Tea-Making Obligato


A couple of years ago I went with my boyfriend to Newbury in order to visit the chapel at Burghclere, where Stanley Spencer’s war paintings normally reside.

It was a sultry, late summer’s day, and we got ridiculously lost, wandering over Greenham Common. I’d last visited the Common back in the ‘eighties, when it had been a military base: I’d woven webs in its fences, and held mirrors up to show soldiers their own reflections. I’d played in a women’s band, chanting ‘We Are The Witches’ along muddy perimeter paths. But now the Common was restored. The Yanks had gone home, and the land had thoroughly returned to wildness: blackberries swelled on bushes where the runway had been, and a plane skeleton, once used to choreograph military manoevers, was rusting nicely into a climbing frame.

The journey remains vivid as a fitting pilgrimage to the chapel, filled with Spencer’s everyday angels, making their beds and tea. On our way home, before stopping for a pint, we dropped coins into an honesty box next door to the chapel, in payment for homemade jam and freshly picked vegetables. Life was good, Spencer reminded us. Life is good.


These lovely paintings are presently visiting London, and so – especially as WTC #3 was 12th November, a day after Remembrance Day –  it seemed fitting to go to their temporary home at Somerset House, and to combine that with a trip to to St Clements’ church on the Strand, and to Twining’s Tea Museum.

Below are the prompts –

Spencer painted scenes of his own wartime experiences, as a hospital orderly in Bristol, and as a soldier on the Salonika front. His recollections, painted entirely from memory, focus on the domestic rather than combative and evoke everyday experience – washing lockers, inspecting kit, sorting laundry, scrubbing floors and taking tea – in which he found spiritual resonance and sustenance.

Peppered with personal and unexpected details, they combine the realism of everyday life with dreamlike visions drawn from his imagination. In his own words, the paintings are ‘a symphony of rashers of bacon’ with ‘tea-making obligato’ and describe the banal daily life that, to those from the battlefield, represented a ‘heaven in a hell of war.’ For Spencer, the menial became the miraculous; a form of reconciliation.

The paintings, which took six years to create and were completed in 1932, are considered by many to be the artist’s finest achievement. As well as being one of Britain’s most important war artists, Spencer was a key figure in the development of figurative art in 20th century Britain. This exhibition serves as a timely reminder that the wartime chores depicted in his painting are as relevant now as they were back then.*

On your way back to Mary Ward, make some character sketches: note people going about their daily work, and see if you can elevate through words the way Spencer did through paint.

Think about the everyday in your own life – the rituals you perform (vacuuming, ironing, hanging curtains, making a cup of tea….) and make it dreamlike.

*taken from Somerset House publicity.

Take a look at the page: Stanley Spencer: Tea Obligato to see what we came up with.




About claire collison

Writer, photographer, creative facilitator, and breast cancer survivor, I am currently Artist in Residence at the Women's Art Library (WAL) My first novel was a finalist in the Dundee Book Prize, and my short stories and poetry have appeared in print and online. In 2015 I was awarded second place in the inaugural Resurgence Prize, the world's first eco poetry competition, judged by Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. This blog began as a space for words generated on my walking/writing workshops at the Mary Ward centre in Bloomsbury - Writing the City (WTC). WTC has since grown to include many other venues, including the Museum of Broken Relationships, the Barbican, the River Rom, Southwark Woods, Aylesbury Estate, and most recently, as part of Walking Women festival, An Intimate Tour of Breasts. I have worked with Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, as the recipient of the first Max Reinhardt Literacy Award, designing teaching resources; and for The Photographers' Gallery, helping school children develop visual literacy as part of 'Seeing More Things'. If you would like me to design a workshop or walk for you, please be in touch!
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