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In the Frame for June 2014: Stanley Spencer from Pallant House

04 June 2014

When Stanley Spencer set about making his pictures for the Sandham Memorial Chapel in 1927, he modestly described the cycle of 16 lunette and predella paintings as ‘a general reflection of the attitude of men during the war’. Based upon the specific roles of medical orderly, stretcher bearer and soldier that were each fulfilled by Spencer during the First World War, the drama of warfare is deliberately avoided in favour of commonplace, even unremarkable, events and yet the overwhelming humanity of Spencer’s vision marks the cycle out as one of the most poignant and ambitious pictorial schemes to come out of the conflict. The current exhibition at Pallant House Gallery allows us to appreciate the vivid portrayal of men and war by Spencer as never before, displaying these vast paintings at eye-level for the first time. What quickly becomes apparent in this immersive exhibition is the care and sensitivity with which Spencer painted his subjects, a quite different approach to the dehumanising representations of soldiers made by many of his contemporaries.

Thinking about the cycle for Sandham Memorial Chapel in terms of representing an embodied experience, it is perhaps unsurprising that over half of the paintings focus upon his time as a medical orderly at the Beaufort Military Hospital in Bristol rather than his active service on the front line in Macedonia. Spencer had some his strongest and most visceral experiences of the War during the year he spent at the hospital between 1915 and 1916. Thrust into the hostile environment of this imposing and sprawling Victorian building, Spencer submitted the unfamiliar smells and sights deep within his subconscious until they finally found shape in the mural paintings some 12 years later. Even the most minute details surface in these pictures - the striped wallpaper in the hospital wards, garishly patterned bedspreads and claustrophobic corridors, as well as the clinical appearance of the formidable ward sister, dressed in one painting in a starched white apron. However it is in his depiction of the bustling washroom that Spencer most obviously recalled the physical presence of the male patients, whose care and rehabilitation was central to his existence at the Beaufort.
Stanley Spencer, Ablutions, North wall at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere, Hampshire, 1927 – 1932 © the estate of Stanley Spencer 2013. All rights reserved DACs. National Trust Images/John Hammond 

Stanley Spencer, Ablutions, North wall at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere, Hampshire, 1927 – 1932 © the estate of Stanley Spencer 2013. All rights reserved DACs. National Trust Images/John Hammond

Ablutions is a joyful celebration of this relationship, almost entirely given over to representing of the patients’ lean, muscular bodies. Here orderlies are distinguishable as the care-givers and the patients the subjects of their nurturing actions. Skin has a special significance in the painting, giving rise to the various processes of shaving, washing, drying and anointing that take place throughout the picture. Points of contact are created by the overlapping torsos and limbs that navigate our eye around the canvas, starting from the soapy head on the top right-hand side and arching round anti-clockwise to the bottom corner where another man stoops down to rinse his face. Amongst this activity certain areas are particularly charged. Just to the left of the picture’s centre our attention is drawn to the process of painting a fine film of brown iodine upon a patient’s chest, a delicate action that is countered by the orderly’s firm grip on the man’s arm. Below this, one man can be seen rubbing a patient with a towel, momentarily laying his head upon his back. The tactility of their brief exchange is described in detail, evoking the coarse texture of the towelling against the palm of the orderly’s hand and face, as well as the feel of the hot, damp skin underneath.

Our heightened awareness of the patient’s tender skin in this painting acts as a reminder of the fundamental susceptibility of the male body – its liability to damage or attack – whilst the actions of the orderly demonstrate the ability for men to nurture and heal. In every respect it is an affectionate representation of manhood that undermines the ideal of dominance, strength and emotional constraint that that was historically promoted in warfare. In Spencer’s world men are the agents of peace and reconciliation rather than destruction.

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