English war artist Stanley Spencer found romance and miracle in the daily struggle of wartime existence.

He prefered to concentrate on people washing lockers, making tea or scrubbing floors than drawing up monumental images which tried to make sense of the Great War’s guts and gore.

He worked from memory, almost ten years after the war had finished, and drew on his service as a hospital orderly in Bristol and later as a soldier on the Salonika front in Macedonia.

By painting retrospectively, he introduced something more spiritual to his work, argues Amanda Bradley, assistant curator of pictures and sculpture for the National Trust, which owns a substantial collection of his work.

She compares the process to the Mannerist artists of the mid-16th century, who had a tendency to warp figures and perspective.

“They are not technically very accurate and it is interesting to see how artists who were affected by the sack of Rome and had seen something horrific infused their work with this fevered, expansive quality.”

Spencer certainly painted from the heart, which Bradley says resulted in “extraordinary images, not always particularly beautiful but emotional and powerful.

“I can’t think of anyone else quite like him.”

She admits (though it was not his thing) that Spencer could be called abstract rather than figurative.

Which is another reason his painterly visions are singular. It’s also why the opportunity to see his collection of First World War murals outside their permanent home at Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, Hampshire, is being touted as that most unsual of things: unique.

Historian Simon Schama called the works “the most powerful art to emerge from the carnage of the Great War”. Bradley says this is the first time many of the paintings have been removed from the chapel in 80 years.

“It is a once-in-a-lifetime thing from a conservation point of view,” continues Bradley, who is working with Sussex gallery Pallant House on the show, Heaven In A Hell Of War.

“We don’t want to be taking pictures out of the chapel and doing this again. They are difficult to get out of their frames, so it is not an exercise we want to be recreating.”

Some pictures were almost welded into their frames and there was a layer of asbestos behind them. The toxic mineral has been regulated as the chapel undergoes essential restoration work, allowing the paintings to be temporarily relocated, first to London’s Somerset House and now to Sussex.

Simon Martin, Pallant House Gallery’s new head of collections and exhibitions, says the timing is ideal.

“The 2014 centenary of the start of the First World War presents a timely opportunity to present Spencer’s remarkable and visionary series of paintings within a gallery setting alongside our significant collection of modern British art, which includes many of his contemporaries.”

There are 16 large canvas paintings – eight round-arched pictures and eight predellas – plus a selection of drawings and preparatory studies.

“The studies are fascinating because they show his thought processes and how he was changing his ideas,” says Bradley.

“It is not the standard canon of works by Spencer, which makes it all the more interesting. It is quite a small exhibition but it is perfectly conceived.”

Some of the drawings are loaned from other insitutions; some are new discoveries; some have never been seen before. There are also works by Spencer’s friend Henry Lamb.

Because Spencer was a prolific draughtsman, there are hundreds of preparatory works all over the country. Those owned by the National Trust were left by one of the sons of Burghclere chapel patrons John Louis and Mary Behrend. They were found sitting in a box in a National Trust house.

“I had not seen them before,” beams Bradley. “They are fantastic drawings and they are not in great condition because Spencer really used them. They are torn at the edges and have splats of paint and oil on them.”

They shed new light on an eccentric and provincial Englishman, whose later years were marred by a deteriorating relationship with his second wife, Patricia Preece. A lesbian, she persuaded Spencer to sign over his house to her while she continued to live with her partner, Dorothy Hepworth.

“A lot of people forget Spencer did not actually train as a painter,” says Bradley.

“He trained as a draughtsman at the Slade School. His teacher was Henry Tonks, who was one of the main artistic figures of the time, so his skill as a draughtman is really extraordinary. He is more technically accomplished as a draftsman and these pictures show that.”

Henry Tonks said that Spencer had the most original mind of any student he taught. The cycle of murals from Sandham are often called Britain’s answer to the Sistine Chapel. But Spencer wouldn’t have liked the comparison and Bradley argues it is off the mark.

“I am not so wild about that analogy. It is something the press has picked up on. Yes, he painted a chapel, and there are analogies one can make, but it is much closer to Giotto’s Arena chapel in Padua.”

Spencer called Giotto’s Arena Chapel his “Holy Box”.

“We know that was his model and he wanted to recreate it in his own idiom. He was more drawn to the Italian primitive artists than those from the High Renaissance.”

The paintings, created from 1927 to 1932, are usually housed in the chapel, which was built by Louis and Behrend and completed in 1932. The chapel was later dedicated to Behrend’s brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham, who died fighting on the “forgotten” Salonika front.

Bradley disagrees with the often-suggested idea that Spencer’s work was made as a commission for the couple.

“He was already popular. He had made his name. He had already been selling the odd thing to high-profile patrons, but this was his first major project.

“I always catch myself saying the word commission but it wasn’t. When they saw him sitting at the dining table in Henry Lamb’s house, he had already thought of the idea.”

Years later Mary Behrend went on record to say it was all Spencer’s idea.

His version of The Resurrection over the altar at the chapel – a cycle of scenes from everyday military life seen as a culmination of the murals – is reproduced using a projection.

Spencer called the religious scene a “conglomeration of happenings” and moved the scene to a Macedonian battlefield to pay tribute to the dead and provide a symbol of hope for their resurrection.

Soldiers who visit the chapel are profoundly affected by the quotidian scenes, which are still relevant today.

“They say it is touching to see them. Spencer saw a lot of horrific things that are hard to imagine when you look at the pictures. This was his way of coping, it was his stiff upper lip, throwing himself into his daily work.”

  • Stanley Spencer: Heaven In A Hell of War is at Pallant House Gallery, North Pallant, Chichester, until June 15. The gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 5pm, Thursday, 10am to 8pm, Sunday/bank holidays 11am to 5pm. Tickets £9, visit www.pallant.org.uk or call 01243 774557

Don’t Forget...

Also showing in Chichester is From Fields To Factories: Women’s Work On The Home Front In The First World War.

The Otter Gallery show celebrates the work of the Women’s Land Army. Paintings by Randolph Schwabe and siblings Richard and Hilda (Spencer’s first wife) Carline will be displayed next to two rarely seen works by Stanley Spencer sketched in preparation for his murals at Sandham Memorial Chapel.

From Fields To Factories is at the Otter Gallery, University of Chichester, College Lane, until May 10. Open Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm. Free. Call 01243 816098.