Magazine article The Spectator

Heat and Clangour

Magazine article The Spectator

Heat and Clangour

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 2

Heat and clangour

Shipbuilding: Stanley Spencer and Patricia McKinnon-Day

Imperial War Museum North, until 7 June

The cavernous aluminium-clad concrete shell of Daniel Libeskind's Imperial War Museum North is an unlikely setting for a show of paintings by Stanley Spencer. Bigger men than Spencer would be dwarfed by Libeskind's new cathedral to conflict, but Spencer, fortunately, liked the feeling of being dwarfed. It was one of the reasons, he said, why he felt so at home in Port Glasgow working on the 'Shipbuilding on the Clyde' commission that forms the centrepiece of this new show.

Spencer would also have liked the religious atmosphere that the show's organisers have created by combining dim lighting with stained-glass-window-like video projections made by Patricia McKinnon-Day in a working shipyard. Spencer's original idea had been for a chapel-like scheme of 68 panels including 'predellas' and an 'allegorical Crucifixion' representing 'the agony of Poland overrun by German armies', but the War Artists Advisory Committee quickly cut his ambitions down to their present size: seven frieze-like 'predellas' detailing the various shipyard activities of burners, riggers, riveters, plumbers and welders, and one upright 'altarpiece' of the yard's furnaces. Some of Spencer's original on-site drawings are shown alongside.

If Spencer went overboard for the project, it was hardly surprising. When he got the call from the WAAC in 1940 to record Britain's wartime shipbuilding effort for the Ministry of Information, the 49-year-old, twice-divorced artist was living alone in a Hampstead bedsit painting pictures of Christ in the Wilderness. After this, the hurly-burly of working life at Port Glasgow overwhelmed him like the warmth of an unexpected embrace. Posted to Lithgow's shipyard with the lowly rank of ordinary seaman, he was like a child in a chocolate factory. 'I hardly know how to tear myself away,' he wrote.

The war effort at Lithgow's, Britain's biggest builder of tramp steamers, was directed at keeping the merchant navy afloat - an unglamorous mission that suited Spencer. Since Vorticism, artistic enthusiasm for the machinery of war had been tempered by reallife experience of what it could do. Despite Spencer's obvious pleasure in abstract arrangements of coils of cable or stacks of pipes - and his anticipation, in his painting 'The Template', of Donald Judd's discovery of the beauties of stacked sheet steel - his focus is on man rather than machine. …

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