Stanley Spencer at Pallant House Gallery

'Tea in the Hospital Ward' by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)

‘Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War’, currently showing at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, is one of the most important art exhibitions of 2014. It provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the work of this exceptional British artist in an intimate gallery space.

‘Study for The Resurrection of the Soldiers’, circa 1927, Inks Raphael

First shown at Somerset House, London, the exhibition features Stanley Spencer paintings temporarily relocated from their home at The Oratory of All Souls, Sandham Memorial Chapel in the village of Burghclere, Hampshire. It also contains additional works rarely seen, loaned by Tate, the University of Chichester’s Bishop Otter Collection and private collections. The galleries at Pallant House, designed by Colin St. John Wilson, transform our experience of the works. Simon Martin, Pallant House Artistic Director, and his team are responsible for the wonderful way that these paintings are displayed. “The pictures are hung at eye level,” Simon comments, “so that the viewer is able to see details they have never seen before.”

The Oratory of All Souls was built by John Louis and Mary Behrend to honour the ‘forgotten dead’ of the First World War and they commissioned Stanley Spencer to create art for the interior, impressed by his reminiscences of the Macedonian campaign. The chapel was later dedicated to Mrs Behrend’s brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham, who had died of an illness contracted while serving in Macedonia. Sandham Memorial Chapel, as it subsequently became known, was gifted to the National Trust in 1947.

'Filling Water Bottles'

Spencer was inspired by the work of the 14th century Italian artist Giotto Di Bondone and it is no accident that the scheme of the chapel interior was based on Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua. Since the Renaissance we have become used to viewing art in frames. While the work may invite us in, we nevertheless remain the viewer. The painted medieval church is different; here we inhabit the piece of art, joined with the narratives displayed all around us. It is the gift of this remarkable show to allow us to inhabit Spencer’s narratives in this way. In viewing this art, the qualities of the aesthetic and the religious are held in tension. This shared heritage inspires a vital experience.

The pictures were painted from memory on canvas between 1927 and 1932. They reflect Spencer’s very particular perspectives resulting from his experience of war and are a fulfilment of an idea conceived while he was on active service between 1914 and 1918. Writing home, Spencer said, “We are going to build a church and the wall will have on them all about Christ.” Many artists, like C.R.W. Nevinson, Paul Nash and Mark Gertler, painted the stark reality of their experiences of the battlefield during the Great War. In contrast, Stanley Spencer’s depictions of war centre on scenes of daily life at the Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol and times between the fighting in Macedonia.

Some critics have implied a quality of escapism in these works but this is to misunderstand the integrity and Christian faith of this visionary artist at this time. Works like ‘Bed-Making’ show the domesticity and Spencer’s attempt to bring sacrifice and service into the harsh realities of the hospital and men’s injuries, as depicted in ‘Ablutions’. Stanley Spencer was influenced by St. Augustine’s writings and the possibility of holiness being lived out through ordinary, everyday tasks when carried out with the qualities of love and service. Spencer’s work speaks of the beauty and compassion in humanity, of hope, in contrast to man’s inhumanity to man.

There is no doubt that Spencer worked in a very methodical way. The sketches in the exhibition are carefully prepared with grids to enable them to be transferred accurately onto large-scale canvas panels. He would inch across the canvas, starting top left, and work meticulously, almost never retracing his work. This exhibition allows the viewer the opportunity to note some squaring through the paint.

Spencer described his method of working when he said, “I find I am painting things… in the same order in which God created them; first the firmament… then all the bare earth bits and the river bits, then the bushes and flowers and grass and trees and creepers and here I also do walls and buildings, then come animals and human beings together at the end.” His love of nature and his skill as a painter is exquisitely depicted in ‘Map-Reading’. Here the artist’s extraordinary richness of palette becomes apparent, something which is difficult to discern in the limited natural light in Sandham Memorial Chapel.

His figures are solid and sculptural, combining remembered and imagined faces and forms. His attention to detail and his handling of paint are both remarkable; take, for example, the depiction of jam sandwiches and the texture of the cloth in ‘Tea in the Hospital Ward’. Perspective and composition are carefully conceived, connecting us with these narratives. In ‘Filling Water Bottles’ the arm of the injured soldier seated in a chair leads our eye to the centre and base of the panel. To the right is a line of soldiers drinking from raised blue water bottles, conjuring the image of trumpeting angels, which together with the water from the spring draw our eyes heavenwards. The three soldiers reclining on the rocks which enfold the spring fill their bottles. They are depicted as though in flight, their cloaks drawn as angelic wings. The stone wall in its light hues seems to illuminate the scene below, while the figures above it ascend a path which rises beyond our sight, as though to heaven. The themes of forgiveness, resurrection and rebirth for all humankind run through these panels and are evident in the ‘Study for The Resurrection of the Soldiers’ from 1927. Paul Gough summarises the sacred in these works in his illuminating book ‘Journey to Burghclere’: “In Stanley’s paintings everything becomes sacred [with a] genius to make the miraculous seem normal and the normal seem miraculous.”

