They say that variety is the spice of life and my recent visits clearly demonstrate just how much variety can be found in the National Trust property portfolio. After my visit to a waterway and wharf in the heart of Guildford last weekend, I have followed up with a painted chapel in rural Hampshire.
Sandham Memorial Chapel is located in the village of Burghclere, very close to Hampshire’s border with Berkshire, and it was built specifically to house the World War I paintings of Stanley Spencer, standing as a monument to those who served and died. It was funded by Spencer’s patrons John Louis and Mary Behrend (whose country home was in Burghclere) and is dedicated to Harry Sandham, Mary’s brother who returned home safely from the war but then died in 1920 from complications associated to an illness he contracted on the Front. Only comfortably well-off, the Behrends paid a sizeable £8,000 to build the chapel and then also made payments to Spencer as well as providing him with a cottage while he was in Burghclere. They were clearly dedicated to the arts and were a source of support to a variety of artists and musicians throughout their lives.
From the outside, the chapel does not appear to be anything special and is quite ‘boxy’ in appearance, with two very plain single-storey alms houses flanking it on either side. But as the various experts in the introductory video will tell you, there is certainly a ‘wow’ moment when you open the doors and step inside for the first time. It does not have the size and scale of the Sistine Chapel, but it is actually unwise to try to compare the two as Sandham’s relatively modern themes are completely different from the religious motifs of the Renaissance artists.
It is certainly the case that Spencer’s art will not appeal to everyone and I am not personally a big fan of his style and its twisted perspectives, so twisted in some cases that it took a little while to figure out what was going on in some of the panels. But I also found it impossible to pass over any of the panels without giving them a great deal of attention. There is so much going on in some of them – particularly the larger pieces at the top of each of the side walls and The Resurrection of the Soldiers which looms over the altar – that they warrant close inspection, perhaps closer than it is possible to achieve just by standing in the centre of the chapel. For just that reason, binoculars are available for visitors who want to get a closer look at some of the details. And beware of the cricked neck as lengthy examination of the higher pieces can get painful!
Considering the grim period in our history that is evoked in the paintings, I was surprised to find that the chapel is far from a sad or depressing place. None of the blood, guts and gore is on display here, instead we see the more everyday lives of soldiers, from cooking bacon to laying out their kit or building mosaics on the Macedonian front, which is where Spencer was based when he was eventually mobilised abroad. Alongside these pieces are scenes from the Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol, where Spencer spent the early years of the war serving as a medical orderly, and these show everyday activities such as sorting laundry, making beds and filling tea urns. Even The Resurrection of the Soldiers – with its mass of white crosses reminding us of the scale of death during the Great War – has a slightly hopeful feel as the soldiers climb from their graves and carry their crosses to lay at the feet of Christ.
Unique is probably the best way to describe Sandham Memorial Chapel and whether you like Spencer’s art or not, I would say that it is well worth seeing for this simple reason alone. I’ve never seen anything like it and doubt I ever will again. As is so often the case, the Trust has also done a very good job in enhancing the visitor experience, with some introductory written displays and a short video in one of the alms houses, so you have a good idea of the background to the paintings before entering the chapel. Inside the chapel, information sheets are also provided to describe each of the panels and a volunteer is on hand to answer any questions.
As a small property, Sandham does not have a tearoom, but the new cottage garden to the rear of the chapel (which was funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to commemorate the centenary of the start of WWI) has a couple of picnic tables and is a mellow spot to take a break and reflect.
I have to admit that Sandham was on my list of slightly ‘awkward’ properties that required a bit of an effort to get to but was unlikely to dazzle me; while I may not have been dazzled, I was both impressed and engaged by what I saw and I think Stanley Spencer would probably have been satisfied with that.
Highlights: The unique chapel
Purchase(s): Guidebook (a bit expensive at £7 but photography is not allowed in the chapel so it may be worth buying this guidebook if you want to peruse the pictures further at your leisure )