Commemoration: Visual texts
Commemoration: Visual texts

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Commemoration: Visual texts

1.2 The Sandham Memorial Chapel

So let us turn first of all to the visual arts, and see how one artist, Stanley Spencer, created a memorial to those who died in the First World War. Spencer was profoundly affected by his experience of the war, and decorated the walls of a chapel especially designed to display his work.

First of all, it will help to have a few biographical details. This is not because you could not understand his painting without knowing about him: you could certainly pick up a lot of information about him through his work. Stanley Spencer was born in Cookham, Berkshire, in 1891. He was already beginning to establish himself as an artist when he enlisted in 1915 in the Royal Army Medical Corps, working in a military hospital in Bristol before being sent overseas to Macedonia (part of Greece). There he transferred to the First Berkshire Regiment, and saw action in the front line. In 1918 he received a commission in the army as an Official War Artist, and he began a number of sketches and paintings of the war.

After the war his experiences and memories stayed with him, and although by 1923 he had produced a number of paintings, mostly with religious themes, he had hopes of executing a whole project based around the theme of war. At this critical point in his life he was introduced to Louis and Mary Behrend by friends who knew of his desire to create a permanent memorial. The Behrends were a wealthy couple who were thinking of commissioning a memorial to be dedicated eventually to Mary Behrend's brother, who died in Macedonia; and this introduction gave Spencer the commission he sought, and the Behrends the opportunity to offer their patronage to Spencer.

Exercise 4

Given the facts as I have told you above, what do you think might have encouraged the Behrends to give the commission to Spencer?

Discussion

I believe that it was the result of at least three things: that Spencer was already an established artist; that he wanted to produce paintings that had the recent war as subject-matter; and that he had served in Macedonia, where Mary Behrend's brother had died.

The Behrends asked Lionel Pearson, a leading architect who had already been involved in designing war memorials (including one we will be looking at in detail further on in this course), to design a chapel at Burghclere in Hampshire (previously in Berkshire) to hold the paintings Spencer produced. It appears that architect and artist worked closely together, and Pearson incorporated all Spencer's requirements for the scheme he had in mind. Such a large commission required continual work, and Spencer and his family moved to Burghclere from 1927 until 1932 so that he could work on the paintings. Some smaller ones were done on canvases away from the chapel; but the larger ones were done in position on canvases nailed to the walls.

The Oratory of All Souls, Burghclere was dedicated by the Bishop of Guildford in March 1927. It later became known as the Sandham Memorial Chapel – in memory of Mary Behrend's brother, Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham – and was given to the National Trust in 1947. Spencer continued to work on the panels of the chapel after its dedication, until they were completed in 1932. He seems to have had a free hand in the subject-matter of the paintings, and clearly his patrons were satisfied with the outcome of the commission.

Each of the nineteen canvases is dedicated to the same theme, the experience of war. Although there is no single narrative thread, there is a progression around the chapel, and the focus is on the painting on the large east wall. Spencer's titles for the nineteen paintings are given in the next exercise.

Exercise 5

On the basis of the titles below, could you say whether you would expect Spencer to have been more interested in depicting the soldiers or the officers?

Here are the titles:

  1. Convoy Arriving with Wounded

  2. Scrubbing the Floor

  3. Ablutions

  4. Sorting and Moving Kit-bags

  5. Kit Inspection

  6. Sorting the Laundry

  7. Dug-out (or Stand-to)

  8. Filling Tea Urns

  9. The Resurrection of the Soldiers

  10. Reveille

  11. Frostbite

  12. Filling Water-bottles

  13. Tea in the Hospital Ward

  14. Map-reading

  15. Bedmaking

  16. Firebelt

  17. Washing Lockers

  18. Camp at Karasuli (north wall)

  19. Riverbed at Todorovo (south wall)

Discussion

It seems to me from that list, and before even seeing the paintings, that Spencer was keen to depict ordinary tasks undertaken by ordinary men and women at war, just as he himself might have undertaken them before he became an officer. Only one officer is depicted in the whole series; and the work going on is the very opposite of the idea of glory and sacrifice: scrubbing floors, bedmaking and kit inspections are the realities.

