1927-32 by Stanley Spencer
Somerset House, permanently on display at Sandham Memorial Chapel
There are many attractions to Spencer’s Sandham chapel paintings: their multiplicity in showing different faces of war; their dedication in being painted pain-stakingly over 5 years; and of course Spencer’s distinctive style, evocative of a point in time. The struggle to produce such a poignant memorial is something most of the world are trying desperately to achieve in light of First World War’s centenary, which perhaps highlights how successful Spencer’s reflections are, albeit from actual experience. Although each painting is full of activity – whether it be a hospital scene, figures laid out in death or fatigue, the mundane but evidently necessary Filling Water-bottles – the soft detail Spencer applies in his painting slows each action down, drawing it out for our realisation and the inevitable emotion that follows. The figures are caught in the agonising tug of army life, which Spencer draws out visually with his style. Their faces, limbs and labours are pulled out before us – in Map-Reading soldiers’ arms are caught and drawn with desperation across the bushes in the background, while figures are draped languidly one by one across the grass. The ‘Map-Reader’ is then elevated in his task, floating above his men, picked out and swollen with responsibility as the map falls out in front of him. The arched shape that all the paintings adhere to encourages the feeling of looking in, peering into a world we can hardly comprehend, Spencer’s warped sense of perspective carrying us into the disbelief of what was reality. Yet, the paintings appear ethereal, highlighted in details such as the pure and small white leaves scattered across the bushes that give this painting a curious and quiet beauty, akin to Heaven rather than warfare.