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.
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