Somerset House's partial reconstruction of Stanley Spencer’s Sandham Memorial Chapel

Somerset House’s partial reconstruction of Stanley Spencer’s Sandham Memorial Chapel

I had buried so many people and saw so many dead that I felt that death could not be the end of everything.
Stanley Spencer

There’s a scene at the end of J’Accuse, the film made by Abel Gance in 1918, in which the war’s dead soldiers rise up from their graves and return to their villages where they discover how little their sacrifice has mattered to the living. Terrified by the spectral army, the villagers mend their ways.

The return of the dead was something longed for, dreamed of and dreaded in post-war Europe, as Jay Winter observed in his study of mourning and remembrance after the First World War, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning. The apocalyptic nature of the carnage and the unprecedented loss of life and sense of bereavement drove a desire to remember the dead in traditional forms of remembrance, such as war memorials and art that often invoked traditional or even religious imagery.

Ten years after the end of the First World War,  Stanley Spencer was commissioned to paint a series of wall paintings in a private chapel at Burghclere in Hampshire which was built as a private family memorial dedicated to the memory of Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham, who had died in 1919 as a result of an illness he had contracted during the Macedonian campaign.

Previously, Spencer, who had served in the army during the war, had painted a unique vision of the resurrection, setting it in the graveyard of the parish church at Cookham, the small Thames-side village where he was born and spent much of his life and which he once described as ‘a village in Heaven’.  For the Sandham Memorial Chapel, Spencer designed a central panel that at first seems to be a jumble of white crosses.  Christ, the judge of the Last Days, is present, but in the middle distance; Spencer’s concern here is not judgement.  Instead, the viewer’s attention is drawn to the characterful faces of the multitude of soldiers rising from their graves.

Traditionally, the dead were meant to remain dead. Ghosts appeared occasionally, but usually uninvited and unwelcomed. Their purpose in returning – as in Abel Gance’s film – was generally to complain, to warn, to threaten, to make demands on the living.  But for Jay Winter, Spencer’s work is unique in war art, both in its evocation of the entirely ordinary and unheroic world of military life, at home and abroad, and in its treatment of resurrection.  The dead who rise from their graves in Spencer’s  Sandham Resurrection panel are as genial and neighbourly as they were in life; they are simply getting on with things.

It’s a unique vision, the centrepiece of one of the great works of 20th century art that is infused with Spencer’s unique blend of deep religious feeling and empathetic portrayal of the ordinary men and women going about their daily business.  We saw it during our long weekend in London last month, exhibited in a one-off, temporary exhibition at Somerset House where the eight large vertical  panels were displayed with the smaller horizontal predella beneath, just as they are in Sandham Memorial Chapel.

Henry Lamb, The Behrend Family, 1927

Henry Lamb, ‘The Behrend Family’, 1927

Spencer’s poignant paintings have temporarily left their permanent home at Sandham due to a major conservation project being carried out  by the National Trust, which now owns the building.  The Chapel was built by John Louis and Mary Behrend, and dedicated to Mary Behrend’s brother, Harry Sandham, who had died while serving in Macedonia, and the paintings that Spencer created for it were inspired by Spencer’s own experiences serving with the 68th Field Ambulance unit as a medical orderly there. The paintings took six years to complete, and are considered by many to be the artist’s finest achievement.

Stanley Spencer by Henry Lamb

Henry Lamb, Stanley Spencer, 1928

Spencer conceived the scheme for a memorial chapel while he was staying with his friend, the artist Henry Lamb. It was when visiting Lamb that  art patrons John Louis and Mary Behrend saw Spencer’s drawings and decided to help Spencer fulfil his vision by commissioning the architect Lionel Pearson to design the building that would be a memorial to Mary’s brother, who had died of an illness contracted while serving in the same front as Spencer.

Henry Lamb, ‘Irish Troops in the Judean Hills Surprised by a Turkish Bombardment’, 1919

The panels that Spencer painted featured scenes of his own wartime experiences, both as a hospital orderly at the Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol and as a soldier on the Salonika front.  Painted entirely from memory, the panels focussed on  domestic routines rather than combat, and evoked everyday experience – washing lockers, inspecting kit, sorting laundry, scrubbing floors and taking tea – in which Spencer found spiritual resonance and sustenance.

