Stanley Spencer’s Memorial Chapel at Sandham is a remarkable hidden jewel in the heart of the Hampshire countryside. It’s an incredible place, unlike any other church I’ve visited.
Half art gallery, half war memorial, it’s hard to convey the sheer power of this small space which is crammed with murals commemorating scenes from World War One.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Spencer’s birth so it’s a good time to visit the chapel to celebrate this incredible British artist. The memorial packs a punch every bit as powerful as Giotto’s iconic Scrovegni Chapel in Padua on which it is based.
First impressions are confusing as your approach the chapel through a charming English country garden. From the outside Sandham doesn’t look like a chapel – its plain, modern red brick design looks more like a large house.
Opening its heavy oak doors, it’s a strange sight as your eyes adjust and focus on the images on the walls for the very first time. It’s a bit like being in a Renaissance chapel with walls covered with murals.
The 19 paintings are part of a cycle that tells the story of Spencer’s time spent in Macedonia during the First World War as a medical orderly.
During this time Spencer became one of Britain’s most important war artists, and painted his wartime experiences with the Field Ambulance Unit and later with the Berkshire Regiment.
The Sandham paintings, which took six years to create, are considered by many to be the artist’s finest achievement. The images are haunting and powerful, providing a window into the world of the average soldier and his daily routines.
Perhaps most interesting is that they portray an almost forgotten military campaign in Macedonia, which has been overlooked in history by the horrendous battles of the Somme in France.
They appear almost like illuminations from a medieval gospel book – the story of a military campaign through its many ups and downs.
A soldier’s story
Stanley Spencer spent more than two years on the front line in Macedonia, facing German and Bulgarian troops, before he was invalided out of the army.
His paintings combine the realism of the war with dreamlike visions drawn from his imagination. They provide an interesting alternative view of soldiers in wartime, depicting the banal daily life which represented a “heaven in a hell of war” for the soldiers brought back injured from the battlefield.
‘Tea in the Hospital Ward’ (below) shows the wounded men at Beaufort Military Hospital enjoying their tea time with jam sandwiches, one of the highlights of the day.
‘Dug-Out’ takes us right to the battle lines with its scene at the Macedonian front, showing soldiers in the trenches preparing their kit and equipment for a ‘stand-to’ order. This darker, brooding painting is notable for its sombre dark brown tones and grim, foreboding clouds.
The highlight of the chapel is the large canvas called ‘Resurrection of the Soldiers’ which dominates a complete wall of the chapel. It is absolutely huge, and it’s hard not to be moved to tears by its powerful imagery.
The mural, which depicts the end of the war, is dominated by a series of white crosses marching across the painting like signboards of hope. It recalls the sacrifice of those who didn’t survive this bloody war and depicts graves of the men who were lost.
“I meant it not a scene of horror but as a scene of redemption… One would have thought that the scene was a sordid one… but I felt there was grandeur… all those wounded men were calm and at peace with everything, so the pain seemed a small thing with them” – Stanley Spencer.
The paintings of the war dead are extremely powerful, but Spencer also shows us a less familiar world away from the fighting – the humdrum side of military life.
For Spencer the menial side of war was something of an escape from the horrors of the battle field. For him, it was as important to illustrate this side of life as the horrors of the battle field.
Working on the Chapel has been described as a process of remembrance and exorcism by Spencer. He said, “I had buried so many people and saw so many bodies that I felt death could not be the end of everything”.
An incredible journey
As the anniversary of Stanley Spencer’s birth is commemorated, this place is a timely reminder that we should never lose sight of the impact of war.
My late grandfather never stopped talking about his wartime experiences in France during World War One. Like Spencer, he returned home from the front line and gained a sense of reconciliation from reflecting on this traumatic war.
Stanley Spencer’s Sandham Chapel is a fantastic memorial to his fellow soldiers. It takes us on a journey to places which are hard to imagine. It shines a light on the nature of war and conflict which we should not forget today.
Take a journey to Sandham – you won’t be disappointed by Spencer’s visions of war.
Tammy’s Top Tips – Sandham
Sandham Memorial Chapel is located in Burghclere in Hampshire, England. To find out more about how to visit, check out the National Trust website.
The chapel can only accommodate 25 people at a time so pick your visiting time or pre-book for bigger groups by calling 01635 278394. Group visits are normally held on days when the chapel is closed to general visitors.
There is a lovely picnic site at the rear of the Chapel which is a great place to relax on a hot summer’s day.
To discover more about Stanley Spencer why not visit his official website featuring the artist and further information about the Stanley Spencer Gallery in nearby Cookham.
Image credits: Paintings are courtesy of the National Trust, John Hammond and the Barbara Karmel Bequest with thanks to Sandham Memorial Chapel.