I was in London recently seeing clients and doing a bit of Christmas Shopping too. London is a master at generating the ‘Christmas feeling’; In Liberty’s chocolate emporium you can almost see the ghost of Dickens shuffling about with the worrisome spectre of Scrooge fussing with his purse.
On a chilly break I glanced at the Evening Standard and came across an advert for an exhibition of Stanley Spencer paintings at Somerset house: An exhibition of sixteen of his canvases from the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere commemorating his experiences of The Great War where he was a soldier.
I adore Stanley Spencer and I happened to be on the No.15 bus from St Pauls Cathedral to Trafalgar Square which stops right outside Somerset House. I had to make an unscheduled stop.
I have visited the Stanley Spencer Gallery a number of times in Cookham though have not managed to visit Sandham Memorial Chapel. I do however know the works very well though there is nothing like seeing pictures face to face. The sixteen canvases are hung to replicate the hanging inside the chapel in a series of arches. The room is not large so it creates an intimacy of a small chapel.
They took Spencer five years to complete between 1926 and 1932, eight years after the war ended so many of the rough edges of his experiences may have been smoothed somewhat and these should be viewed as retrospective. The paintings are essentially an autobiography of his experiences through the First World War. They are however not introverted navel gazing studies.
They show the ordinary experiences of the average soldier of the time. From eating jam sandwiches to cleaning kit to stealing berries while the officer muses over his maps. These seemingly dull tasks are splashed with the Spencer magic and he asks us to look at the ordinary things in life again and view them as truly special, heavenly in fact. Spencer himself referred to these tasks as ‘Heaven in a Hell of War.’ And he certainly delivers what he feels; you just want to start polishing taps as soon as the opportunity arises.
As a painter myself you tend to lean in to see how it is all done, to see the bones of it so to speak. Up close his brush strokes are deceptively simple with bits of raw canvas poking through here and there, and the colours too can often come across as a bit flat and chalky in places, almost clumsy. So then it begs the question why when you step back just a few feet and a masterpiece springs to? I am baffled as to how these genius painters do it. Spencer’s genius is delivering the core message with huge heart, making it easy to digest and making you work hard for it at the same time, simple complexity!
In the centre of the room there is a glass case of studies and sketch books. Delicious. These are not mentioned in many of the reviews though to me they are worth an exhibition all of their own. I have a passion for drawing and studying the drawings of others too. The drawings are mainly studies for larger paintings and noting passing ideas. The larger drawings have a grid over the top, presumably to scale them up for larger oil paintings. The drawings are pretty faithful to the final images in structure though he was not scared to push and shove his final painting when required.
Spencer’s drawings are very carefully done; the lines appear constant and careful with no ‘whips and flicks’. Also the composition and structure is pretty solid even at this pencil stage complete with facial expressions. I can’t imagine him as a quick sketcher.
Well worth a visit, not just for the Spencer fans either, it is perfect for anyone who loves the art of painting and getting in front of works by someone at the top of their game. Or even just getting out of the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s biggest cities just to look at something wonderful.
I left seeing the world (for a short time at least) through dear old Stanley eyes. I even took time out to draw the Salvation Army Band playing Christmas Carols on Regent Street. I think he would have enjoyed doing that.
Exhibition details below
Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War
7 November 2013–26 January 2014 Open daily 10.00-18.00 (last entry 17.30) Until 21.00 (last entry 20.30) on Thursday 19 December 24 & 31 December 10.00-16.00, 25 & 26 December-closed, 1 January 12.00-18.00
Terrace Rooms, South Wing Free admission