Lest we forget those who scrubbed floors: Inside Stanley Spencer's unique war memorial

As Remembrance Sunday nears, Claudia Pritchard looks at the one-of-a-kind war memorial dubbed "the UK’s Sistine Chapel"

Towers of bread and butter, a herbaceous border, a stack of spotted handkerchiefs… you may not recognise these as the trappings of conflict, but as depicted by the artist Stanley Spencer, they symbolise the mundane reality of a world at war.

His cycle of 19 paintings commissioned for, and usually only visible at, Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, Berkshire, are vignettes of First World War life, based on his own experiences as a medical orderly at a Bristol military hospital and on active service in Greece.

And now, for only the second time in 80 years, they are leaving the chapel, as the National Trust lends them first to London’s Somerset House, then  to Pallant House in Chichester, for a new exhibition, making it easier for many to see what can be regarded as the artist’s masterpieces.

Sandham Memorial Chapel was built by arts patrons Louis and Mary Behrend, specifically to house Spencer’s paintings. The couple, whose fortune came from cotton seed and shipping, were enthusiastic and generous champions of new artists and made many concessions to the brilliant young painter, but did not back down on the chapel’s location. It would not be, as Spencer would have liked, in or near his beloved home village of Cookham, also in Berkshire, but adjacent to their own substantial home. Completed in 1932 after five years in the making, it was dedicated to the memory of Mary’s brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham, who died in the Great War, but it was, above all, a memorial to all the fallen.

Spencer, who was inspired while studying at the Slade by a series of exhibitions featuring the works of the great Italian Renaissance painters, and who treasured a small volume of Giotto engravings, based his cycle on that artist’s frescos in the Scrovegni chapel in Padua. Like Giotto’s cycle, his would show people in contemporary clothing and closely observed details of daily life. Many of the paintings focus on the rituals he observed and took part in while at Bristol’s Beaufort hospital – the reception of more and more injured men and the sort of cleaning that leaves nothing to chance, such as the hand-scrubbing of floors, the dunking of bedside lockers in the claw-footed baths or the boiling of the scarlet hankies. In Patient Suffering from Frostbite, for example, staff in white minister like angels to a patient’s crippled feet; a cage lifts the billowing cloud of bed linens away from his enflamed legs. The scene looks like an Ascension, and there are constant such references to Bible stories, which Spencer loved.

Details of hospital scenes  

But although Spencer looked to Giotto stylistically, materially, after a few failed attempts at fresco – applying colour to wet plaster – he stuck to oil. Amanda Bradley, co-curator of the exhibition, Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War, is grateful for that decision: frescos would undoubtedly have suffered more in the dank British rural air than the oils have. And although the need for maintenance  on the chapel is the prime reason for the paintings’ temporary removal, they themselves are in excellent condition – the only blight being a “fatty bloom”, a mysterious greasy sheen that may be attributed to the quality of paint available between the two wars.

Unable to travel because they are bonded to the chapel walls, meanwhile, are two long scenes, set on the Greek front line, which run right across the long walls on either side of the chapel nave: one shows The Camp at Karasuli, the other is The Riverbed at Torova, where men undertake light chores and amuse themselves in their stony billet.

In fact, Spencer probably saw more of death and mutilation among the patients at Beaufort Hospital than he did while stationed abroad. Yet he felt he should be out on active service, and to join the troops in Salonika, modern Thessalonika, answered that desire to serve.

Again, it is the necessary rather than the dramatic that fills his pictures of troops on duty. In Reveille, men are seen pulling on their uniforms inside mosquito nets – malaria, from which Spencer was to suffer, was a potentially lethal hazard – as others arrive to tell them that the war is over. Elsewhere, they refill their water bottles from a natural spring; collapse, exhausted by the day’s march, among the flowers; reach into the bushes for fruit while their commanding officer checks the map; and shred newspaper to make a firewall around their camp.

Map reading  

In Somerset House, the eight large pictures and their eight “predellas” – lower, shallower pictures beneath – will be arranged, as in the chapel, face to face. Thirty or so preparatory drawings, marvellous in their complexity, will preface the show, and in place of the altarpiece, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, which cannot be detached from the end wall of the chancel, there will be a projection so detailed that it will enable visitors to see its scores of figures even more clearly than in the chapel itself. In this modern-day Resurrection, Christ is a small, distant and androgynous figure, and the composition is dominated by a whirl of barbed wire reflecting little beads of light and a tangle of stark white crosses as soldiers rise from their graves.

Spencer’s faith was serious but unconventional. “God is in all the things I love,” he said. By the time of the Burghclere commission, he had completed The Resurrection, now at Tate Britain, in which the dead clambering out of their tombs are his friends, family and the villagers of Cookham in their everyday wear. And here again at Burghclere, 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: Heaven in a Hell of War’: Somerset House (somersethouse.org.uk) Thur to 26 Jan;  Pallant House, Chichester (pallanthouse.org.uk),  15 Feb to 15 Jun

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