Weekly Witter: The Behrends and art of the First World War

The National Trust has a varied and stimulating schedule of events planned for the commemoration of World War I. It has given me the opportunity to look at our painting collections and their relevance to the Great War, although actually we have very little Modern British art in our properties. This is mainly because the families who donated or bequeathed their estates to the Trust simply weren’t in a position to commission avant-garde works of art at a time when everyone was living in straightened circumstances. Houses had been requisitioned as hospitals, servants were laid off and rationing was in force. Moreover, these aristocratic families were compelled to prioritise maintaining the fabric of their vast houses over the commissioning of works of art.

There is one stellar exception in Trust collections, which is arguably one of the greatest glories of art in Northern Europe, and one of the most magnificent examples of Modern British mural painting. Sandham Memorial Chapel was painted by Stanley Spencer, and records his personal wartime experiences, which are notable for their domestic rather than combative emphasis. The paintings will play a major role in the Trust’s events schedule later this year (watch the press for further announcements!).

“The chapel was described as ‘one of the most enlightened acts of patronage that ever happened to an artist’.”

The chapel was funded by John Louis (1881-1972) and Mary (1883-1977) Behrend, who did not hail from an aristocratic pile, but were distinctly ‘non-Establishment’. They are the forgotten heroes of the Modern British art scene and played a huge role in nurturing creative genius in all the arts, from music, to literature, to painting. The chapel was described as ‘one of the most enlightened acts of patronage that ever happened to an artist’, and yet the Behrends have been largely forgotten in the mists of time, in favour of some of the more self-publicising patrons. They are important because they had the money, the taste and the courage, which was a powerful combination.

Spencer at Burghclere

Spencer at Burghclere

“It was indeed an exceptional partnership and atypical of the usual patron/artist dynamic; for example, Mary insisted that they did not commission the chapel – rather it was all Stanley’s idea.”

John Louis came from a rich Jewish family, which had made its money from dealing in cotton seed in Egypt, chartering ships on the Baltic exchange in London, and milling rice, which was sold in large Hessian sacks stamped with the name BEHREND. He and his wife Mary built up a considerable collection of pictures of diverse subject-matter and style, many of which were by Spencer himself. They also owned works by Henry Lamb, Walter Sickert, Victor Pasmore, Edward Burra and Augustus John, to name to few. Many of their pictures now hang on the walls of national museums. Their main residence was the Grey House at Burghclere, the same village which houses the memorial chapel. This became a convening point for the many artistically-minded friends, of diverse disciplines, that they had made. Set against a backdrop of walls densely-packed with paintings, they hosted the likes of Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Henry Lamb, Marie Rambert, Eric Newton, as well – of course – Stanley Spencer.

The Behrends found creativity exciting and alluring. How else would they have otherwise dealt with what was a fairly complicated relationship with Stanley? They had no formal contract, and endured the ups-and-downs of the process with unfailing good grace. I have recently found some letters written by Mary towards the end of her life in which she comments on the longevity of her relationship with Spencer. It was indeed an exceptional partnership and atypical of the usual patron/artist dynamic; for example, Mary insisted that they did not commission the chapel – rather it was all Stanley’s idea. What has become clear during my research on the Behrends is that by the time the chapel was being created, they were not nearly so well-off as they had been. On the death of his father and uncle, John Louis only inherited one third of the family business. The family were smarting from his conversion to Christianity when he married Mary. In light of this, both ideologically and financially, the chapel was doubly courageous. After the war, the Behrend rice mills were sold and the Behrends lived in considerably straightened circumstances. The chapel became increasingly expensive to maintain, and it was given, with an endowment, to the National Trust in 1947. Their fortune may have dwindled, but they left a far richer legacy in the brave, outlandish and beautiful ‘Holy Box’ that is Sandham.

  •  Amanda Bradley, Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Weekly Witter: The future of our heritage – under the microscope

Andrew Bush – Adviser on Paper Conservation for the National Trust finds that there is more than meets the eye down his microscope.

