painting, war art

Stanley Spencer, Filling Tea Urns, 1927

February 23, 2014

spencer

It may have been said, but a full century before the meme took off, Stanley Spencer painted works which embodied the suggestion we should ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

Here you see orderlies in a military hospital who, instead of getting depressed or suicidal about the horrors of war, are busy making tea.

But there is a worrying message in scenes like these, painted for the Sandham Memorial Chapel. Things do carry on regardless, and war comes to seem the norm.

Of course, war is the norm. We know that now. And since we keep our postmodern conflicts at arm’s length these days, we can drink tea all day long and not worry.

But Spencer celebrates the everyday pleasures of the battlefield and field hospital: having a shave, making jam sandwiches, getting resurrected. He called it “heaven in a hell of war”.

And if that makes him sound like a futurist, so be it. Were those car parts rather than tea urns, those excitable Italians might have also enjoyed this scene.

To his credit, Spencer prefers people to airplanes and guns. But he paints with mannered realism: great on observation, great on draftsmanship, and through it all a bit weird.

His monumental orderlies still look like rag dolls, stuffed into their clothes. There is no sense of sinew and bone, no wonder that war failed to horrify this curious artist.

The pictured scene is one of 14 predellas, 14 arches and an altarpiece from the chapel in Sandham which was purpose built for Spencer’s elaborate schema.

Restorers are currently getting the building ready to reopen for the centenary of WWI. It will no doubt become a focal point for self-conscious and sombre remembrance.

To look back at a four year tea party, rather than a prolonged massacre, may make it easier for us to deal with in 2014. But is it fair to those who served and fell? I think not.

Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War can be seen at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 15 June 2014.

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