On the very last leg of my 3month&3,000mile trip around Britain in my Bongo I dropped in at the newly re-opened Sandham Memorial Chapel, arguably one of English arts greatest achievements of the 20th century and known as Britain’s answer to the Sistine Chapel yet it still remains one of the country’s best kept art secrets.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the Chapel on a number of occasion yet its scale, its composition, its colour, its multitude of figures and varied scenes never ceases to amaze , surprise and delight.
Spencer’s ambition is vast, examplified by The Resurrection of the Soldiers – a year in the making – a huge jaw dropping work covering the alter wall with eye-catching detail everywhere, an amazing work.
|The Resurrection of there Soldiers|
|The Resurrection of the Soldiers (Detail)|
|(LEFT) The Cookham carpenter Spencer used as a model for the figure (RIGHT) in The Crucifixion 1958|
As a minimum those Italian Renaissance artists had the conceit of having themselves in the picture , often staring out directly – proudly - at the viewer for example: Ghirlandaio in The Resurrection of the Boy 1485; Da Fabriano , Adoration of Magi 1423 and one of my very favourites Gozzoli’s Procession of the Magi 1459.
|Ghirlandaio in The Resurrection of the Boy (Detail)1485|
|Da Fabriano , Adoration of Magi (Detail) 1423|
|Gozzoli Procession of the Magi (Detail) 1459|
|Spencer making his bed in Bedmaking|
|Spencer contemplating Christ on the Cross|
The Resurrection of the Soldiers (Detail)
|Spencer getting his kit ready for inspection|
Kit Inspection (Detail)
And there’s one great absence from the whole of the Chapel’s magnificent scheme viz. a portrait of Lieutenant Henry Willoughby to whom the Chapel is dedicated. I can’t understand why the Behrend’s didn’t write this into the contract as they were people given to contracts evidenced by the letter detailing the terms they let Spencer have ‘Breach Cottage’.
As you are now about to move into “Breach Cottage” I think it is best to put in writing the terms on which this cottage is let to you, viz. the rent is to be 7/6 per week, you to pay rates and taxes & to keep the cottage in tenantable order and condition & the garden properly cultivated. The tenancy to be terminable by either party by three months notice in writing.
Letter from his patron J L Berhend to Spencer dated 22nd Jan 1926
So it would have been logical for there to have been a request to include an image of the Lieutenant in the work - somewhere. In fact it would be all to convinienet to believe that the only officer in the scheme – on the horse in Map-Reading - was in fact him but I can find no evidence to support this possibility, so it will remain a fanciful thought
|Garden at the Rear of Sandham Chapel|
Having negotiated three very tiny rooms - an introduction to the work and Spencer, a small , but interesting, display of drawings, plans and correspondence related to the Chapel and Spencer’s work and video (on a loop) introducing the Chapel – one exits the building by a side door then one goes actually into the Chapel via the main door, looking all its years surprised they haven’t restored or at least conserved it.
To conclude set aside the entry fee and the poor renovation the work is simply magnificent - Spencer’s ambition made manifest.