For the next four years the First World War will dominate much of the cultural and academic output of the UK as the hundredth anniversary of the conflict is commemorated. The newly revamped Imperial War Museum reopens its doors in July, whilst the BBC has years of dramas, documentaries and events planned to mark the occasion. For some time there has been a visible separation between the public impression of the war – dominated by needless slaughter and disillusioned men in horrific conditions – and the work of historians who have presented a more nuanced picture of men enduring terrible conditions, but wanting to do their duty and ‘see it through’ so that a British victory was the only possible outcome.
By 2018, therefore, it is hoped that many of the long-established myths will lessen their hold, and that the experience of the Western Front will be shared with voices of those who served not just in, and from, other parts of the Empire, but on the home front and in other services – the airforce and the navy – whose contribution to victory was hugely valuable. One key way to do this is to let the men who were there speak for themselves, which is exactly what Somerset House and the National Trust are doing with its current exhibition of Stanley Spencer’s large scale canvas paintings from the Sandham Memorial Chapel.
Painted over six years, these double-hung images fill the room and depict a mixture of scenes from Spencer’s time as a hospital orderly at a former asylum in Bristol, and on active service in Macedonia. Interestingly, rather than showing gruesome battle scenes, these paintings depict the everyday activities and routines that formed the majority of their time at war – reading maps, dressing, laundry and kit inspection. Although you would think these cosy images of domesticity would sit uneasily against such a backdrop, they are, in fact, somewhat reassuring. Although in many ways a highly mechanised conflict, it is exactly such touches of ordinary humanity that make it a fascinating period.
For example, ‘Tea in the Hospital Ward’ shows men tucking-in to bread and jam around a table while others lay on the beds behind. It looks less like a room of wounded men and more a public school dormitory. My favourite showed men dressing under gauzy mosquito nets as they prepare for their morning parade. Whatever you think of Spencer’s skill as an artist and his cartoonish shapes, you can see a clear line from this collection to the work of later artists such as Beryl Cook, and epic tales such as ‘The Vanity of Small Difference’, Grayson Perry’s brilliant quasi-religious tapestry series.
More than anything, this exhibition shows us that the First World War was not an unremitting torrent of slaughter, but moments of high activity punctuated by long periods of near -domesticated stillness. Spencer deliberately chose not to paint battle scenes, but his memorial chapel paintings tell us that there were many other elements to this conflict. By returning the voices of servicemen to the stories of the war – through diaries, letters, art, poetry, oral testimony and the countless other ways in which it was expressed – we get closer to understanding the nature of the war experience and why men continued to fight.