Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Stanley Spencer and WWI revisionism

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was an English painter whose work was dominated by two things: his deep religious beliefs and his love of his home village of Cookham, which he often linked, creating Biblical scenes beside the Thames.

In 1915, the Slade-trained artist joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and worked as an orderly at the Beaufort War Hospital, and in 1916, he volunteered to serve with the same unit in Macedonia, where he was later transferred to the infantry.

In the 1920s, the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere was designed by Lionel Pearson as a memorial to Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham, who had died at the end of the conflict. It was commissioned by his sister and her husband, Mary and Louis Behrend.

A Grade I listed chapel, run by the National Trust, it has views over Watership Down – yes, it really does exist.

And in 1923, Spencer was commissioned by the Behrends to paint a series of scenes for the chapel. They were completed in 1932.

Inspired by Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua, Spencer wanted to paint murals too, but the environmental conditions of the English Home Counties mitigated against that, so he stuck with more traditional paintings and completed 19 for the project.

At present, the chapel is being restored and so 16 of the paintings are on display at Somerset House in central London until 26 January.

They will then move to the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, where they'll be on display from 15 February to 14 June, before returning to the chapel, which will reopen in July.

Although Sandham has come to be a memorial to more than one soldier, Spencer’s choice of subject matter is largely removed from the heat of battle.

The nearest we come is a kit inspection in a Macedonian trench (Dug-Out), and the famous Resurrection of the Soldiers altarpiece in the chapel, and which – along with the two panels that join the rest to the ceiling – is too firmly attached to the chapel walls to be removed.

That painting, where dead soldiers and horses are rising from graves, plain white crosses falling into a heap or presented to Christ, is, in this exhibition, screened onto the wall of a room adjoining the main exhibition area.

It was one of the works we studied when I was doing art A’ level – in the days when I disliked pretty much anything that had been painted in the 20th century.

But seeing the paintings now – up close and in good light – was not simply a matter of being impressed by Spencer’s skill with a brush, it was also quietly affecting.

Many of the scenes portray life at the Beaufort War Hospital: scenes of calm domesticity such as making the beds or carrying tea urns.

In one, soldiers are washing, while one has iodine applied to wounds. One washes another’s back, but otherwise, throughout the panels, there is no sense of conversations taking place: the fellowship – camaraderie – between the soldiers is a silent one, and this strange silence seems to reach out from the paintings to the viewer.

In one of the smaller panels, a shell-shocked soldier lies on the floor, obsessively scrubbing, as staff scurry around him. It’s one of the few overt indications of the damage done to men by their experiences at the front.

In another, men sit around a table at the hospital eating sandwiches. Well, one says “men”, but Spencer has painted his men as boys.

His choice of a naïve style leaves them all as boys – including the one officer represented in the entire cycle, who sits astride a horse, gazing down at a map of Macedonia, while troops relax around him in a countryside that is more Cookham. But even that officer looks like a boy.

Their very naïvete may even be read to suggest that expectations about the war and beliefs in its rightness were themselves naive.

It is a poignant comment on the human cost of the war itself and arguably a subtle version of the idea of ‘lions led by donkeys’ – all of which brings it into very sharp focus in light of debates going on about the nature of the war itself as we move closer toward the centenary of the first shots being fired.

Scrubbing the Floor
There are other works included in the exhibition: a self-portrait, for instance, and the magnificent Poppies (1938), which illustrates just how much of a deliberate artistic decision Spencer made in the naïve approach.

But this sits in a wider context.

As we approach the centenary, substantial airtime and column inches have been given to recent accusations of revisionism and left-wing propaganda in terms of our cultural attitude toward it – not least from the current secretary of state for education, Michael Gove.

The troops were not, apparently, ‘lions led by donkeys’ and that popular perception is a myth that has been created by left-wingers.

All of which rather ignores the fact that the historian who is largely credited with creating the idea of the bumbling officer that we recognise from Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder IV - was one Alan Clark, also a Conservative politician, who penned a 1961 title, The Donkeys.

“What Haig and the other commanders lacked was experience with the new weapons of war. These increased the killing power of an individual soldier to such an extent that offensive tactics that had previously been relatively safe became lethal: jogging in a pack across an open field in the face of machine gun fire is quite a different proposition from doing it against single-cartridge Martini-Henry rifles.”

That’s debatable, because the British Army had decided that ordinarysoldiers were not going to be given the most up-to-date rifles, because they’d use too many bullets too quickly.

Blake also states: “The reason the infantry was asked to walk across the Somme battlefield was to ensure that they arrived at the German lines together and thus were not slaughtered one by one as they climbed into the enemy trenches.”

And the British had already had experience of trench warfare in the Anglo-Boer War, so that should have presented few surprises.

But even if his explanation for the officers making the soldiers walk toward the German trenches is correct – and I have no reason to doubt it – it doesn’t make it any the less crass and negligent.

Machine guns were not new technology by this time: the Gatling gun had been used by Union forces in the 1860s in the American Civil War. Even pigeon post would have got the news of its efficacy across The Pond in rather less than half a century, so Blake is being disingenuous in pretending that the use of machine guns in WWI could not have been expected.

Elsewhere in cyberspace (and thanks to Dave for this), comes this: “One of the most striking things I have retained in my memory of watching numerous documentaries and reading various accounts over the years on WWI was the sad tale of one particular British Army Captain who, on receiving his orders for the forthcoming attack, worked out that, given the positions of the enemy and line of attack he was being ordered to take, he and his men were all going to get killed.

Map Reading
“What is more, he also worked out some sort of alternative flanking approach that would achieve the objective which would not have meant certain death (though I am sure he didn't think it was risk free either!).

“On presenting all this to his commander he was ordered to stick to the original plan and do his duty. He did and was killed.”

And then, of course, there was decision to launch one last attack, 10 minutes before the armistice. What does that show if not a disregard for the life of the men under your command?

There is more complexity to the history of WWI than is popularly remembered – but that is almost certainly true of all history.

For instance, I would certainly not doubt that many if not most people at the time did consider it a ‘just cause’. But there’s no conflict between that and anyone now saying, with the benefit of hindsight, that it was not.

What is disturbing about the current attempts at revisionism is not even that they appear to be partly about scoring political points – and ignoring facts, as illustrated above – but that given a background of British military adventurism in recent years and the current prime minister’s desire last year to get more militarily involved in Syria (thankfully defeated), one cannot help but be concerned that the two are linked and that our leaders believe that we, as a nation, need to be prepared for involvement in further conflicts, thus requiring a narrative of ‘just wars’ fought and glory gained, with great leaders at the helm, rather than anything different.

In terms of Syria, secretary of state William Hague (sounds remarkably like ‘Haig’) even attempted to suggest that, in that civil war, we could get involved without taking sides – after bigging up the rebels as though they were some sort of saints and the Syrian situation as beautifully simplistic.

In the meantime, Spencer’s quiet paintings act as a continuing reminder of those lost. There might have been a respite in the hospital for many, but there was no ultimate respite for millions, and no resurrection for those who fell – just as there are no officers among those rising from the dead in Spencer’s altarpiece and handing their crosses to Christ.

Perhaps in that simple artistic fact lies a truth that was well understood at the time.

These paintings are well worth seeing – and not least as people try to wage ideological war over how we portray and see the sacrifices made by so many.

They take a very different approach to, say, Paul Nash’s blistered landscapes or the poetry of Sassoon, Owen and others.

But I doubt that many will see them and not be quite profoundly moved.

Further reading

1 comment:

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