Beaufort War Hospital.

Hospital Ward, Beaufort War Hospital, with Stanley Spencer, standing extreme left and marked as ‘me’

‘They don’t look like war pictures; they rather look like Heaven, a place I am becoming very familiar with’, wrote Spencer to his sister, Florence, 1923.  The design for the chapel, with both sides divided into four arched panels, with a predella panel beneath each, was based on the frescoes painted by Giotto in the Arena Chapel in Padua. Rather than depicting combat and death, Spencer transformed the essence of his experience into a vision in which the menial and the everyday became sublime. The  work was also inspired by the Confessions of Saint Augustine, with its message that the monotony of fetching and carrying and the drudgery of daily routine could bring a person closer to God.

Unusually for art that responds to war, Spencer does not depict combat, acts of military heroism, or death; instead, Spencer portrays the everyday routine in soldiers’ lives. Each panel depicts a scene teeming with activity: men sorting out kit at a training camp, washing themselves in a bathroom, sorting laundry or filling urns with tea. There’s an element of religious allegory – from an orderly’s outstretched, cross-like arms as he makes a bed, to the soldiers’ capes that hang from their shoulders like angelic wings – but always rooted in the realism of everyday life.  Spencer described the paintings as ‘a symphony of rashers of bacon’ with ‘tea-making obligato’, representing a ‘heaven in a hell of war.’ 

Stanley Spencer, Self-Portrait, 1923

Stanley Spencer, ‘Self-Portrait’, 1923

Spencer would sometimes explain to interviewers (there’s a superb BBC programme from 1956 – Spencer: War and Peace – showing at Somerset House alongside the paintings) how, for him, losing himself in the menial routines of war, whether in Beaufort hospital or at the front in Macedonia, became the miraculous, a means of reconciliation with the death and suffering he encountered.

For the crucial thing about Spencer’s murals is that you approach the Resurrection through panels that depict the drudgery of the daily tasks assigned to soldiers, but also the release and comradeship involved –  making beds, scrubbing floors, buttering sandwiches for tea, washing in the bathroom, sorting laundry and making beds.

Before serving as hospital for the war wounded, Beaufort was – and continued to serve as – a mental asylum and what is revealed in many of the details in these pictures – the handkerchiefs of the mentally ill piled up in the hospital laundry room,  a distant figure from the asylum in Filling Tea Urns, a disturbed inmate repetitively scrubbing the floor as others go by – is how sensitive Spencer was to mental instability around him.

So here are the panels, in the order that they are encountered by the viewer, with the notes provided by the Somerset House curators.

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Convoy Arriving with the Wounded

The narrative sequence of Spencer’s canvases from the Sandham Memorial Chapel begins with Convoy Arriving with the Wounded. An open-topped bus forces its way through rhododendron bushes to the gates of the Beaufort Military Hospital in Bristol, which Spencer described as being ‘massive and as high as the gate of Hell’. The unpleasant-looking gatekeeper adds an ominous element to the wounded soldiers’ arrival. The keys at his belt belong to the chapel rather than the hospital, thus visually connecting the painting with its location.

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Scrubbing the Floor

In the first of the smaller, predella canvases painted for the chapel, a shell-shocked soldier lies prostrate in a dark hospital passageway while he obsessively scrubs the floor with a soapy rag. Above him figures rush back and forth with trays of bread. Spencer would sometimes envy the repetitive, insular lives of the asylum patients at the Beaufort Hospital. saying, ‘I would like to do things that way . . I could contemplate. Nothing would disturb me’.

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Ablutions

A sense of clam activity fills this everyday scene of a bathroom at Beaufort, busy with soldiers cleaning, drying themselves, dressing and, in the case of the man at the centre of the canvas, having iodine painted onto a wound. The detailed depiction of the sponge seen below the orderly cleaning taps, as well as the towels and the soap suds in the soldiers’ hair, shows Spencer’s fascination with painting different materials and surfaces.

