‘Heaven in a Hell of War’ at Pallant House

Tea in the Hospital Ward by Stanley Spencer (1891- 1959) © 979928/National Trust Images/John Hammond

Tea in the Hospital Ward by Stanley Spencer (1891- 1959)

Latest update 05.03.2014 12:59


‘Heaven in a Hell of War’ at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester
15 February – 15 June 2014


‘I think the arched & predella pictures arranged ... round a gallery would be impressive. ..they would blow the ‘Gallery’ atmosphere to the four corners of the heavens.”

Spencer in a letter to Mary Behrend describing his wishes for the paintings at Sandham

If you missed the acclaimed exhibition of Stanley Spencer’s canvasses at Somerset House this winter, then don’t worry. You have another opportunity to view these incredible works by one of Britain’s most original 20th century artists, at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester www.pallant.org.uk/.

The paintings, based on Spencer’s own experiences of the First World War, are on show together with sketches and letters by the artist, material on the sponsors of Sandham – Louis and Mary Behrend and works by Henry Lamb and many of Spencer’s contemporaries. You have until 15th June before the paintings return to Sandham for our reopening at the end of July.

Marking the centenary of the First World War

The paintings at Sandham have been described by some as ‘Britain’s answer to the Sistine Chapel’ and this exhibition marks the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War.

“The 2014 centenary of the start of the First World War provides a timely opportunity for Pallant House Gallery to present Stanley Spencer's remarkable and visionary series of paintings inspired by the conflict within a gallery setting alongside our significant collection of Modern British art, which includes so many of his artistic contemporaries. Furthermore the exhibition enables us to show the paintings alongside Spencer's preliminary studies from the University of Chichester for the first time, giving our audiences a unique insight into the artist's working processes, and the opportunity to see the painting eye-to-eye.”

Simon Martin, Head of Collections and Exhibitions at Pallant House Gallery

How a “Holy Box” came to life

Spencer’s “Holy Box”, as he described it, only became a reality through the generosity of art patrons John Louis and Mary Behrend who saw Spencer’s sketches in 1923 when visiting Henry Lamb, a friend and mentor of Spencer, at his studio in Dorset. Whilst the primary intention was to house the products of Spencer’s artistic genius – his ‘castle in the sky’, as they called it, it was later dedicated to Mary Behrend’s brother, Harry Sandham, who had also served in Salonika but died in 1920 and was therefore not acknowledged as “war dead”.

The ordinary into the extraordinary

The paintings depict scenes of Spencer’s own wartime experiences, as a hospital orderly in Bristol and Salonika and as a soldier on the Salonika front. He painted entirely from memory focussing on the domestic rather than combative and shows every day experiences – washing lockers, inspecting kit, sorting laundry, scrubbing floors and taking tea. You might consider these tasks menial but for Spencer they became the miraculous; a form of reconciliation and from which he found spiritual resonance and sustenance. What is deeply moving and relevant today is the familiarity of these images to serving military personnel.

Many people ask, who are those soldiers in the paintings - Spencer said that they are him – not his image but the things he did every day. So you can see many personal and unexpected details, which combine the realism of everyday life with dreamlike visions drawn from his imagination. In his own words, the paintings are ‘a symphony of rashers of bacon’ with ‘tea-making obligato’ and describe the banal daily life that, to those from the battlefield, represented a ‘heaven in a hell of war’.

One of the most important 20th Century artists?

Spencer was one of Britain’s most important war artists, and a key figure in the development of figurative art in 20th century Britain. This exhibition provides an opportunity to look closely at Spencer’s accomplished paintwork, sensitive use of colour, and masterly still-life.

“Sandham Memorial Chapel is one of the greatest glories of art in Northern Europe. It is Stanley Spencer’s masterpiece and is arguably one of the greatest Modern British artistic schemes ever conceived. We are excited to have 16 of the paintings at Pallant 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.”

Amanda Bradley, Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture for the National Trust and co-curator of the exhibition.

The exhibition is part of a bigger picture

The exhibition is part of the Sandham 2014 Project to ensure the Sandham Memorial Chapel is here for future generations, through conservation work, expanding the visitor experience including access, and widening the visitor audience through community engagement work. If you would like to know more about this click here [insert link].

‘Heaven in a Hell of War’: Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 15 June www.pallant.org.uk/