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Timely reminder of Sandham war artist

Taking a look at the memorial to the personnel who were engaged in everyday, but essential, tasks more than 100 years ago, during the First World War

Trish Lee

Trish Lee


01635 886663

Sandham Memorial Chapel

Sandham Memorial Chapel

In the midst of the current pandemic, we have a new awareness and respect for all of the workers in the NHS, care sector, food industry, and military who are working so hard for the benefit of us all. It may come as a surprise to discover that tucked away in the village of Burghclere, a stone’s throw from Newbury, there exists a memorial to the personnel who were engaged in everyday, but essential, tasks more than 100 years ago, during the First World War, PAUL GRIST of Sandham Memorial Chapel, tells N2 arts editor TRISH LEE.

Sandham Memorial Chapel houses an unexpected treasure; an epic series of large-scale murals, by the acclaimed war artist Sir Stanley Spencer.

The series was inspired by Spencer’s own experiences as a medical orderly at the Beaufort Hospital in Bristol and as both an orderly and a soldier on the Salonika front.

It is full of personal and unexpected details showing the everyday activities that Spencer was engaged in and tells the story of his experiences during the First World War.

Many of the paintings in the chapel depict scenes that reflect Spencer’s time as a medical orderly; a role that was demanding and difficult for the young artist.

Although Stanley was keen to do his duty during the war, his posting to the Beaufort War Hospital filled him with dread. His younger brother, Gilbert, was already working there and had described it as an ‘awful’ place.

In a letter to a friend Stanley described his feelings before leaving home: “Wherever I go it is bound to be vile, but I am prepared for anything. I expect my duties will be cleaning out lavatories and taking the ‘pan’ around the ward.”

He was not wrong. The work at the hospital was traumatic and exhausting and, in addition to caring for dying and wounded soldiers, involved long days of cleaning, scrubbing, fetching and carrying. Such work may seem an unlikely source of inspiration for an artist, but the scenes of hospital life showing orderlies scrubbing floors in dreary forbidding corridors, washing out wooden lockers in the huge magenta baths, carrying shiny metal tea urns to the wards, sorting mountains of sheets, socks and handkerchiefs in the laundry are all represented in the paintings in the chapel.

The setting and the technology may have changed, but all of these jobs are instantly recognisable to visitors today. Although Spencer’s early days at the hospital were very difficult for him, his spirits were lifted when a friend introduced him to the teachings of St Augustine and the idea that hard work and service brought one closer to God. This revelation clearly helped Spencer through an enormously challenging period in his life.

“I began to feel there was a great deal of order in domestic things,” he wrote. “When I scrubbed floors, I would have all sorts of marvellous thoughts, so much so that at last, when I was fully equipped for scrubbing – bucket, apron and ‘prayer’ mat in hand – I used to feel much the same as if I were going to church. My life in that place became infinitely less boring.”

And so, Spencer found comfort in keeping busy doing menial and repetitive tasks and looked forward to a time when he could represent his life at the Beaufort in pictures.

The opportunity to do this finally arrived in 1923 when his series of sketches for his wartime scheme, or ‘Holy Box’ as Spencer referred to it, were seen by art patrons John Louis and Mary Behrend who agreed to fund a series of paintings for a specially constructed chapel in their home village of Burghclere.

“In this scheme there are many pictures of very ordinary moments in the kind of life I was living at the time. It gives me a feeling of delight when I think of doing a painting just of ‘arriving’, and another of ablutions, and another of scrubbing, and another of sorting. All of these activities will reveal in each of these pictures a kind of spiritual meaning.”

In 1927 the building was finished, and the chapel was consecrated. It took Spencer a further five years to complete the 19 paintings that line the walls.

Over 100 years later Spencer’s work continues to inspire and resonate with the chapel’s many visitors. The scenes and the feelings that they express are as relevant to today’s world as they were at the end of the First World War.

While Sandham Memorial Chapel is currently closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, if you are intrigued by the story of Spencer’s ‘Holy Box’, you can find out more by visiting

All of the collection at Sandham can be viewed by visiting the National Trust Collections website

Spencer lived in Burghclere for most of the six years that it took him to complete the chapel paintings, but he was born, grew up and spent a large part of his life in the village of Cookham, Berkshire – a place that he always considered to be his spiritual home. Housed in Cookham’s former Wesleyan Chapel, where Stanley and his family worshipped, The Stanley Spencer Gallery has an extensive collection of Stanley’s work – from paintings and drawings to letters, writings and family photographs.

The gallery’s collection also includes some of Stanley’s preliminary sketches for the paintings at Sandham and there are strong links between the two organisations, with many visitors coming to Sandham as a result of having visited the Stanley Spencer Gallery.

Unike Sandham, the Spencer Gallery has now reopened, with a new exhibition Love, Art, Loss – The Wives of Stanley Spencer, exploring Stanley’s relationships with his two wives and the influence that those relationships had on his work.

Further details about the exhibition and all of the works in the gallery’s collection can be found on the website.

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