One of the favourite tools of my trade is a trusted digital microscope, not much bigger than a fat cigar but capable of up to 200 times magnification. It’s a very portable piece of kit, which is a good thing as I travel all over examining collections in any of the 200 or so historic properties on my patch. Although I have had it for a couple of years now, I am only just beginning to realise its wider potential use, of which more later.

A typical use for the microscope is to help me examine the condition of some of the Trust’s 1,400 portrait miniatures, many dating from the 18th century. The majority of these are painted in watercolours, with a very fine brush on wafer thin sheets of ivory. The ivory is so thin, and translucent, that it can be painted on the reverse to give subtle toning to the face as seen from the front. Sometimes a sheet of silver leaf was placed behind to give added luminosity.

As far as conservation and stability is concerned, the marriage of ivory and water based paints is not a happy one. It is the inability of the watercolour to keep a grip on the smooth surface of the ivory together with the shrinkage and expansion of this thin organic support that leads to flaking and splitting. This, along with keeping an eye out for mould growth, is the purpose of my visit…..At least I used to think that this was the purpose of my conservation assessments, things have changed.

Antoine Vestier (Avallon, Yonne 1740 – Paris 1824)  The Artist's Wife: Marie Ann Révérend, Madame Antoine Vestier.

Antoine Vestier (Avallon, Yonne 1740 – Paris 1824)
The Artist’s Wife: Marie Ann Révérend, Madame Antoine Vestier.

When I am carrying out a survey, I am usually with our collections in our showrooms and often the house will be open to visitors. If I am looking at something particularly delicate, or if distractions are to be avoided, I might be tucked away in a quiet corner, but increasingly I am working in front of the public, discussing what I am doing with anyone interested. It is this interaction with the visitors that I believe could potentially have just as much significance for the future well being of our collections, as any observations and recommendations for care or remedial treatment that I make in my reports. It is not only in raising awareness of the need for conservation, but showing that there are career opportunities in conservation. This is where my digital microscope has such a powerful role, it acts as a magnet to nearly every young visitor, and hopefully, who knows, for some of them it will be a way marker on a route to a career in conservation. Until I was at University I had absolutely no idea that a career as a conservator was possible, hopefully through the powers of microscopy others might cotton on faster than I did.

  • The Weekly Witter is a regular mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Weekly Witter: New acquisitions to complete the picture.

What a month it’s been for art in the National Trust; from the discovery of a £20m Rembrandt in Devon, to an outstanding contemporary arts programme, in addition to new acquisitions- purchased to help complete the picture of a place and its artist. Amanda Bradley, Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture for the National Trust comments on one of our most recent acquisitions for the nation below:

The chance to buy works of art for our properties is fairly rare. Not only are we restricted to buying things that are indigenous to the house, or have direct links with the respective families, but prices are often simply too high. One recent exception has been the purchase of a preparatory sketch by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) for Firebelt, one of the arched canvases in Sandham Memorial Chapel.

Preparatory sketch by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).

Preparatory sketch by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).

Spencer is one of the most individual and distinctive artists in British twentieth century art. It is testament to his creative genius that the chapel was ever realised. His experiences during World War I fuelled his creativity and became a way of coming to terms with the horrors he had seen. He started off as a medical orderly at the Beaufort War Hospital, near Bristol, then later – from August 1916 – was posted overseas, assigned to the 68th Field Ambulances in Macedonia. A year later he transferred to the 7th Battalion of the Berkshires, spending several months on the front line.

Spencer at Burghclere

Spencer at Burghclere

His sketches for an imaginary chapel were seen by some enthusiastic and enlightened patrons, John Louis and Mary Behrend. They enabled him to follow his artistic dream, and only later decided to dedicate the chapel to the memory of Mary Behrend’s brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham. Mary Behrend was infuriated that people referred to the Chapel has having been ‘commissioned’. She was insistent that ‘the whole thing was his idea.’ Indeed it was, right down to the architectural plans, which were constantly adjusted on Spencer’s whim by the architect, Lionel Pearson. In this respect, the Chapel is quite extraordinary – I can think of no other example in the history of art where the patron has given complete and unbridled freedom to the artist (please send in examples if I am wrong!).

