Exploring Sandham Memorial Chapel and almshouses
Sandham Memorial Chapel is home to arguably the most important series of paintings by the modern British artist, Stanley Spencer. The chapel is a temple to the genius of Spencer, who wanted to express his military experience during the Great War in paint, and is still a working chapel with services throughout the year. Find out about the paintings that line the chapel walls, and the almshouses which host exhibitions.
Visiting the chapel
As you enter the chapel through the large oak doors, your eyes adjust to the light and immediately dart around the walls to the cornucopia of images before you. Take a moment to pause and take in the scale and power of the paintings, which are full of imagery and detail. Combined with differing light and even mood, they allow you to see something different or new each time you enter this special place.
The story behind the canvases
The 19 canvases, which took six years to complete, are unique in that they largely depict everyday routine rather than the horror of combat. Spencer’s 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 begin your journey as Spencer did, 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 in Laundry 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 routine activity.
Going to war
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.
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.
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 and 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.
Influences and patrons
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.
Adjoining the chapel are two almshouses previously occupied from the 1930s. Following a restoration project, one of the almshouses was recreated to represent that era using original colour schemes and products appropriate to the period. It houses an exhibition space over three rooms with descriptive panels, interactive tablets, facsimile archive material and a short film.
Discover all about this unique chapel and how 20th century artist Stanley Spencer came to create such an impactful memorial to everyday life in the First World War.
Explore the garden wrapping around the chapel, including an orchard, meadow and Garden of Reflection. Sit in this tranquil space to pause and consider the striking paintings.
The small shop has a selection of gifts and books. Picnic spots provide ideal places to bring your own refreshments and enjoy the surrounding garden.
Historic buildings are a treasure trove of stories, art and collections. Learn more about what makes these places so special and plan your visit.