Heaven in a Hell of War

On Thursdays Manchester City Art Gallery is open until 9 o’clock in the evening. So last Thursday I finished work a little early and we caught a train into Manchester (making sure we were on board before 4 o’clock when cheap day returns aren’t valid on the wonderful comfortable modern trains (sic) run by Northern Rail). We had a look round the shops for a short while and then stopped for a brew in the “Proper Tea” tea shop across from Manchester Cathedral.


Afterwards we made our way over to the Art Gallery via the Arndale and Piccadilly.

The main exhibition showing at the Gallery, covering most of two floors in the modern extension is titled The Sensory War 1914-2014

This major group exhibition marking the Centenary of the First World War explores how artists have communicated the impact of military conflict on the body, mind, environment and human senses between 1914 and 2014. (Gallery website)

There were some interesting and very moving works in this exhibition, and I’ll have to return to it in a later post, I guess, but the highlight of the visit was a smaller room in the older part of the gallery which was showing a series of paintings by the British artist Stanley Spencer on loan from the National Trust’s Sandham Memorial Chapel.

The Chapel was commissioned in 1923 by Mr and Mrs J.L Behrend of Burghclere, to commemorate the life of her brother, Lieutenant Harry Willoughby Sandham, who died in 1920 as a result of an illness he had contracted during the Macedonian campaign in the First World War.

Spencer was commissioned to decorate the chapel and took his inspiration from Giotto’s frescos in the Scrovegni chapel in Padua. Like Giotto’s cycle, Spencer’s paintings cover the walls of the chapel and show people in contemporary clothing carrying out ordinary everyday tasks (well as ordinary as they get during a savage world war) rather than scenes of combat and destruction.

At the start of the war Spencer enlisted in the Army Medical Corps and was sent to the Beaufort Hospital in Bristol, where he served as an orderly. In 1916 he was sent out to Macedonia, with the 68th Field Ambulance unit. In 1917, while there, he volunteered to be transferred to an infantry regiment, the 7th Battalion, the Berkshire Regiment. His series of paintings are based directly on his experiences in Bristol and Macedonia.

The works had a particular resonance for me. One of my Great Grandfathers was a career soldier in the Field Artillery and when the war broke out he was sent to France. Somehow he managed to survive the slaughter and returned to Britain in March 1916. He wasn’t there long before he was sent out to Macedonia  in June that year as a member of the Army Service Corps – the same month as Spencer. I wonder whether they ever met?

Q 31665

British troops halted on the roadside outside Salonika, 1916. (Source: Imperial War Museum)

Macedonia was ‘the forgotten front of the forgotten war”. A joint Anglo French force was sent out to Salonika in Greek Macedonia in 1915 in an attempt to provide support to Serbia who were fighting German, Austrian and Bulgarian troops (remember that the war started as a result of the Austrian Crown Prince being assassinated by Serbian nationalists)

The expedition came too late and in insufficient force to prevent the fall of Serbia, and was complicated by the internal political crisis in Greece (the “National Schism“). Eventually, a stable front was established, running from the Albanian Adriatic coast to the Struma River, pitting a multinational Allied force against the Bulgarian Army, which was at various times bolstered with smaller units from the remaining Central Powers. The Macedonian Front remained quite stable, despite local actions, until the great Allied offensive in September 1918, which resulted in the capitulation of Bulgaria and the liberation of Serbia (Wikipedia)

For most of the war there was relatively little fighting in Macedonia and the troops were perceived as doing little more than digging and manning trenches. “Let them be known as the Gardeners of Salonika,” mocked the French Premier, Georges Clemenceau.

File:World War I - Saloniki Front - British Troops at Kilkis, Greece.jpg

Picture source: Wikipedia

But life was far from easy. There were a vast number of casualties, and malaria was the biggest killer.

In total the British forces suffered 162,517 cases of the disease and in total 505,024 non-battle casualties. (Source)

Spencer himself contracted Malaria, but fortunately survived. My Great Grandfather didn’t return, he died in August 1918 and is buried in the Commonwealth Cemetery in Salonika. His army record gives his cause of death as “died”. I suspect that he was one of the victims of the disease.

Q 32160

Troops in Macedonia taking their daily dose of quinine, July 1916 (Source: Imperial War Museum)

So, what of the paintings? The Gallery are showing 16 of the 19 paintings from the chapel. Two long scenes, set on the Greek front line, which run right across the long walls on either side of the chapel nave and the altarpiece are directly attached to the chapel walls. But the paintings, together with with a large scale photograph of the altarpiece, have been hung in the same arrangement as in the chapel, to give a sense of how they look in situ.

The 16 panels don’t show any blood or gore, or the horrors of war, but depict everyday activities in the hospital and in Macedonia. He concentrates on the dedication of the medical staff in the hospital and the comradeship of the troops. And my personal connection made viewing them something of an emotional experience. One of the men depicted could have been my Great Grandfather (probably not, but who knows?).

Sandham Memorial Chapel © National Trust Images\ John Hammond

Convoy arriving with Wounded (Source; National Trust)

Sandham Memorial Chapel © National Trust Images\ John Hammond

Kit Inspection (Source National Trust)

The altarpiece picture is entitled The Resurrection of the Soldiers – and depicts dead soldiers rise from their graves. It’s similar to another well known work of Spencer The Resurrection, Cookham 1924–7

This is Spencer’s vision of the end of war, in which heaven has emerged from hell. Each cross amongst the astonishing and brave tumble across the canvas serves as an object of devotion (some of which are handed to Christ, who has been unconventionally placed in the mid-background); or marks a grave from which a soldier emerges; or serves to frame a bewildered face. The central motif is a pair of fallen mules, still harnessed to their timber wagon. (Source: National Trust)

Sandham Memorial Chapel © National Trust Images\ John Hammond

Prior to the visit I would have said that I wasn’t particularly fond of Spencer’s work. I guess that I’ve been put off by the religious themes of many of them. But the chapel paintings certainly made an impression on me and looking again at some of his works on t’Internet I’m starting to reappraise and reconsider my view.

The National Trust tell us that

(the) murals are considered one of the most remarkable artistic achievements of English painting

Having seen them, I think I have to agree. But to really appreciate Spencer’s work a visit to the chapel is definitely on my list of “must dos”.

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