Spencer Sandham Memorial 4 Sorting and Moving Kit-Bags

Sorting and Moving Kit-Bags 

Orderlies sort the kit-bags belonging to a newly-aarived convoy of soldiers in a bleak courtyard – a part of the Beaufort Hospital that, in essence, survives to the present day. Spencer wrote about the scene, remembering that, ‘Immediately on arrival at the hospital the kit-bags of the soldiers just arrived would be stacked all together in the courtyard . . . The orderlies would then carry them to wherever the patient wanted them, or open them if so required. They were all padlocked’.

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Kit Inspection 

Soldiers struggle to flatten out the blankets onto which their kit is to be laid out prior to inspection.  A humorous touch is provided by the one soldier who is near to completing his task, who appears awkwardly sprawled out as if he has fallen asleep on top of his kit. Kit Inspection is the only one of the chapel canvases to be set at Tweseldown, the camp near Farnham in Surrey, where Spencer was sent to train before he left for the Macedonian front.

Spencer Sandham Memorial 6 Sorting the Laundry

Sorting the Laundry 

The laundry at Beaufort was a space where Spencer found respite from unwelcome chores.  In this cheerful scene, a nurse supervises orderlies who sort through bags of laundry, including towels, jackets and sheets. A giant pile of white sheets builds up against the wall – a second pile, of spotted red handkerchiefs belonging to the permanent inmates from the asylum at Beaufort, reminds the viewer of the hospital’s dual purpose during the war.

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Dug-out (Stand-to) 

Dug-out is the first in the narrative sequence of the Sandham canvases to depict a scene set at the Macedonian front. Soldiers in two trenches prepare their equipment for a ‘stand-to’ order about to be given by their sergeant, whose uniform is camouflaged by fern fronds. A tense, sombre atmosphere is created by the piles of barbed wire that appear like black thunder clouds, and by one of the soldiers looking ominously towards the right, which in the chapel is where Spencer’s altarpiece of the Resurrection of the Soldiers appears.

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Filling Tea Urns 

Orderlies fill urns with tea to take back to the various military wards at the Beaufort Hospital, while a small figure behind a counter in the far background represents someone filling an urn for one of the asylum wards. Spencer was curious about the lives of the mental patients, who were housed in a separate wing. and he saw the counter as the dividing point in the hospital, that separated the patients into two distinct worlds.

Spencer Sandham Memorial 9 Resurrection of the Soldiers

The Resurrection of the Soldiers 

This is Spencer’s vision of the end of war, in which heaven has emerged from hell. Each cross amongst the astonishing and brave tumble across the canvas serves as an object of devotion (some of which are handed to Christ, who has been unconventionally placed in the mid-background); or marks a grave from which a soldier emerges; or serves to frame a bewildered face. The central motif is a pair of fallen mules, still harnessed to their timber wagon. The position of the cross on the altar in the chapel was of great importance to Spencer, for he felt it ‘imperative that the top of the altar should be slightly above the bottom of the big picture’ so that it might be incorporated visually amongst the mass of his own painted crosses.

Resurrection was painted on canvas adhered to the wall of the high altar at Sandham Memorial Chapel and so is presented as a projection in the exhibition.

Spencer Sandham Memorial 10 Reveille

Reveille

Reveille (the morning wake-up) shows soldiers looming into the tent, announcing the fact that the war is over. In the chapel itself, the Resurrection (or the end of the war) has already taken place in the narrative sequence. Soldiers are shown dressing under mosquito nets, with malaria-infested mosquitoes hovering above them. Spencer had suffered from malaria whilst serving in Salonika, and it is probable that Harry Sandham, the dedicatee of the chapel, had died of complications related to the same disease.

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Frostbite

This scene at Beaufort Hospital is one of the busiest canvases in the chapel.  Medical orderlies are shown bustling around patients, one of whom is having his feet scraped, which was one of Spencer’s tasks. One of the orderlies has even sprouted angelic ‘wings’ in the form of the buckets that he carries. Whilst at Beaufort, Spencer was introduced to the Confessions of St Augustine. He advocated that busyness brought one closer to God. Spencer used this philosophy to help him during his time at the hospital.

