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Making tea is heaven in the hell of war: Stanley Spencer's soldiers away from the Front

The mundane tasks carried out by battled-scarred soldiers away from the Front in the First World War is reflected in an exhibition by artist Stanley Spencer

The centenary of the First World War is still nine months away, not that you’d know it from the tidal wave of books and programmes already sweeping over us.

Yet in some ways you can never have enough perspective on a war that was quite as traumatic as this nor one which still divides opinion so dramatically. Not the least important – some would argue the most influential in defining the war in the public mind – was the reaction of the writers and artists who served there, among them Stanley Spencer, the foremost figurative artist of his day and the most personal and at times ambiguous in his response to the war and his service in it.

By happy chance you can see the monumental canvases he painted for the memorial chapel in Hampshire on show in London while the National Trust restores the Sandham Chapel in Hampshire in time for next summer. They’re not the savage denunciation of war that most people associate with the war artists of the time. Spencer served as a medical orderly and then as a soldier in Macedonia, far from the horrors of the Western Front.

Not that the war there was necessarily less  brutal or less wasteful, nor was Stanley Spencer less moved than his fellow artists such as Charles Nevinson and Paul Nash. But, where they reeled back in horror at the slaughter and the mechanical killing machine which the war became, Spencer turned his eye onto the world of the soldiers and the hospitals out of battle, picturing them filling their water bottles, laying out their kit and making their tea, and found in those diurnal activities a humanity that was close to the divine.

It was not escapism. Far from it. But it was  spiritual. “I had buried so many people,” he later recalled, “and saw so many dead that I felt that could not be the end of everything”. Just as his fervent faith marks his pictures of the people of his beloved Cookham, so his pictures of war in the Sandham Chapel are empowered by the sense of a resurrection and a paradise in store for a  muddled, mundane and miraculous mankind.

You can’t take religion out of Spencer. It was what puzzled and slightly shocked his compatriots in the Slade before the war and still makes it difficult for many, however warmed by his popular works, to fully accept them today.  He planned the chapel – built between 1927 and 1932 by John Louis and Mary Behrend and dedicated to her bother, Harry Sandham, who died from disease picked up during war service in Macedonia – as a means of remembrance of his own service and the people he worked with. But he also saw it as an artistic monument on the lines of Giotto’s great chapel in Verona, something that would put him alongside the Italian masters he had studied.

Walk into the main room of the exhibition in Somerset House where the eight large vertical  pictures are displayed either side of the wall, with the smaller horizontal “predella” beneath, just as they are in the chapel, and one’s immediate sense is one of a confusion of figures and actions that could be battle. Look more closely and you find instead that, while most of the figures are of soldiers, they are all engaged in non-combatant activity, digging trenches, putting up tents and, above all, being represented as patients in the military hospital. Most indeed are of scenes in Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol, where Spencer worked as a volunteer orderly before going to Macedonia.

If the paintings are, as they were intended to be, memories of his wartime life and an attempt to organise his feelings into some kind of shape in recollection, then they start darkly enough. The first picture has the wounded arriving by open bus at Beaufort’s hospital gates, opened by a frighteningly thuggish port with large keys (to the chapel) hanging from his belt. The predella beneath is even darker, a vision of a shell-shocked soldier trying desperately to clean the floor of the hospital corridor while orderlies rush about and over him.

Beaufort continued as a mental asylum and a hospital and what comes through in the details of several of these pictures – the handkerchiefs of the mentally ill piled up in the hospital laundry room and distant figure from the asylum in Filling Tea Urns – was how sensitive the artist was to mental instability around him. What also comes through, soldier that he was, is both the drudgery of the tasks assigned of making beds, scrubbing floors but also the release and comradeship involved in the business of buttering sandwiches for tea, washing in the bathroom, sorting laundry and making beds.

As the action moves to Macedonia and Spencer becomes more confident in his work, so the  palette lightens and the compositions become more energetic and more complex. Map Reading is an aerial shot of a group of soldiers, half of them sleeping and the other half picking bilberries, around an officer reading a map on a horse, only visible by his head projecting beneath the paper. Filling Water-bottles is a picture of quenching thirst as the soldiers tilt their bottles to drink in full and others seem to fly to the fountain. So too with Frostbite in which the male nurse carries buckets in the forms of wings. Most striking of all is the last main picture, Firebelt, in which Spencer organises a group of men stripped to their waists raising tents and lighting fires around the perimeter in a mass of white cloth and pink flesh.

Spencer described some of these paintings as a “symphony of rashers of bacon” with “tea obligato”, which makes him sound like Alan Bennett artist conjuring up fond characters. But he isn’t.  Behind these pictures is an intensity of feeling and urgency, alongside the humorous detail, that speaks of a march towards death and a promise of paradise after. Even in the fondest pictures such as Bedmaking the outstretched arms of the soldier stretching the sheet along with the standing  figures in their blankets covers either side suggest crucifixion. “They don’t look like war pictures,” he wrote as he started sketching out his first ideas in 1923, “they rather look like Heaven, a place I am becoming familiar with”.

The National Trust cannot show the original of the great Resurrection which is painted onto the east wall of the chapel. Instead they have a full-size projection in the final room of the exhibition. It is a pity it cannot be placed together with the side canvases, as in the chapel, as it locks and lifts the whole assembly in a majestic vision of a winding road of white crosses and risen people moving towards paradise seen as an English landscape of the Downs. Spencer had wanted to show these canvases in London before installation in the hopes of encouraging clients and, without the context of place, the exhibition tends to be one of art rather than belief with preparatory drawings, portraits of the Behrend family and Spencer himself.

What the Sandham paintings lose in architectural context, however, they gain in proximity and illumination, compared to the rather dingy natural light of the chapel itself. With any luck the National Trust will improve that when the pictures return to their home. Even if you see this show you should still go the chapel to understand their meaning. In the meantime, the Trust have provided a rare opportunity to see up close what many regard as Stanley Spencer’s greatest achievement.

Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War, Somerset House, London WC2 (020 7845 4600) to 26 January