For some time now I have wanted to visit the Sandham Memorial Chapel and see the set of murals by Stanley Spencer sited there but somehow I have not yet managed to get there, and I was disappointed when I heard that the chapel was to be closed by the National Trust for major restoration work during part of 2014. However, I was delighted to see that for the duration of the closure the murals were to be temporarily housed at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester with the added bonus that the entire cycle of murals would be hung at eye level where you can actually get to see the paintings close to!
Spencer started off his wartime service at the Beaufort Military Hospital ( a converted lunatic asylum, and a place that Spencer described as “a vile place”) before being posted in 1916 to the Macedonian front to serve with the RAMC making sure that bodies did not fall off wagons pulled by mules and later on active service with the Royal Berkshire regiment. The work of a medical orderly was both physically and mentally exhausting, and as an outlet Spencer sketched prolifically. Sadly most of this work is now lost, but on his return home Spencer began working on his idea of a memorial chapel which was based on Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua – north and south walls covered with arched canvasses and pedellas with a monumental altarpiece on the east wall.
The Sandham Memorial Chapel was built by John Louis and Mary Behrend to specifications entirely devised by Spencer, from the fabric of the building to canvasses themselves, Spencer was allowed free rein to indulge his artistic output. Later the chapel was dedicated (by the Behrend’s) to Mary’s brother Harry Sandham who had served in Salonika and who died from an illness contracted while on active service, and Spencer reacted badly to the memorial plaque placed in the chapel.
The works themselves are about how Spencer himself survived the horrors of war to find ultimate piece, they are about the daily routines which carries on regardless of the horror or the war raging all around. It is interesting that these routines and sentiments are still recognised by soldiers today – the National Trust has been working with veterans and Help for Heroes on the gardens at Burghclere (the Behrend’s old home) and modern day servicemen confirm that they can relate to Spencer’s own experiences.
Arched canvasses (left) “Reveille (right) “Dug-out”
Tea in the Hospital Ward (detail)
Map Reading (detail)
All above images by Sir Stanley Spencer as part of the cycle of murals from the Sandham Memorial Chapel (owned by the National Trust). (Images copied from Issue 32 of the Pallant House Gallery magazine).
I found the exhibition interesting as it is a totally different approach to the subject of war, and personally I found the comparative mundane-ness of the tasks depicted fascinating as well as thought provoking, since I think it is easy to forget that around all the fighting there is also ordinariness.
Alongside the murals the exhibition also features preparatory drawings, sketches, notebooks and letters by Spencer relating to the paintings so you get a real feeling for the planning of such a grand scheme. There is a fully illustrated catalogue published by Pallant House which accompanies the exhibition, and the exhibition is open until 15th June 2014.