Sir Stanley Spencer, CBE, RA (Cookham 1891– Cliveden 1959)
The artist Sir Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) had an unflinching eye for capturing everyday detail and instilling it with meaning. His commission for Sandham Memorial Chapel, one of the greatest painted schemes of 20th-century British art, is utterly remarkable. Spencer served in the First World War as a medical orderly outside Bristol, and then on the Macedonian front, and later drew on his experiences to create this masterpiece. The paintings were commissioned by John Louis Behrend (1881–1972) and his wife Mary (1884–1977) as a memorial to Mary’s brother Henry ‘Hal’ Sandham (1876–1920), who had also served in Macedonia and died of an illness after the war. Many of the paintings depict ordinary scenes, such as hospital interiors, the wounded arriving by bus, an inspection of kit, and tasks such as cleaning, preparing food, sorting laundry and filling tea urns. One painting, Map Reading, depicts an officer on horseback consulting a map with Macedonian place names while soldiers pick berries. The simplicity and banal nature of these subjects, showing both military personnel and civilians, provided a type of antidote to the remembered horrors of war. The chapel was given to the Trust in 1947 by the original patrons.
Oil painting on canvas, Bedmaking by Sir Stanley Spencer, CBE, RA (Cookham 1891– Cliveden 1959), 1927/32, South Wall, Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere. Orderlies make soldiers’ beds in a hospital ward decorated with blue-and-white-striped wallpaper, the figure on the right making ‘hospital corners’. It has been suggested that the location was a requisitioned house in Salonika, but it is more likely to be a fusion of memories of the Beaufort Hospital and Macedonia, where Spencer had been a patient himself. Reluctant to give up their warm beds, two soldiers cocoon themselves in patterned blankets, one tiptoeing on a hot water bottle at left. Postcards and photographs of loved ones are pinned up on the walls, including portraits of Spencer’s first wife Hilda, his father William at the doorway of Hedsor Church, Cookham, and an image of his niece Pam as a baby, Further images were inspired by the collection of Spencer’s maid at Burghclere, Elsie Munday. See NT 719808 for an associated preparatory sketch.
The mural cycle for the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, Hampshire, is regarded as one of the greatest war memorials of the twentieth century. Its nineteen canvases convey not the horror and bloodshed of the battlefield, but the quotidian routines and human interactions Spencer himself experienced, first as an orderly for the Royal Army Medical Corps (1915), and later as an orderly and infantryman on the Macedonian Front (1916-7). The scheme is comprised of sixteen predella and round-arched oil paintings on canvas and two lengths of oil on canvas extending to the ceilings, adhered to the north and south walls. Filling the entire east wall behind the altar is the startlingly powerful Resurrection, the largest single canvas in the series. The cycle begins with a convoy of injured soldiers returned home for treatment at Beaufort Hospital, Bristol. Originally an asylum, the hospital was commandeered during the First World War but retained a permanent wing for the mentally ill. Having enlisted in the RAMC after the outbreak of war (1914), Spencer was posted to Beaufort in July 1915. He observed life and service at Beaufort with acute interest, committing to memory scenes he would later transfer onto the walls of Sandham Chapel. Spencer found most of his daily work tedious, but absorbed with grim fascination everything he saw, from sponges to frostbitten toes. His natural ebullience and curiosity ameliorated what he called the ‘innumerable unanalysable mental shocks’ of hospital work (Notebook, 1944-5, Tate Archive, TGA 733.3.85). A man of intense albeit idiosyncratic Christian faith, Spencer also believed that menial work and everyday things had spiritual value: a notion taken from the Confessions of St Augustine, which had been introduced to him by his long-term friend, the poet Desmond Chute. The scenes at Sandham are thus composed of and reveal essential aspects of human existence: the daily needs and struggles of men over passages of time. In the second canvas, for example, Spencer depicts orderlies on the bread-run who narrowly miss a solider lying prostrate and shell-shocked at the corner of a dark corridor, obsessively scrubbing a patch of floor. In subsequent scenes the bodily processes which set the rhythms of hospital life are subject. The third canvas, Ablutions, shows soldiers washing and shaving at sinks while one man’s wounds are daubed with iodine; in a later predella, frostbitten feet are forensically inspected to prevent necrosis. Nearby, convalescents on a ward tuck in to stacks of soft white bread, generously buttered and served with jam, as others snooze and one young man carefully combs a parting into his hair. In other scenes orderlies sort through mounds of laundry and fill tea urns in the kitchens, the only part of the hospital shared by working psychiatric patients. In the summer of 1916, Spencer was transferred overseas to Macedonia where the Salonika campaign was underway. It was his first time abroad. He served with the field ambulance divisions before volunteering, in August 1917, for the 7th battalion Royal Berkshires and spent several months on the front line. The first canvas to depict Macedonia is Dug-Out, in which soldiers in trenches ready themselves for combat. Looming over them are ominous storm-clouds