THIS year we are being saturated — quite rightly — with stories and pictures of how the Great War affected people, from Sunday night drama series about volunteer nurses at the front to documentaries on RAF bombing missions.
Meanwhile, in a little gallery just the other side of Maidenhead, a new exhibition tells the story of how the First World War affected a soldier who happened to be also one of the 20th century’s greatest British artists.
Stanley Spencer is perhaps best known as the bespectacled, wild-looking man who featured in a number of graphic nudes he painted of himself and his second wife, some of which rather tainted his reputation towards the end of his career. But this exhibition focuses on his finer works, many of which explore his deep Christian faith and also his adoration of his native village, Cookham, which often features as a backdrop to his paintings.
The Stanley Spencer Gallery, which is run by volunteers but attracts Spencer fans from all over the world, has managed to loan a number of important works from the Tate Gallery for the exhibition, adding to its already impressive collection.
Paradise Regained: Stanley Spencer in the Aftermath of the First World War starts with one such loan, an early self-portrait which he finished at the age of 23 in 1914, a year before he volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps.
What a painting! As a young artist, fresh out of the Slade School of Art, he has captured — as all brilliant portraits do — something of the sitter’s internal life. His strong, defiant face looms out of a Rembrandtesque gloom, and there is both pride and hope for the future in his gaze. When he came back to Cookham after serving for two years in an infantry regiment on the Macedonian front he wrote in a letter to his friend Desmond Chute: “It’s not proper or sensible to expect to paint well after such experiences.” But he regained his self-belief after finishing an old canvas he found in the corner of his family home and went on to produce some stunning and very distinctive art.
There are two important works on display at this show which illustrate his idiosyncratic expression of Christianity and his adoration of Cookham, which he called his “Earthly Paradise”. The first is Christ Carrying the Cross, in which Jesus, a ghostly, celestial figure bathed in a white glow, carries his cross in front of the Spencer family home. The village malthouse, a favourite landmark of Spencer’s, is just visible above the trees. But what is most interesting about this work is the contrast between the penitants dressed in grey and the ethereal figures which jut from every window of the house, the net curtains billowing about their shoulders, transforming them into angels.
The second, lent by a private collector, is Unveiling Cookham War Memorial, which was Spencer’s poetic take on a real life event.
Little girls in curious, frilled white head-dresses throng the memorial, and the artist portrays many of the spectators as rather frivolous in their Sunday best, or lounging about on the green. In reality, the event must have been a grim one for Spencer since his brother Sydney died in the conflict, and his name was etched on the memorial.
The exhibition also features an informative video on the exhibition, with recordings of the artist’s voice. But apart from the war angle, there are other excellent works on show, including his brilliant modernist take on The Last Supper, the somewhat disquieting The Bridge, and an enormous (five plus metres long) half-finished canvas of Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta which gives a fascinating insight into how he worked.
lParadise Regained runs at the Stanley Spencer Gallery until November 2. Visit www.stanleyspencer.org.uk