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Stanley Spencer RA (1891–1959) was an idiosyncratic, highly individual painter. His works have a somewhat childlike quality – the rounded forms of bodies and faces – (he belonged to a group who styled themselves the ‘Neo-Primitives’) but this is combined with often-complex pictorial structures that reveal his considerable compositional skills. Although appointed as an official war artist towards the end of the First World War, in 1918, he painted only one commission in this role. In 1923, however, he began to plan a scheme of paintings for what was to become the Sandham Memorial Chapel. Most of these paintings, and some preparatory sketches and related material, are now on display in London’s Somerset House and will move on to Chichester in March, while the Chapel is being restored.
Among Spencer’s patrons were John Louis and Mary Behrend – a painting by Henry Lamb (1883–1960) of the couple with their two children is displayed. Mary’s brother, Henry Willoughby Sandham (1876–1920) had fought in the war and during this time contracted the illness that ultimately killed him. On seeing Spencer’s plans for a chapel to memorialize the war, the Behrends decided to finance the project, to be built in Hampshire and dedicated to the memory of Lt. Sandham. The architect Lionel Pearson was commissioned to design the building.
Spencer produced 16 canvases, which are on show at Somerset House, plus an altarpiece and two spandrels. The last three cannot be moved but the altarpiece is represented in one room by an actual-size projection. All the paintings here, except the altarpiece, drew on Spencer’s wartime experiences, first at the Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol, where he worked as an orderly from 1915 to 1916, and then in Macedonia where he continued to serve with the Royal Army Medical Corp. The altarpiece depicts the resurrection of the dead soldiers at the Last Judgement.
Spencer saw horrendous scenes of carnage and bloodshed that remained with him all his life and influenced his religious beliefs, which were central to his work. He told a reporter in 1927: ‘I had buried so many people and seen so many dead bodies that I felt death could not be the end of everything’...
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‘Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War’ is at the Terrace Rooms, Somerset House, London – located behind the Courtauld Gallery, on the far side of the courtyard (currently in use as an ice-skating rink). It is on until 26 January 2014, admission free.