The largest of the paintings occupies the entire east wall where, in a conventional Christian chapel, one would expect to find a window and an altar, the focus of worship. The east wall in the chapel has a door at either side, and there is a free-standing altar in front of it. The wall is high, and viewers need to cast their eyes from floor to ceiling to take in the whole scene. So because of its size, and its location, the painting becomes the focus of the whole chapel.

I want to look at the example in the Sandham Memorial Chapel as a continuation of some of the aspects of memorial that we have been looking at with the war memorials themselves, and in relation to some of the other texts, of First World War poetry.

Exercise 6

Please look at the reproduction of the picture (in the Illustration below) which forms the east wall, and write a short list of things that you see. Then rank them in the order of importance for you.

Figure 1.2
(Photograph: National Trust/A.C. Cooper. Copyright © Estate of Stanley Spencer, 1998, all rights reserved DACS)
Figure 2 Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, east wall of Sandam Memorial Chapel, Burghclere, Hampshire.

Don't be afraid to write down aspects that you think are trivial: looking at a complex painting such as this needs very close attention to detail, and you need to find a way into it just as you will need to do with a poem. In a poem it may be a particular word, or a strong rhythm or rhyme. With a painting it could be a strong colour, or pattern, that might strike you – or something unexpected, something oddly placed. The important thing is to give the painting your attention, and note down what you see.

Now write a paragraph of about 300 words to describe what you see.

Discussion

You may well have mentioned the white crosses. They lean at all angles; and though the group on the right remains upright, the general impression is that they are no longer marking graves but are piled higgledy-piggledy in the front of the scene.

Then there are the soldiers. (I imagine that you thought that they were soldiers, even though they are not all in uniform.) They are very busy: indeed, there is a general activity in the painting, from the soldier winding his puttees to the soldiers grasping each other's hands.

Did you think about the colours of the painting? Even allowing for some distortion in reproduction, you can see that the colours are sombre - brown, blue and grey. This makes the white of the crosses, and the light tones of the human faces, even more startling. By using such colours, Spencer draws your attention to what he wants you to focus on – the crosses and the human faces.

You might now like to read a description of The Resurrection of the Soldiers by an art historian, Duncan Robinson:

The Resurrection took Spencer nearly a year to complete. It dominates the chapel and all the other scenes are subordinate to it. The picture is a reminder of the relationship between war, death and Christianity, not merely a convenient and familiar religious image behind the altar. The composition is based on a complex pattern of wooden crosses which was suggested to Spencer by his habit of squaring up the canvas in order to work out the design. As a living soldier hands in his rifle at the end of service, so a dead soldier carries his cross to Christ, who is seen in the middle distance receiving these crosses. Spencer's idea was that the cross produces a different reaction in everybody.

The centre of the picture is dominated by a collapsed waggon, which was based on Spencer's recollection of a dead Bulgarian mule team and ammunition limber. Mules left a deep impression on the artist and are a constant theme in the Macedonian pictures. Here the dead mules and their handler come back to life and turn towards the figure of Christ. On the waggon boards lies a young soldier intently studying his cross and the figure of Christ represented on it. The foreground is related to the position of the altar and intended to form a subject in itself – ‘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 are emerging from their graves behind the altar, shaking hands with their resurrected comrades, cleaning buttons and winding puttees.

(Robinson, 1991)

If you noticed even some of the detail that Robinson includes in his description, you have done well. But I imagine that you needed to look closely and to think hard about the images Spencer had produced so that the full meaning of the text is conveyed and understood. If you have not already done this as you read Robinson's description, you might like to look again at the painting. I hope that you learned a lot, as I did, from this description, and needed to think hard about the detail Spencer has depicted here. As Robinson says, the painting does not use familiar religious images of resurrection. The men here are literally rising from their graves, shaking off the crosses that they no longer need. No symbol is being used to state that, only the presentation of the Resurrection as Spencer imagines it to be. There is no doubt that Spencer intended the paintings in the chapel to be a memorial, and that he used his talents as a painter to fulfil this aim.

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