The Oratory of All Souls, Sandham Memorial Chapel, to give the building its full title reflects the spirit of our great twentieth century painter, Sir Stanley Spencer. It is unique in Britain, being a chapel whose interior walls are completely covered in paintings. Undoubted inspired by the Arena Chapel, in Padua, which was frescoed by Giotto in the fourteenth century, Spencer’s wall paintings are painted on canvas to suit our climate. And, like the Arena Chapel, the Sandham Chapel’s exterior is underwhelming in comparison to the interiors, set in red brick.
Stanley Spencer was laid low with malaria in Salonica in 1918 and wrote to his sister, Florence, “when I come home I am going to build a church…if I do not do this on Earth, I will do so in Heaven.” The main benefactors for Spencer’s project were John Louis and Mary Brehend, art collectors who already owned works by early twentieth British Masters such as Paul Nash and Augustus John. The chapel is dedicated to Lt. Harry Sandham but apart from a small plaque on the door in his memory, the concept more fully commemorates the genius and energy of Stanley Spencer. His only disappointment was that the building is in Burghclere in Hampshire, the home of the Brehends – he wanted the the chapel to be in his beloved Cookham.
The series of wall paintings follow no particular narrative but are presented in Spencer’s characteristic realism depicting ordinary people carrying out ordinary activities. The lower register depict scenes from the Beaufort Hospital in Bristol, where Spencer’s initial war service took place as an orderly. The eight scenes, such as Arrival of the Wounded, Scrubbing the Floor, Sorting the Laundry and Filling the Tea Urns represent the menial tasks at the hospital.
The middle register concentrate on soldiers in the Salonica Campaign, the long running battle between the Bulgarian Army and the French & English troops, to control the eastern access to the European War. These scenes include The Dug Out (or Stand-To, Reveille, and Map Reading. The Upper register show two large campaign paintings the full length of the roof: The Camp at Karasali on the north wall and Riverbed at Todorovo on the south wall.
Spencer’s masterpiece, though, is undoubtedly The Resurrection of the Soldiers filling the full height of the east wall above the altar. It dominates the chapel with its matrix of white crosses. It is an awesome image of war, with the centrepiece being two dead mules, still harnessed. Dead soldiers are coming out of the ground to take the crosses to Christ, unusually, depicted in the background as quite a small figure. The painting according to Spencer, is ‘a sort of portrait gallery formed by soldiers coming out of the ground and the crosses arranged so as to look like frames. The soldiers emerge from their graves through a tangle of crosses, shaking hands with their resurrected comrades, cleaning buttons…’
We have been meaning to visit the gallery for many years and finally managed to see it a few days ago. It is an awe inspiring and peaceful, thoughtful memorial, both outside, and especially inside. Spencer was undoubtedly a great artist but in this work his emotions, bravery and determination are revealed. The Chapel is run by the National Trust and is open from Thursdays to Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays.
2 Comments Add yours
This is a must see place I loved the paintings and the atmosphere in the chapel is so peaceful and thought provoking
I was not a fan of Stanley Spencer but this has completely changed my mind
Always great when an artist introduces themself to a new admirer!