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.
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