This exhibition runs until 15th June 2014 when the paintings will return to Sandham Memorial Chapel, which is currently closed for restoration works. Our thanks should go to Amanda Bradley and David Taylor from the National Trust, who curated this exhibition, and to Simon Martin and team at Pallant House Gallery. Together they have given us an extraordinary opportunity to view these works in an entirely different way to that which is normally possible.

Simon Martin concludes, “The 2014 Centenary of the start of the First World War provides a timely opportunity for Pallant House Gallery to present Stanley Spencer’s remarkable and visionary series of paintings inspired by conflict in [our] gallery… allowing a unique opportunity to see the paintings eye-to-eye.”

I am delighted that Toovey’s are headline sponsors, together with the Linbury Trust and the National Trust, enabling this remarkable and important exhibition to come to Sussex. For further information of talks and events relating to the show go to or telephone 01243 774557. The excellent catalogue of the exhibition is available from the Pallant House Gallery Shop, priced £19.95.

All images ©the estate of Stanley Spencer, 2013. All rights reserved DACs, National Trust Images/John Hammond.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 26th February 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

An Artist’s View of Sussex, Life and Music

Alison with Jeremy and Nick
From left to right: Jeremy Knight, Alison Milner-Gulland and Nick Toovey standing in front of the painting ‘Deep in the Downs’
The Waiter and The Musician
‘The Waiter’ and ‘The Musician’
Alison Milner-Gulland in her studio
Alison Milner-Gulland in her studio
Deep in the Downs by Alison Milner-Gulland
‘Deep in the Downs’ by Alison Milner-Gulland

This week I am back at Horsham Museum & Art Gallery with my brother, Nick Toovey, for the opening of a new art show, which celebrates the work of Washington-based artist Alison Milner-Gulland. This selling exhibition runs until 29th March 2014.

Nick has long championed the work of Sussex artists. His self-representing contemporary art auctions were the first of their kind ever to be held in the UK. “They were groundbreaking,” Nick enthuses. “Artists entered their own work into the auctions and I made sure that the successful sales were picked up by the leading international fine art indices. This helps to establish an artist’s long-term credibility, giving art collectors confidence to buy, not just at my auctions but at exhibitions and galleries as well.”

I ask Nick about Alison’s work. “I love how Sussex has inspired her palette and subject matter,” he replies. “At first glance her work is accessible and uncomplicated, but over time the work reveals layers, subtle details and evolving depths, highlighting her talent. It is often infused with classical, mythical or natural inspiration.”

From her teens until only a few years ago Alison regularly rode on the South Downs, committing to memory the play of light and the elements on the landscape with the movement of her horse. The elevated perspective that riding affords is evident in many of her landscapes. Through her eyes we see the sweeping chalk curves, ancient tracks, rolling hills and far-reaching views of the Downs. Later, in her studio, she would transfer these thoughts and images to paper and canvas. The ancient quality of the South Downs is perfectly captured in ‘Deep in the Downs’, shown here with exhibition curator Jeremy Knight, Alison and Nick.

Alison’s studio nestles at the foot of the South Downs in the small village of Washington. Nick describes what the visitor encounters: “It is an amazing space – well-organised chaos! Framed works are hung wherever wall-space permits or stacked on the floor. After being greeted by the family’s Jack Russell terrier and navigating a maze of pictures, mounting materials and packaging, you come to the main work area of the cottage studio. Here an architect’s chest conceals numerous unframed prints; stacked on top of this are further prints, oils on canvas and works in progress beneath works drying on a washing line. Occasionally the sound of nearby chickens, geese, guinea fowl or sheep are heard from outside. Negotiating the livestock and braving the elements, you come to a separate studio, dedicated to Alison’s work in ceramics. This is a colder but brighter and neater space, inherently slightly dusty from the powders, glazes and clays used to create the work. Along two walls are shelves displaying recent vessels, the majority figurative or inspired by music with a few trial abstract landscape designs scattered amongst them.”

