Conservation United Kingdom

Stanley Spencer's First World War paintings restored

Sandham Memorial Chapel reopens next week to mark centenary of 1914

Sandham Memorial Chapel, photo by John Hammond, courtesy of the National Trust

The Sandham Memorial Chapel in the south of England, which is decorated by a suite of 19 paintings by the artist Stanley Spencer, is due to reopen on 4 August after a year-long restoration costing £400,000. Inspired by the artist's experience during the First World War, the reopening coincides with the centenary of Britain declaring war on Germany. The chapel was built and paintings commissioned by the arts patrons John Louis and Mary Behrend to commemorate Mary's brother, a casualty of the war.

Stanley’s paintings are based on his life as an orderly at a military hospital in Bristol in the west of England and as a soldier on the Salonika front (today called Thessalonika). Mary's brother died in 1919 having fought in the campaign. Painted between 1927 and 1932 from memory, the canvases focus on the mundane aspects of his life in uniform, such as washing lockers, scrubbing floors and making tea. Spencer described the works as “a symphony of rashers of bacon” with “tea-making obligato”.

Sixteen of the canvases (three are permanently fixed to the walls) have been on loan for the past year to exhibitions at Somerset House in London and Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex.

The works were reinstalled in the chapel, which is looked after by the National Trust, at the beginning of July after extensive cleaning and modification of some of the alcoves that house the paintings. The Grade I listed chapel in Burghclere, Hampshire, and the two alms houses that flank it were built in 1926. The cottages have also been stripped back to their original features as part of the restoration.

Stuart Maughan, the general manager of the chapel, says the paintings are due to go on loan once more to the Manchester Art Gallery in November for four months. But the touring shows have raised questions about how best to light the paintings. Spencer stipulated in 1958 that there should be no artificial lighting in the chapel. “Viewers of the Somerset House and Pallant House exhibitions have been able to see the paintings in a new light,” Maughan says. “Eventually we are looking to get more light in the chapel as the paintings are quite sombre.”

Entrance to the chapel is by pre-booked ticket only from 5 August.

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