Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), Sandham’s Memorial Chapel, 1932.
Stanley Spencer’s Murals in Sandham chapel were commissioned by John Louis and Mary Behrend to commemorate the ‘forgotten dead’ of First World War. The Memorial Chapel was built to house the sixteen lunettes, which have been described as the artist’s masterpiece. Entirely painted from memory between 1926-1932, the series combines elements of the spiritual and the every day. Spencer drew from his own experiences of the war, depicting scenes from his time spent working as a hospital orderly in Bristol and as a soldier on the Salonika front.
Spencer describes the workings of the hospital as a sanctuary from the war, a perceived heaven in contrast to the brutalities of the wartime experience. The artist is looking for redemption and hope within the soldiers suffering. Peaceful resurrected figures gracefully sleepwalk, moving passively though swaying Rhododendrons and frenzied herbaceous borders. Spencer was perhaps one of the few artists to emerge from the First World War with a positive, fundamentally renewed spiritual worldview and a stronger sense of faith. The murals have been described as ‘Britain’s answer to the Sistine Chapel’; in fact the artist took inspiration from Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua- when he was commissioned Spencer is reported to have said “What ho Giotto” (this is, unbelievably, true). Depicting immaculately detailed scenes through complex compositions, the higher panels envisage the wartime; a soldier is map reading whilst pale-faced men recline on the ground. Designed to emulate movement- soft shadows and skewed angular shapes are exaggerated though Spencer’s warped perspective, the warm pastel colour palate brings a gentle, luminous quality to the each of the paintings. Other panels describe men attending to the wounded and patients arriving to the hospital. In contrast the lower panels suggest a stillness, containing small symbols and suggestions of the soldiers personal life- a soldier contemplates the photographs on his wall, patients spread jam on heart shaped toast, the artist himself can be seen scrubbing the floorboards between baths. When viewed in series, the focus on these abstract elements allows a sense of space within the paintings for pause and reflection. Together the series invokes a powerful, vibrant sense of the intensities of the war in contrast with the small pleasures of everyday life.
The usage of the mural form is significant, Spencer’s imagery is born out of the Edwardian Slade Art School tradition of decorative mural painting, his contemporaries included Dora Carrington and Charles Mahoney. Morna O’neill described this style of painting as ‘a political theory of decoration’ in which the decorative was ‘a cultural product that represented a collective impulse and a civic ideal’. Floral decoration allows Spencer to depict heaven through nature – flowers grow though the detritus of the battleground. Profoundly emotive, Spencer’s Sandham paintings are perhaps the purest demonstration of the power that mural paintings have: the scale and complexity of the series allows the viewer himself to feel included with the paintings subject. The effect of multiple panels, combining personal details with wartime memories, involves the viewer with the narrative.
Described by Spencer as ‘a symphony of rashers of bacon’ with ‘tea-making obbligato’ the paintings are at once sensual and personal, touching and disorientating. The series is a powerful and surprisingly intimate memorial to the collective experience of the First World War; it is a suitably profound start to the forthcoming centenary year. LC