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

Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?