Paintings depicting First World War return home as chapel re-opens with new garden of reflection

Sandham Memorial Chapel, Harts Lane, Newbury, Hampshire, RG20 9JT

On Monday 4th August, 100 years to the day since Great Britain declared war on Germany, Sandham Memorial Chapel will re-open to the public. The chapel, which has drawn praise such as ‘Britain’s answer to the Sistine Chapel’, houses an epic series of nineteen works by Stanley Spencer, created to honour the forgotten dead of the First World War. The chapel is the only National Trust building dedicated to the First World War.

These incredible large-scale canvas panels, considered by many to be Spencer’s finest achievement, are returning following an acclaimed touring exhibition at Somerset House in London and Pallant House in Chichester, and will once again be seen in the chapel, now cared for by the National Trust.

To commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and to mark the re-opening of the chapel after a year’s extensive conservation work, a community-inspired garden has been created which will offer a tranquil and reflective space for all visitors, with circular paths, fruit trees, cottage garden scented planting and a vegetable plot.

Sandham Memorial Chapel was built by John Louis and Mary Behrend primarily to house Spencer’s paintings. It was dedicated to the memory of their brother Harry Sandham who died in the War.

Completed in 1932, Spencer’s paintings depict scenes of his own wartime experiences as a hospital orderly in Bristol and as a soldier on the Salonika front. Peppered with personal and unexpected details, they combine the realism of everyday life with dreamlike visions. His recollections, painted entirely from memory, show domestic scenes from the lives of soldiers, including them washing lockers, inspecting kit, sorting laundry, scrubbing floors and taking tea. As the UK’s involvement in the current Afghan conflict draws to a close in 2014, the paintings serve as a timely reminder that the wartime routines depicted are as relevant now as they were then.

The new garden surrounding the chapel is the creation of Hampshire designer Daniel Lobb to complement the modernist proportions of the building. A competition to design some of the planting has given winner Alice Wrightson, a student from nearby Sparsholt College, the opportunity to help shape the look of this special place. As well as providing a peaceful space for visitors, it will offer horticultural therapy charity Thrive the chance to continue working in the garden using specially adapted tools.

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Local communities and charities have provided invaluable support in the preparation and transformation of the garden. These include servicemen and women from Tedworth House, a local rehabilitation centre for injured and sick service personnel funded by Help for Heroes, and London-based homeless charity St Mungo’s.

Alison Paton, Sandham’s chapel steward, says: ‘Thanks to the amazing support we have received – from the generous £100,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant to the many donations to our recent fundraising appeal - we have been able to create a wonderful experience for those coming to this place of remembrance and spirituality. The HLF grant has also funded ongoing community work, which will ensure that Sandham has a strong local legacy for future generations.’

Plans for the future include a new, interactive exhibition space and refreshments area within the almhouses that flank the chapel. Copies of drawings and letters, an audio visual introduction to Spencer’s artworks and a film will offer visitors the chance to explore and experience more of the remarkable stories of the chapel, Stanley Spencer, Harry Sandham and the Behrends.

Sandham Memorial Chapel re-opens on Tuesday 5th August. Tickets available by pre-booking only.