The Parish Church of St George the Martyr, Waterlooville


Appropriately on Veteran’s Day, Barbara and I had occasion to go to Burghclere in Hampshire, close by the Berkshire border. We seized the opportunity there to visit The Oratory of All Souls. This is at Sandham Memorial Chapel, now a National Trust property. The interior houses a remarkable set of mural canvases of rather mundane war experiences by Private Stanley Spencer, who saw active service in the First World War.

Stanley Spencer (later to be knighted as Sir Stanley), was born in Cookham, Berkshire, in the year 1891 and died in 1959. He became one of the most original and talented of the modern artists, ignoring most of the artistic trends of the time. He used his home village as the setting for expression of his deep religious feelings, especially using the recurring theme of the Resurrection in his paintings and drawings. He was a consummate draughtsman, sketching competently even at speed, and all his pictures evoke strong empathetic feelings in the viewer.

When entering the chapel we were overwhelmed by the sight of all the wartime depictions covering all the walls. Completed in 1932 and done as a catharsis for the savage experiences he had seen, principally in Salonika, they show wounded and shell-shocked soldiers, scenes of first-aid and hospital work being performed, and such simple scenes as kit inspection, filling tea urns and sorting the laundry. However, the most memorable eye-catching display is on the far wall - a huge and complex tableau of the Resurrection of the Soldiers. There is a mass of white crosses at various angles, tomb risings, a collapsed wagon and in the middle distance the figure of Christ.

In one scene, a soldier is down full-length on the floor, scrubbing away. Spencer has explained that such hard work was akin to going to church - that through labour he was close to God. There are echoes of St Benedict here - ‘Laborare est orare’ (to work is to pray), and Kahlil Gibran, who, when asked to speak of work, replied,

“You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth, for to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.”

During close examination of the whole group of paintings I was struck by the affinity of style with one of my great favourite artists - Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337). This marvellous painter was born in Tuscany, used mainly ecclesiastical subjects and is credited with having a revolutionary grasp of pictorial realism. Spencer’s depiction of faces, limbs, clothing and the composition of the pictures show a remarkable similarity to that of the earlier painter. In fact, when his patron, J L Behren entered into a commission for him to do the mural work, Spencer is said to have responded, “What ho, Giotto!” I have since discovered that the whole oratory with almshouses was closely modelled on Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua.

We left the location profoundly moved by what we had seen. National Trust member or not - this place is well worth a visit.

Rod Dawson

Easter Edition 2011

Sandham Memorial Chapel