Stanley Spencer worked at Beaufort War Hospital as an orderly for ten months during 1915 and 1916. Despite feeling intimidated by the institution, Stanley took to the work and worked hard. He was already a recognised artist who had trained at The Slade in London. He became a famous English artist, becoming a Royal Academician in 1950, awarded a CBE in the same year and knighted in 1959.
Stanley never forgot his time at the hospital and immortalised his memories in his wonderful paintings at the Sandham Memorial Chapel Burghclere and in his diaries. He saw the Memorial Chapel as his magic box, his own Sistine Chapel, where he could paint the story of his war. The paintings are not of the glory or drama of war, rather of the ordinary day to day life of soldiers and orderlies. The paintings show the work of the hospital – scrubbing the floor, filling the tea urns, washing the lockers.
We are fortunate in that Stanley also wrote about the hospital, his notebooks are in the Tate Gallery archives. He is insightful, amusing in his descriptions of the patients and staff. His paintings and his notebooks help us to understand Stanley’s feelings about the institution and the war. According to his biographer, Kenneth Pople: Hell for Stanley is existence in a state of unimaginativeness, imperviousness to spiritual enticements.
Stanley found solace in his inner life, working out a reason for being where he was, and finding redemption in menial work. His home village of Cookham is never far from his thinking.
The Glenside Hospital Museum has more information about Stanley Spencer, his work, and his time at the hospital. We are very grateful to the family of Kenneth Pople for copies of their material.
Further information on Stanley Spencer:
Stanley Spencer Biography by Kenneth Pople
Journey to Burghclere by Paul Gough
The Sandham Memorial Chapel
He died in 1959 and the gallery opened three years later: The Stanley Spencer Gallery
The Tate Archives – http://www.tate.org.uk/research/archive