The Stanley Spencer murals have now returned to the Sandham Memorial Chapel after being exhibited in London and Chichester. I'd seen them in the chapel a few years ago when I was going through a major Stanley Spencer phase; I also went to the Gallery in Cookham, did the Cookham Walk, read the book by Fiona MacCarthy, and pored over the huge catalogue by Keith Bell, all of which I'd highly recommend.
The murals are marvellous, but it was a real bonus to see them at eye level when they were at Chichester. They repay careful scrutiny because Spencer fills them with all sorts of fantastically ordinary, humdrum, everyday detail. He is particularly good on clothing, textiles, domestic objects, and flowers, and one of my favourite paintings in the chapel is 'Tea in the Hospital Ward' (above) with towering piles of sliced bread for tea, and a generous spread of red jam on one convalescent soldier's plate.
This depiction of jam is one of very few in art, and I love it because it seems to stand for all that is sweet and simple in life. Here are these soldiers who have seen terrible, terrible things, who are scarred physically (one, missing a leg, lies on his bed with his crutches) and mentally (the soldier staring into the distance over his walking stick is clearly in another world), and who are recovering - or not - from the horror of the First World War. And then there is the jam, the sort of thing that is made at home, that captures and holds the ripeness and juiciness and warmth of summer and harvests and simple pleasures. What is going on is unutterably sad, but the jam is the reminder, the preserve, and the preserver of better days.
The slice of bread with jam on it looks like a red heart: proof, if needed, of Spencer's awareness of what jam stands for. It's something I've been thinking about as I've made jam this summer for the first time in many years. I've looked for jam in paintings, stories, novels and traditions but, apart from recipes, there is very little literature on the subject, and yet jam is at the epicentre of daily life. Which is why I enjoy seeing a sweet spread in a painting by Stanley Spencer who, when he was at the Slade School of Art, took the train home to Cookham most days in time for tea - with, I hope, bread and jam.