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Filling Water-Bottles

The orderly’s ‘wings’ in Frostbite are echoed here in a different form – in the dramatically flowing ‘wings’ of the soldier’s mackintoshes, as they collect water from a spring. The technical skill evidenced here demonstrates how Spencer had matured during his painting of the chapel canvases, for this was one of the last scenes he painted. Spencer had written about water fountains like this one, with ‘a great crowd of men round a Greek fountain or drinking-water trough (usually two slabs of marble, one set vertically into the side of a hill, having a slit-shaped hole in it which the other slab fits …)’.

TEA IN THE HOSPITAL WARD by Stanley Spencer (1891- 1959) on the south wall at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere, Hampshire.

Tea in the Hospital Ward

Tea-time must have been one of the highlights in the daily routine at the Beaufort Hospital. The contemplative figure in the bottom left-hand corner suggests that it was a quiet time, although a photograph in the Glenside Hospital Museum shows a reality quite different from the cosy scene evoked by Spencer, with formal, serried ranks of patients sat at trestle tables. This scene did not feature in Spencer’s original scheme and was the last of the predella canvases to be painted in 1932.

Spencer Sandham Memorial 14 Map-Reading

Map-Reading 

The officer is the only soldier in command represented in the cycle.  He is shown holding a map of Macedonia, on which Spencer noted all the places that he could remember visiting there. The soldiers in the background are shown feasting on bilberries, in a landscape that might almost be his home town, Cookham. The rendering of landscape and greenery typifies Spencer’s skill at painting landscape and still-life, reflecting the rhododendrons by the Beaufort gatehouse in Convoy Arriving with the Wounded, and the rolling landscape above the Resurrection.

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Bedmaking

Spencer Sandham Memorial 15 Bedmaking, detail

Bedmaking (detail)

This seems a quintessentially English scene, with the mismatched fabrics, stripy wallpaper, and pin-ups above the bed (both Hilda and Spencer’s father are shown). It has been suggested that the scene shows a hospital ward in a requisitioned house in Salonika, but it is more like to be a fusion of memories of Beaufort and Macedonia, where Spencer had been a patient himself. A figure – perhaps Spencer himself – is cocooned inside his blankets. but unlike his companions in Frostbite, he is upright, his expressive. oversized toes dancing on the urn-like form of the hot water bottle.

(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Firebelt 

The creation of a firebelt entailed the burning off of grass around the camp in order to create a protective fire barrier: here the soldiers are using copies of the Balkan News as firelighters. ‘Of the last three arched pictures, I like [this] the best,’ Spencer wrote to Mary Behrend. The tangle of pulleys and complicated interplay of figures, including a Stanley-esque figure in uniform, holding a tent pole, does indeed make for a complex, but resoundingly successful composition

Spencer Sandham Memorial 17 Washing Lockers

Washing Lockers

This ritual of scrubbing bedside lockers at the Beaufort Hospital took place in the bathroom of Ward 4. This duty was often overseen by the fearsome Sister Hunter, who once caught Stanley’s brother, Gilbert, cleaning the floor with a mop instead of a scrubbing brush. ‘There are no corners to Spencer’s Ward’, she admonished. Spencer shows himself squeezing himself between the bath tubs, where he was able to find some all-too- elusive personal space. For him, this menial task – like scrubbing floors – assumed a spiritual quality.

Sandham Memorial Chapel Full View

Sandham Memorial Chapel: the panels in situ

These paintings, which took six years to create and were completed in 1932, are considered by many to be Spencer’s finest achievement. Simon Schama has called the Spencer murals ‘the most powerful art to emerge from the carnage of the Great War’.

