Friday, 25 January 2008

The Oratory of All Souls, Burghclere

I visited the Sandham Memorial Chapel (as it's now known) twice last year, each time in the company of people who haven't been there before. And, as always, enjoyed the sheer sense of amazement on entering, struck by the sheer scale of Stanley Spencer's work.

It is all the more surprising for it's location in the small Hampshire village of Burghclere, on the edge of what was once the railway line, and looking out towards Watership Down (and yes, there are lots of rabbits!)

Stanley Spencer was a young man, still on active service, when he first conceived the project intended to bring him to terms with his experiences in what was then known as 'The Great War'. He wanted a chapel modelled on Giotto's Arena Chapel in Padua, and eventually Jack and Mary Behrend agreed to commission the work. Lionel Pearson was the architect, although he didn't find the project satisfying; Spencer had very clear instructions for the chapel itself, and Pearson found himself left only to ensure that it was built in the local vernacular.

Inside, the three main walls are covered with Spencer's paintings; around half the scenes are set at Beaufort Military Hospital in Bristol where Spencer was a medical orderly; and then pictures covering his time with the medical corps, and finally as an infantryman, in Macedonia. The pictures do not emphasise the horror of war, neither do they celebrate it. But they do speak of shared humanity, and many of the pictures actually seem quite homely. But Spencer was a profoundly religious man, and the end wall has one single work - 'The Resurrection of the Soldiers', wich has the dead soldiers climbing out of their graves and carrying the white crosses that had marked them to Christ. And many soldiers in the paintings on either side are also looking towards Christ with the hope of the resurrection. It is astonishingly moving, regardless of whether you share Spencer's religious convictions.

The chapels has had extensive restoration over the past couple of years, and the paintings have all been cleaned with spectacular results. What I had taken to be an artistic choice to paint in a muddy brown proved not to be the case at all, instead there are wonderful vibrant colours.

For me, only one other work matches it as an artistic achievement in the 20th century: Anthony Caro's 'The Last Judgement', but that's for another day.

The chapel has been in the care of the National Trust for the last forty years and they have proved good custodians. I should say thank you to Amanda Forsyth, the chapel administrator, who kindly arranged for us to visit when the chapel was otherwise closed; if only the weather had been as kind.

1 comment:

whitty1 said...

Glad to see that someone else enjoys the paintings. How about showing photos of your paintings on your blog, I'd love to see them.