images: Sam Roberts Photography taken at Somerset House

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