SEVERAL years ago, I found myself with some pilgrims in the
heart of Umbria. In the little town of Monterchi, Piero della
Francesca's great painting of the Madonna del Parto is displayed in
a former primary-school house that has been made to resemble a
Noon struck as we stood in awed contemplation in the darkened
room, a little huddle of foreign visitors, and spontaneously the
words of the Angelus were taken up with quiet prayerfulness.
Visiting Somerset House on Armistice Day, I was standing in
front of Stanley Spencer's Resurrection of the Soldiers as
silence broke out in the gallery at 11 o'clock. I spoke the words
quietly of Laurence Binyon's ode, the promissory refrain taken up
by those around. We will remember them.
The tear-stained face of the woman next to me, wordlessly
thanking me as we went our separate ways, may have spoken of a lost
father or an aunt. Or was she grieving a more recent casualty of
war? Since the Second World War, 1968 is the only year in which
apparently no service personnel have died; the service of the Crown
remains a higher calling.
All societies struggle to find ways to live and words for those
who have died. Henry VI founded the College of All Souls of the
Faithful Departed at Oxford (20 May 1438) in part as a national
memorial to the Fallen of Agincourt and of the French wars. Across
Europe, the 1920s brought forth an efflorescence in the building of
memorials and markers for those who had died in war.
Somerset House and the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester have
come together with the National Trust to mark this year's centenary
with an exhibition of one such chapel's decoration.
Stanley Spencer and his Australian painter-friend Henry Lamb
(1883-1960) had both served on the "forgotten" Front of Salonika in
the Great War. In 1923, the troubled Spencer was lodging with Lamb
Also in Macedonia had been a young lieutenant, Henry Willoughby
Sandham, who later died of an illness that he contracted there.
Sandham's sister, Mary Behrend, was a high-church Anglican who had
married into a Jewish family. She and her husband, John, already
owned a work of Spencer's when they visited Lamb in 1923, and were
shown a series of drawings that Spencer was beginning to work up,
based on his earlier experience of the Greek front line and also of
being a hospital orderly in the Beaufort Hospital, Bristol.
The Behrends had planned a memorial chapel in the grounds of
their home in Burghclere in Hampshire, and invited the 30-year- old
Spencer to decorate it with his highly autobiographical work.
At the Slade, he had been part of the group of Neo-Primitives,
alongside the likes of Gertler, Nevinson, and Bomberg, who all
looked to the early Italians as a model. When he was considering
enlisting, he had even written to Lamb, adamant that "If I go to
war I go on condition I can have Giotto, the Basilica of Assisi
book, Fra Angelico in one pocket and Masaccio, Masolino and
Giorgione in the other." He tookhis favoured pocketbooks withhim;
that of Giotto published by Gowans & Gray in 1909 is in the
At the end of the hostilities, he vouchsafed to his sister that
he would learn the technique of fresco painting for a church that
he hoped to build with a college friend from the Slade. Therefore,
when Spencer and the Behrends met at Lamb's house, his intention
and their plans neatly dovetailed.
The publicity of the National Trust surrounding this touring
exhibition makes much of bringing "the UK's 'Sistine Chapel' to
London". How much Spencer would have hated this gross
misunderstanding of his artistic intention.
Michelangelo and the painter from Cookham are poles apart, and
although there are in his oeuvre hints of Luca Signorelli, who
might have served as a common model, it is to Giotto that Spencer
returned again and again.
As Simon Martin in a brilliant catalogue essay shows, the 1305
fresco on the end wall, depicting the Last Judgement, is the
decisive inspiration of Spencer's 1921 Unveiling a War Memorial
at Cookham, in a private collection. The chapel paintings at
Burgchlere are a natural development from the same source.
Rather, the decorative scheme for the private chapel at Sandham,
designed by Lionel Pearson and dedicated by the Bishop of Guildford
as an oratory on Lady Day 1927, is Spencer's response to the great
Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, which was built by a convicted usurer
and painted by Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337).
In fact, Spencer never did learn fresco painting, and the side
wall panels were painted on detachable canvas, and it is these that
form the core of the exhibition. The north- and south-side
spandrels, and the east-end wall of the chapel, shown in a
projected image, are also painted on canvas, but have been glued to
the fabric of the chapel and cannot be moved.
Spencer's experience of the years of conflict had been as an
orderly in a hospital and in the trenches. At the very end of the
period, he had also ended up in hospital; so the day-to-day
paintings that he undertook at Burghclere from 1927 to 1932 drew on
these three very different aspects of his life.
He arranged, in a carefully contrived sequence, the focus of the
chapel to be on the central act of resurrection hope shown in the
sacrifice of the altar. The north-wall arcades depict the
day-to-day life before conflict and death; the ablutions of the
soldiers, shifting kit-bags or sorting the laundry, offer a humdrum
view of the world that we can know.
The chores in a hospital or in the barracks are as much a
celebration of life as they are of the proximity of death, so that
the menial becomes quasi-miraculous. Mischievously, Spencer once
claimed that the cycle was "a symphony of rashers of bacon" with
"tea-making obligato" (sic) as it appeared to
those from the Front.
Then comes a change of gear. Dug-out (or Stand-to) is a
tense military scene of operations at the Front beneath the
spandrel that shows The Camp at Karasuli. Lamb and Spencer
had no experience of the trenches of the Somme or of the muddied
landscapes of France and Belgium; so there is a very different
The white stone of the vertiginous rocky terrain of Macedonia is
itself an extraordinary backdrop, much as the glare of a
Palestinian day illuminates Lamb's spectacular piece Irish
Troops in the Judean Hills Surprised by a Turkish Bombardment
(1919), with which the exhibition opens.
Death and the inevitable finality of conflict are then
transformed in the great east wall, where so many soldiers rise to
new life, one still trapped in serpentine-like barbed wire, like a
lost soul strangled by a snake in a Byzantine painting of Last
Spencer intended that his east-end painting would merge into the
holy table beneath it, for which a curiously wrought white altar
frontal has the Johannine text "I am the Resurrection and the Life"
at cross purposes with one from The Tempest, "We are such
stuff as dreams are made on". Evidently, the first Bishop of
Guildford raised no objections.
The artist insisted that the altar cross would merge into the
crosses he had painted above it; so it is a pity that the
exhibition's organisers have chosen to project an image of the
undecorated altar, as this loses the point of Spencer's multiple
crosses that surround the fallen mules and detritus of a world
above, which is waking to a new dawn.
In October 1932, the artist expressed his belief in his
achievement: "I think that the arched & predella pictures
arranged . . . round a gallery would be impressive. . . they would
blow the 'Gallery' atmosphere to the four corners of the heavens."
They have now come to London, too late to give him the job that he
thought they might land him, but a powerful testimony to one man's
response to the vengeance of Mars and the reconciliation of
"Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War" is at Somerset
House, The Strand, London WC1, until 26 January (free admission).
Phone 020 7845 4600. www.somersethouse.org.uk. It will be at
Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, from 15
February to 15 June (admission charge). Phone 01243 774557.