The iconic paintings inside Sandham Memorial Chapel

Sandham, first world war, art,

As you enter the chapel through the large oak doors, your eyes adjust to the light and will immediately dart around the chapel to the cornucopia of images before you. Take a moment to pause and take in the scale and power of the images before you.

Sandham is home to what is arguably the most important series of paintings by the modern British artist, Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). The chapel is a temple to the genius of Spencer, who wanted to express in paint his military experience during the Great War.

The nineteen canvases, which took six years to complete, are unique in that they depict everyday routine rather than the horror of combat. His initial posting as a medical orderly at Beaufort Hospital in Bristol instilled in him a sense that the everyday and the menial could bring him closer to God.  His wartime service took him to Macedonia where he continued service as a medical orderly and later as an infantryman.  

You can begin your journey as Spencer did in looking at Convoy arriving with the Wounded, with the huge gates that greeted him at Beaufort Hospital in Bristol.  

Spencer found his early experiences at Beaufort harrowing and in Scrubbing the Floor we see a shell-shocked soldier lying prostrate in a dark hospital passageway.  

Cast your eyes along to Sorting and Moving Kit Bags where the orderlies are taking the injured soldiers’ bags to their wards.  Ablutions depicts everyday activities, including hair washing, drying, and the dressing of wounds. 

In Sorting the Laundry the activity continues, with the matronly figure overseeing the sorting of sheets and handkerchiefs. In the final painting on the left you see Filling Tea Urns  - yet more references to activity.

We then move to Tweseldown Camp (above Sorting the Laundry) near Farnham in Kit Inspection where Spencer underwent training before being posted to Macedonia. 

The Resurrection behind the altar, together with the two arched pictures either side (Dug Out and Reveille), form a triptych which moves the action to Macedonia. Dug Out, to the left, shows soldiers looking with hope up to The Resurrection - it is the only painting hinting at the horror of the war.  In Reveille, opposite, we see soldiers announcing to others that the war is over.  

Detail from The Resurrection of the Soldiers. ©The Estate of Stanley Spencer/Bridgeman
Sandham detail Resurrection
Detail from The Resurrection of the Soldiers. ©The Estate of Stanley Spencer/Bridgeman

The Resurrection shows fallen soldiers reunited, having climbed out of their graves, some of whom continue with their everyday routines.  There is also the hidden surprise of Watership Down at the top left providing symmetry to the views from the chapel across the Hampshire countryside.

Detail from The Resurrection of the Soldiers. ©The Estate of Stanley Spencer/Bridgeman
Sandham detail man on cross Resurrection
Detail from The Resurrection of the Soldiers. ©The Estate of Stanley Spencer/Bridgeman

Along the right hand wall are many references to malaria; in Frostbite an orderly scrapes a man's feet, while in Reveille you see the mosquitoes buzzing at the top of the tent.  In Bed making, a figure, possibly Spencer, tries to keep warm wrapped in an eiderdown with his feet on a hot water bottle.

The heat and lighter palette of the Macedonian countryside are seen in Filling Water Bottles. In Map Reading the men are seen gorging on juicy bilberries while the Officer pores over his map.

The final arched painting Fire Belt, shows a protective barrier being created around the camp.

Before returning to Beaufort, lift your eyes to the camp site paintings (Camp at Karasuli & Todorovo) which cover the top left and right walls above the arches, depicting washing clothes, making tea, cooking bacon, tidying, building a road, clearing streams and playing games.

Back at Beaufort, in Tea on the Ward, we see piles of bread and jam, which was Spencer’s favourite food.  In Bed Making- possibly a medley of memories from Macedonia, Bristol and even Cookham – Spencer has included family photographs above the bed.  Finally, in Washing Lockers – set again at Beaufort - is depicted the huge magenta baths and a figure (perhaps Spencer) hiding between them to find personal space.

The paintings are full of imagery and detail, which, combined with differing light and even mood, allow you to see something different or new each time you enter this unique gem.

The chapel, which was inspired by Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua, was paid for by the patrons and collectors John Louis and Mary Behrend.  The Behrends later dedicated the chapel to Mary’s brother, Harry Sandham, who had died in 1920, shortly after returning from active service. You can find a memorial to Harry Sandham above the main chapel doors.

Sandham is still a working chapel with regular services throughout the year, the most important of these being our annual Remembrance service.