Somerset House, the magnificent 18th century building on the banks of the Thames, is home to a variety of art exhibitions and other interesting facilities. I paid a visit to check out some of the exhibitions they had going on.
I began in the Terrace Rooms in the South Wing, with Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War. Spencer experienced the First World War and painted from his experience, both as a hospital orderly in Bristol and as a soldier on the Salonika front. This exhibition displays canvas panels on loan from the National Trust’s Sandham Memorial Chapel, as well as a projection of the altarpiece which was too fragile to remove. The Chapel was designed specifically for the panels, and was built by Spencer’s friends, John Louis and Mary Behrend. Here, they have been arranged in a way that echoes their original layout, and gives a good impression of how they look within the Chapel.
The paintings took six years to complete, and were finally finished in 1932. Unusually for images of war, they represent the domestic side of wartime life – scrubbing floors, washing clothes, making tea and inspecting kit. Spencer wanted to show how these ordinary chores became miraculous in the face of wartime danger – creating “a heaven in a hell of war”. It’s an intriguing idea, and I like it – seeking something positive in the face of such horror is a kind of defiance.
Next I ventured into the intriguingly-named Lightwells & Deadhouse, reached via the South Wing and taking me below the Somerset House courtyard, to explore Julian Stair: Quietus – The Vessel, Death and the Human Body. This unusual exhibition was made up of ceramic works in the form of coffins, jars and funerary urns. The strangest exhibit was a white urn containing the ashes of Stair’s uncle, shown alongside video and audio snippets from his life.
Finally, I went to the Courtauld Gallery to see the exhibition The Young Dürer: Drawing the Figure. This was an interesting take on the artist’s journeyman years, when he honed and developed his style.