Alison’s ceramics give expression to her creative voice. The two slab vases illustrated capture the musician and the waiter with a Mohican hairstyle wonderfully. “I felt moved to draw the waiter in the restaurant,” Alison says. “He had a particular confidence, which caught my attention, and that marvellous hair. I hadn’t got anything to draw on, so I sketched on a napkin held under the table!” Unsurprisingly, they were amongst the first pieces to sell at the exhibition.

Russia has provided a rich seam of inspiration and the landscape depicting a silver birch wood has grown out of this. “My paintings develop and evolve as I continue to work on them until they are sold,” Alison explains. This perhaps, in part, explains the layers and depths which Nick describes, but it is also the depth of connectedness with the world around her which gives her a particular and distinctive artistic voice.

Toovey’s are delighted to be sponsoring this exhibition, aptly titled ‘Alison Milner-Gulland: Constantly Updating’, and the works are selling well. Jeremy Knight and his team are once again deserving of our thanks for an excellent show of work from this insightful Sussex artist.

Nicholas Toovey is always pleased to advise and share his passion for contemporary artists, especially from Sussex. He can be contacted at Toovey’s.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 19th February 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Green Light for Amber Beads at Auction!

Detail of Amber Beads sold at Tooveys
Detail of Amber Beads sold at Toovey's in January

Further to our blog post ‘Amber Beads in Fashion at Toovey’s‘ and Rupert Toovey’s article in the West Sussex Gazette ‘Prehistoric Treasure in Demand Today‘. We wanted to share some of the prices achieved for amber beads in our January auction on the 29th January. Highest price was £10,000 for a single row necklace of thirty-eight slightly graduated oval vari-coloured opaque and semi-translucent butterscotch coloured amber beads, total weight approx 255g, total length approx 110cm, length of smallest bead approx 2cm, length of largest bead approx 2.7cm.

More amber beads are consigned in our Specialist Sale of Jewellery on 26th February 2014. See lot numbers 640-664. If you would like your amber beads valued for possible inclusion into a forthcoming auction please contact our offices, pre-sale valuations are free of charge at our Spring Gardens salerooms.

Amber: Prehistoric Treasure in Demand Today

Amber – prehistoric treasure in demand today
Amber – prehistoric treasure in demand today
A necklace of forty-nine butterscotch amber beads, sold at auction for £11,000
A necklace of thirty-eight butterscotch amber beads, sold at auction for £10,000
A necklace of forty-seven brown and butterscotch amber beads with tassel pendant, sold at auction for £3,800

When collectors from China, India and the Middle East simultaneously decide to pursue the same collectors’ items, the effect on prices can be sudden and dramatic! In recent times the market for amber beads has been transformed with many thousands of pounds now being paid for the most sought-after examples.

Since the Neolithic period amber has been celebrated for its colour, beauty and supposed healing properties. In classical times, the Greeks called amber ‘electron’. According to myth, after the death of Phaethon, the son of Helios (the Sun), his sisters wept for him unceasingly and were changed into poplars. These trees continued to ooze tears, which were hardened by Helios into amber. This classical articulation of the origin of amber is not so far removed from our own understanding of amber as fossilised tree resin.

This sticky resin often captured insects and plant material, which can be seen in some examples of amber. The image of trapped insects in clear, golden amber found a place in contemporary culture at the heart of Michael Crichton’s novel ‘Jurassic Park’ and the subsequent film of the same title. Film fans amongst you will remember that in this story DNA extracted from the blood of a prehistoric mosquito preserved in amber was used to recreate dinosaurs.

Examples of amber with insect and plant inclusions were highly prized by Victorian collectors and aesthetes and until quite recently this transparent amber remained the most sought-after. But a recent change in fashion has resulted in another type of amber realising astonishing prices. It is less translucent with an almost milky quality to its appearance. ‘Butterscotch’ amber, as it is known, and its variants became fashionable in modern times during the 1920s. Interest has ebbed and flowed over the ensuing decades. Today this specific type of amber has captured the eye of collectors from the emerging economies of China, India and the Middle East, creating demand on a scale which was unimaginable only a short time ago.

This extraordinary change in the market has brought a good number of old amber necklaces to auction. Take, for example, the necklace arranged in the photograph as a heart. Comprising forty-nine mottled yellow butterscotch amber beads, weighing 278g and measuring 136cm in length, it sold in Toovey’s New Year’s Eve auction for £11,000 with competition from across the Near and Far East. The thirty-eight bead necklace illustrated, weight 255g, length 110cm, featured vari-coloured opaque and semi-translucent butterscotch amber beads and realised £10,000 in our January specialist jewellery sale a fortnight ago. The necklace of forty-seven brown and butterscotch amber beads, which realised £3,800 in November last year, was a favourite of mine. The beads had a flame-like quality to their appearance and were complimented by the charming tassel drop, finished with smaller beads.