In his review for the Independent, Adrian Hamilton wrote:

Spencer described some of these paintings as a “symphony of rashers of bacon” with “tea obligato”, which makes him sound like Alan Bennett artist conjuring up fond characters. But he isn’t.  Behind these pictures is an intensity of feeling and urgency, alongside the humorous detail, that speaks of a march towards death and a promise of paradise after. Even in the fondest pictures such as Bedmaking the outstretched arms of the soldier stretching the sheet along with the standing  figures in their blankets covers either side suggest crucifixion. “They don’t look like war pictures,” he wrote as he started sketching out his first ideas in 1923, ‘they rather look like Heaven, a place I am becoming familiar with’.

In another article in the Independent, Claudia Pritchard wrote:

With his pots of jam and rashers of bacon, his view of war might seem, at first glance, flippant. But look again. The Beaufort patient scrubbing the floor is doing so obsessively, repeatedly, traumatised by warfare. The mounds of dirty washing and the Beaufort patients’ uniform illustrate that the men who are cannon fodder are interchangeable, dehumanised.  Spencer knew about war, right enough. And he chose to depict, in honouring his fallen fellows, not death and destruction, but mankind’s magnificent capacity for selfless drudgery in the service of others.

Stanley Spencer, ‘Poppies’, 1938

How should we remember those who have died in war or through genocide? What purpose do memorials and remembrance serve?  In his poem Recalling War, written some twenty years after the First World War, Robert Graves writes about how the Great War was remembered by his generation. As we are about to begin a year marking 100 years since the beginning of that war, Graves poem is timely, commenting as it does on the fading common memory of the war as so little physically remains to remind people of its significance. As wars fade from memory and the last of the survivors dies, the reality of war is lost in a false memory of military bravado, while the causes of war are forgotten too.

Entrance and exit wounds are silvered clean,
The track aches only when the rain reminds.
The one-legged man forgets his leg of wood,
The one-armed man his jointed wooden arm.
The blinded man sees with his ears and hands
As much or more than once with both his eyes.
Their war was fought these twenty years ago
And now assumes the nature-look of time,
As when the morning traveller turns and views
His wild night-stumbling carved into a hill.

What, then, was war? No mere discord of flags
But an infection of the common sky
That sagged ominously upon the earth
Even when the season was the airiest May.
Down pressed the sky, and we, oppressed, thrust out
Boastful tongue, clenched fist and valiant yard.
Natural infirmities were out of mode,
For Death was young again; patron alone
Of healthy dying, premature fate-spasm.

Fear made fine bed-fellows. Sick with delight
At life’s discovered transitoriness,
Our youth became all-flesh and waived the mind.
Never was such antiqueness of romance,
Such tasty honey oozing from the heart.
And old importances came swimming back –
Wine, meat, log-fired, a roof over the head,
A weapon at the thigh, surgeons at call.
Even there was a use again for God –
A word of rage in lack of meat, wine, fire,
In ache of wounds beyond all surgeoning.

War was return of earth to ugly earth,
War was foundering of sublimities,
Extinction of each happy art and faith
By which the world has still kept head in air,
Protesting logic or protesting love,
Until the unendurable moment struck –
The inward scream, the duty to run mad.

And we recall the merry ways of guns –
Nibbling the walls of factory and church
Like a child, piecrust; felling groves of trees
Like a child, dandelions with a switch.
Machine-guns rattle toy-like from a hill,
Down in a row the brave tin-soldiers fall:
A sight to be recalled in elder days
When learnedly the future we devote
To yet more boastful visions of despair.

Spencer’s chapel murals: clip from BBC British Masters series

See also

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5 thoughts on “Stanley Spencer’s Sandham murals: ‘a heaven in a hell of war’

  1. Thanks for sharing your reaction to the Spencer frescos. I hadn’t realised that he was inspired by the Giotto frescos in Padua. Many people (me included) think that the Scrovegni Chapel (Arena Chapel) cycle is Giotto’s finest work. Ashamed to say I haven’t visited the Spencer Chapel, but will be off to Somerset House after reading your blog. Thanks.

  2. I saw the murals at Somerset House! It was very crowded in the narrow space, and was like a pilgrimage, consequently, with the worshipers standing in awe in front of the paintings, or in slow procession one to another. The rich textures he paints so brilliantly seemed unearthly vivid, as one stood so near, and had such an I and Thou encounter! A moving and almost Holy experience.

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