Our newly-acquired drawing is a preliminary sketch for Firebelt, which shows grass being burnt off around the evening camp in order to create a protective barrier. This is more advanced than an initial impression in the artist’s mind. The image has been squared up so that he can more easily transfer his ideas to canvas, but this drawing is not sufficiently worked up to be a formal cartoon. The overall scheme is close to the final version, but with more tents depicted in the upper section, fewer figures, and a greater emphasis on the tangle of tent pulleys.

It was quite typical of Spencer to square many of his drawings – a method which he learnt as a pupil at the Slade under Henry Tonks. He had little sympathy for Cezanne or Abstraction, quite evident in his finished works, but it is difficult not to delight in the unconsciously abstract forms in this drawing, borne out of his feeling for shape and its value.

This drawing will supplement the Trust’s collection of preparatory sketches for the chapel, and serve to illustrate Spencer’s working process and resolution of design. Sandham is about to undergo an extensive restoration programme, and plans are underway to improve the visitor experience there, and display these drawings, most of which have hitherto remained in store. The chapel will play a prominent role in the Trust’s World War I commemorations next year.

  • The Weekly Witter is a regular Monday morning mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

Weekly Witter: Trust in New Art

It has been a big week for art at the National Trust. It is not every day that a Rembrandt is uncovered within one of our historic collections.

However in addition to our collections of historic paintings and sculpture, we have Trust New Art, our ongoing programme of contemporary arts and crafts exhibitions, projects and residencies supported by a partnership with Arts Council England.

“It is very important that we don’t parachute in work from outside that has no resonance with a place.”

Trust New ArtTrust New Art is inspired by the place where it happens. It is very important that we don’t parachute in work from outside that has no resonance with a place. We either commission new work from artists in response to a place, or carefully select existing work that will give people a way to connect with the place’s history and essence. While some people may find the work challenging, it is always inspired by what is special about a place.

We work with artists in many ways. Adrian Utley, from the band Portishead, worked with Sonic Journeys to create a sound walk in response to the ancient trees at Croft Castle and Parkland. Visitors can either download the soundtrack themselves, or use a MP3 player on site until May 2013. For those that can’t make it, a specially commissioned video gives an idea of what inspired Adrian.

The team at Croft have also been working with Meadow Arts to develop Time Will Tell. The atmosphere within the Hereforeshire landscape is beguilingly peaceful – yet there is 800 years of life at Croft Castle to be explored, and even longer looking at the archaeological and geological layers as well. Thirteen artists undertook residencies last year to get to know Croft, and their work is being shown now. For example, Strange Cargo worked with locals and vistors to distil an enigmatic history of private memories and musings in response to Croft, while Clare Burnett commemorates missing gravestones with ghostly sculptures in their place.

At Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire, the stylish design approach of Robert Adam has inspired Studio Weave to create Hear Here which are ‘playful incidents’ in the landscape. These new eyecatchers – only in place until autumn 2013 – draw people through the landscape, encouraging them to stop, listen and discover the aural qualities of this special place. The artists are very clear in this video about how Kedleston inspired them (select number 9 on the playlist).

Some of our places have vibrant arts programmes running through the year. Mottisfont in Hampshire has created a gallery space to help show off their fine collection of 20th-century paintings and have a changing display of temporary exhibitions – currently the London Group at 100. It also hosts artists in residence whose work is displayed through the year, and it will be a key venue in artSOUTH, a new major art event for the region. High Cross House in Devon takes forward the legacy of the Dartington Hall Estate by hosting artists and exhibitions to showcase contemporary creativity in this intimate Modernist setting. Waddesdon Manor, at a completely different scale, regularly show artists of international renown, and this year will be working with Philippa Lawrence and Bruce Munro.

This is just a small selection from the many projects taking place this year. You can keep in touch with Trust New Art through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and our very own blog.

  • Tom Freshwater – Contemporary Arts Programme Manager
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular Monday mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.