rendered as densely packed and rusting loops of barbed wire. The persistent threat of disease is alluded to in Reveille, in which a cloud of malarial mosquitos hover above men shrouded in protective nets. Malaria claimed 160,000 casualties during the campaign, and Spencer himself fell victim (three times), as did the Chapel’s dedicatee, Hal Sandham. Rest and replenishment comes in the form of Map Reading, a scene redolent of lazy summer days in England but which actually shows a route-march in Macedonia. Pausing en-route, the officer commanding reads a map while troops fan out around him to nap on grassy verges and gorge on berries. The tranquillity and abundance of the scene is a counterpoint to Filling Waterbottles, the adjacent panel, in which infantrymen scramble to quench their thirst in the blistering Macedonian heat. The Resurrection of the Soldiers, an emotive and monumental pièce de résistance, occupies the six-by-five metre wall behind the high altar and shows the war-dead coming back to life, to a time of peace. Spencer wrote that he had ‘buried so many people and saw so many dead bodies’ during the war ‘that he felt that death could not be the end of everything’ (cited in Gough 2006, p. 152). In the foreground, behind the altar and in direct relation to it, men emerge from the earth and through the disorderly mass of white wooden crosses that marked their graves. Each one of the many crosses depicted serve as objects of devotion, some are being carried by soldiers to Christ, the diminutive figure robed in white, near the apex of the picture. Spencer had explored the theme in the celebrated tableau The Resurrection, Cookham (Tate N04239) and would return to it in the years that followed. The commission Constructed to designs by Lionel Pearson in the 1920s, Sandham Memorial Chapel was purpose-built to house Spencer’s mural cycle. Both building and decorative scheme were commissioned by the visionary art patrons and collectors John Louis Behrend (1881-1972) and Mary Behrend (1883-1977). The Behrends lived in Burghclere and had been introduced to Spencer through the artist Henry Lamb (1883-1960). Consecrated as an Oratory to All Souls, the chapel was built to commemorate Mary’s brother Henry (Hal) Willoughby Sandham, who, like Spencer and Lamb, had served in Macedonia but who had died of malaria-related illness in 1919. Although the mural cycle was painted on canvas, Spencer had originally intended to execute it in fresco, in keeping with his main point of reference, the fresco cycle painted by Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337) for the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua. His love for Giotto and other Italian early-Renaissance artists began as a student at the Slade School of Art (1908-12), and developed through regular visits to the National Gallery and to exhibitions of Italian Renaissance art mounted in the pre-war years at the Royal Academy, the Burlington Fine Arts Club and the Grafton Gallery. Spencer brought his art books with him during his military service, ‘So that even Giotto is dragged into this drill’ (Spencer to Desmond Chute, quoted in Carline 1978, pp. 62-3). After a painting exhibition to Yugoslavia in 1922, Spencer began making drawings for a series of war paintings based on his experiences in Macedonia and Beaufort. These would develop into the detailed pencil and wash studies for site-specific murals made in the summer of 1923 at Henry Lamb’s house in Poole. Echoing the Scrovegni Chapel, the architectural scheme Spencer envisaged had sidewalls in two registers with a series of arched upper panels and predellas, and an unbroken end wall behind the altar. The Behrends saw these designs on a visit to Lamb’s house that year, and Spencer’s ‘Holy Box’ was set in motion. Some of the early panels were painted at Lamb’s studio in Hampstead which the artist rented before moving to Burghclere to work in situ in 1926. The cycle was completed in 1932.
Given with the chapel by John Louis Behrend (1881- 1972) and Mary Sandham Behrend (1884 - 1977), 1947
Makers and roles
Sir Stanley Spencer, CBE, RA (Cookham 1891– Cliveden 1959), artist
Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War, Manchester City Art Gallery, Manchester, 2013 - 2015 Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War, Somerset House, London, 2013 - 2015 Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 2013 - 2015
Behrend 1965: George Behrend, Stanley Spencer at Burghclere, London 1965, pp. 32-37 Carline 1978: Richard Carline, Stanley Spencer at War, London 1978 Bell, Carline and Causey 1980: Keith Bell, Richard Carline and Andrew Causey, Stanley Spencer (exh.cat., Royal Academy, London 1980), p. 112 Robinson 1990: Duncan Robinson, Stanley Spencer, Oxford 1990 Pople 1991: Kenneth Pople, Stanley Spencer: A Biography,London 1991 Bell 1992: Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, London 1992, p. 424 Hyman and Wright 2001: Timothy Hyman and Patrick Wright, Stanley Spencer (exh.cat. Tate, London 2001) Glew 2001: Adrian Glew (ed.), Stanley Spencer: Letters and Writings, (Tate, London 2001) Gough 2006: Paul Gough, Stanley Spencer: Journey to Burghclere, Bristol 2006, pp. 129-131 Bradley and Watson 2013: Amanda Bradley and Howard Watson (eds.) Stanley Spencer, Heaven in a Hell of War, (exh.cat. Somerset House, London and Pallant House, Chichester 2013-14 Bromwell 2014: Tom Bromwell, ‘The “God Box” of Burghclere, National Trust Historic Houses & Collections Annual, Apollo, 2014, pp. 54-9 Gough 2017: Paul Gough et al, ‘The Holy Box’, The Genesis of Stanley Spencer’s Sandham Memorial Chapel, (Samson and Co, Bristol 2017)