Stanley Spencer and his ‘Holy Box’, Sandham Memorial Chapel
30 June would have been the 125th birthday of the painter, Stanley Spencer. More significantly, he was 23 in 1914. So he belonged to the generation that was killed or injured in the First World War, or deeply affected by it. His response to the conflict was to conceive the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere in Hampshire: an astounding cycle of 19 scenes inspired by Spencer’s experiences as a medical orderly during the war.
A unique portrayal of the war
Nothing about the nondescript exterior of the chapel can prepare you for what lies within the ‘Holy Box’, as Spencer called it. His powerful imagination fills the interior space - from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, on three sides.
Celebrating the everyday
Spencer served as a medical orderly at the Beaufort War Hospital near Bristol, at the Tweseldown training camp in Surrey, and in Salonika on the Macedonian battlefront.
In his depiction of war, he chose to focus on the more everyday events of the ordinary soldier’s life (officers are notable by their absence). By painting mundane labour, he expressed his deeply personal religious faith, with murals showing soldiers scrubbing floors, sorting laundry and kit-bags, making beds and tottering piles of jam sandwiches.
In one mural, a squaddie washes his hair in a sink, and Spencer paints the frothy shampoo and puddles of spilt water with loving precision. Here, in paint, Spencer represents the Benedictine motto, laborare est orare (‘To work is to pray’).
" …bearing, filling, coming, going, fetching, carrying, sorting, opening doors, shutting them, carrying tea-urns, scrubbing floors."
Rising from the dead
The entire altar wall is covered by a single scene that forms the climax to the whole cycle: the Resurrection of the Soldiers. This painting shows the fallen rising from the dead amidst a tangle of white wooden crosses. The result is a powerful image, which would have meant something different to every visitor who had endured the First World War.
Before the war
Spencer trained at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, under the formidable Professor Henry Tonks.
Tonks recognised and fostered Spencer’s talent for drawing. Spencer studied Giotto and the other early Italian masters, but took a personal approach to his artwork – setting scenes from the Bible in his beloved Berkshire birthplace of Cookham.
" When I left the Slade and went back to Cookham I entered a kind of earthly paradise. Everything seemed fresh and to belong to the morning. My ideas were beginning to unfold in fine order when along comes the war and smashes everything."
The patient patrons that made his vision possible
Spencer was fortunate to find patrons in John Louis and Mary Behrend who were wealthy and patient enough to support his ambitious project.
Mrs Behrend’s brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham, had died in 1919 of a disease contracted while fighting on the Macedonian front, and so the Behrends decided to create an oratory (a chapel for prayer) in his memory.
When they gave Spencer the commission, he exclaimed in delight, ‘What ho, Giotto!’ – an acknowledgement of his debt to Giotto’s 14th-century frescos in the Arena Chapel in Padua.
However, Spencer realised that Giotto’s fresco technique of painting directly onto wet plaster was not suited to the damp British climate. So, he stuck with his tried-and-tested method of working in oil paint on large rolls of canvas. As a result, Spencer’s paintings have lasted remarkably well.
A chapel with hundreds of stories to tell
Everyone will have their favourite detail in the chapel. But whatever scene you prefer, there is no question that, taken as a whole, the Sandham Memorial Chapel ranks as Stanley Spencer’s masterpiece.
The Behrends offered the chapel to the National Trust in 1947, when Spencer’s cycle was only 15 years old. The Trust’s Historic Buildings Secretary, James Lees-Milne, was impressed. He noted in his diary, ‘As an achievement it is colossal; as a period piece highly representative…. It is, I submit, well worth holding.’ And so it was.