Stanley Spencer: Heaven In A Hell Of War At Somerset House

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 45 months ago
Stanley Spencer: Heaven In A Hell Of War At Somerset House
View towards the altar and east wall with paintings by Stanley Spencer (1891- 1959) at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere, Hampshire. Artist's work in copyright - further permission required
Sandham Memorial Chapel interior © National Trust/John Hammond
DUG-OUT (or STAND-TO) by Stanley Spencer (1891- 1959) at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere, Hampshire. The scene is set on the Salonika front in Macedonia. Artist's work in copyright - further permission required
Dug Out (or Stand-to), Stanley Spencer at Sandham Memorial Chapel © National Trust/John Hammond
Stanley Spencer. Somerset House, Installation view
Stanley Spencer. Somerset House, Installation view
Stanley Spencer. Somerset House, Installation view
Stanley Spencer. Somerset House, Installation view
MAP-READING by Stanley Spencer (1891- 1959) on the south wall at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere, Hampshire. Artist's work in copyright - further permission required
Map Reading, Stanley Spencer at Sandham Memorial Chapel © National Trust/John Hammond
TEA IN THE HOSPITAL WARD by Stanley Spencer (1891- 1959) on the south wall at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere, Hampshire. Artist's work in copyright - further permission required
Tea in the Hospital Ward, Stanley Spencer at Sandham Memorial Chapel © National Trust/ John Hammond

With the imminent centenary of the outset of the First World War, this year has seen some notable war art exhibitions including A Crisis of Brilliance at Dulwich Picture Gallery and Architecture of War at the Imperial War Museum.

The latest addition is a show of war artist Stanley Spencer's murals in Somerset House. In this three-room exhibition, the opening acts mainly as a scene-setter with largely preparatory drawings. The only notable works are a painting of Irish troops under attack and a detailed close up of poppies.

Spencer's most renowned work is the interior of the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Berkshire. The works that can be moved have been placed in Somerset House along the walls of the second room to recreate its effect in London. The paintings show many aspects of war including soldiers in the trenches, the wounded arriving at a hospital and day to day life in the hospital. This is not simply the horrors of war but also the routine activities such as laundry and kit inspections.

The show builds to the final surreal work in which dead soldiers rise from the ground at the end of the war, as heaven emerges from hell. Crucifixes used to mark graves lie scattered in this work, which clearly draws on inspiration from the early Renaissance and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.

Spencer's style is to ensure that his subjects never face the viewer, either looking away or seen side on. This emphasises the dehumanising effects of war but also reduces its potency as the works become harder to relate to.

Taken as a whole, the recreation of the chapel is an impressive feat and an opportunity for Londoners to experience the chapel without travelling to Sandham.

Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War is on at Somerset House, Strand, WC2R 2AB until 26 January. Admission is free.

Last Updated 26 November 2013