Differences in prices paid for amber necklaces are largely attributable to the colour, number and size of the beads. They are not all as expensive to buy as these three; a reasonable example can still be found at auction for about £700. These days, though, you are as likely to find yourself up against a bidder from Mumbai or Beijing as you are against a bidder from London or the home counties. With global internet marketing providing a truly international shop window, these pieces are only a mouse-click away for specialist buyers across the globe and many in the emerging economies have deep pockets indeed at present. Another group of amber necklaces will be offered in our next specialist jewellery auction on Wednesday 26th February 2014.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 12th February 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Remembering the Great War

Left to right: Jeremy Knight, Exhibition Curator, Jonathan Chowen, Horsham District Council Cabinet Member for Arts, Heritage & Leisure, and Philip Circus, Horsham District Council Chairman, beside ‘Poppies’, made by students of the Camellia Botnar Foundation

Horsham Museum & Art Gallery’s exhibition ‘The First World War 1914-1919 Memories and Memorabilia’ begins a year of commemorations in remembrance of the outbreak of the Great War on 28th July 1914. Three generations were united by the experiences of the First and Second World Wars, wars which for the first time brought industrialized might to the battlefield with terrible consequences.

Jonathan Chowen, Horsham District Council Cabinet Member for Arts, Heritage & Leisure, and Philip Circus, Horsham District Council Chairman, seen here with exhibition curator Jeremy Knight, are passionate historians. Winston Churchill was always influenced by the long shadow of history, mindful to heed the warnings the past offers to the present. Jonathan Chowen also understands the importance of history. “It is so important that each generation learns from history,” he remarks, “especially the First World War and the dire consequences of conflict. Acts of remembrance, like this exhibition, maintain our common narrative as a nation.”

First World War troops in the trenches on the Western Front
First World War troops beneath a pyramid in Egypt
‘Middle East in Convoy W.W.II’, a watercolour by Geoffrey Sparrow

The images of the Great War still have the power to shock a century later and they inform our perspectives and understanding of this period. Amongst sorrow, suffering, sacrifice, courage, duty and hope, however, there are the very human and personal stories. This excellent exhibition seeks to give us fresh insights. I grew up with men who had fought in the trenches, men who had experienced gas attacks and the heat of battle and their stories have stayed with me. During the 1970s Jane Bowen interviewed and recorded the recollections of a number of soldiers, which have been transcribed for this exhibition. I had pictured troops in the trenches for months at a time whereas these recordings reveal that troops were in fact rotated on a regular basis. On average, a battalion could expect to spend ten days a month in the trenches and four to five days a month continuously in the firing line. Such care for our troops stands in contrast to the huge loss of life at the Battle of Mons and elsewhere. Their recorded memories give a very human account of the realities of life in the trenches.

Christ’s Hospital school has generously loaned the uniform of Edmund Blunden, the celebrated war poet and a former pupil of the school. Blunden cycled from Horsham to Chichester to sign on and the war played a key part in his life and poetry.

Along with such memories there is a remarkable selection of objects, which provide a tangible connection with the past. These include a First World War periscope, valentine cards, silk handkerchiefs, uniforms and knitwear. There are also the medals awarded to Dr Geoffrey Sparrow, who settled in post-war Horsham, along with a rare copy of On Four Fronts, his account of the war. The watercolour of a convoy in the Middle East, painted by Sparrow during the Second World War and auctioned at Toovey’s last year, adds richness to the photograph of troops beneath an Egyptian pyramid, taken during the Great War, which is included in the exhibition.

Jonathan Chowen concludes, “I am keen to encourage and make visible the extraordinary number of acts of remembrance which are taking place across the Horsham District. The outbreak of the Great War one hundred years ago will make Remembrance Sunday and Remembrance Day particularly poignant this year.” I agree. I have not been called to serve my country on the field of battle. I feel a debt of gratitude to those who fought in the two World Wars and those who serve in our armed forces today, so that we may live in relative peace and security.

This is an exceptional exhibition and thanks must go once again to curator Jeremy Knight.

‘The First World War 1914-1919 Memories and Memorabilia’ runs at Horsham District Council’s Horsham Museum & Art Gallery until 29th March 2014. For further details contact Jeremy Knight at the Museum.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 5th February 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.