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vile place’: the Beaufort Military Hospital, Bristol'
Catalogue essay to accompany: Stanley Spencer,
Heaven in a Hell of War, Pallant House
Gallery, November 2013
After the War I can see myself doing some strange
things. It will be something like this – I arrive home, two days
after get in a train for Bristol, get out at
Today, a substantial stone reception lodge still
stands at the gateway that first confronted Stanley Spencer as he
entered the Beaufort War Hospital on an autumn day in 1915, having
already enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). This was
the ‘male’ entrance; the ‘female’ gate was
further down Blackberry Hill. Across the lawns lay the sprawling
conurbation of the military hospital, ‘the Bristol Lunatic
Asylum’ as it had been known since it opened in 1861. 2
Bath, stand on the Railway platform & look towards a certain loathsome
suburban church standing in the side of big hill. Take notes &
get back into train.
Get out at Bristol, on tram up to Fishponds. Go up a certain hill,
a slummy street on left; small cottage, window-sill, on the windowsill
& flower pots, on the other side of house small cottage garden
on a steep slope, on opposite slope little orchard. Take notes
and return to Cookham.
Spencer’s view would have been dominated by ‘a mad looking
tower’; under the daunting gaze of its four huge clock faces
lay a solid two-storey administrative block covered in ivy creeper
(Fig. 1). 3
Stemming from these central offices emerged two wings each linked
by corridors and internal passageways: the west wing housed female
residents, the east wing males. Transecting the wings at various
points were the two-storey ward blocks, and in between them a warren
of connecting corridors, verandas and loggias that enclosed large
leafy squares and courtyards - known as ‘airing courts’
- where the inmates took their daily recreation. Spencer would spend
much of his time in the hospital pushing trolleys and dragging loads
the length of these never-ending corridors, often under the watchful
eye of the non-commissioned officers who made much of his time so
Frequent attempts had been made to soften the appearance of the
asylum: in 1902, 2,500 potted plants were supplied by the estate
gardener to the wards; a further 4,000 plants were installed four
years later and the grounds were planted with specimen trees including
several unique grafts so favoured by late Victorian horticulturalists.
In 1912 the asylum’s Commissioners asked to see more pianos
in the wards, and a year later central heating was extended to the
male side. The building’s design was equally enlightened:
rather than install oppressive metal bars over the ground-floor
windows, the architect Henry Crisp had designed windows with cast-iron
glazing panes giving
an outward impression of normality but with maximum security assured.
Although the courtyard railings have long since been taken down
and most of the metalpaned windows replaced, the old asylum can
seem a grey and cheerless place. It must have appeared a chilling
sight for the little-travelled and insular Spencer. By the time
he arrived in 1915, the asylum had undergone a major conversion.
many hospitals across the country it had been requisitioned by the
War Office, which had demanded 15,000 beds to be supplied nationally
for war wounded.
Forty-five asylum patients were retained to work the farm, the service
departments and the kitchen garden, but the remaining 900 inmates
were evacuated to rural asylums, some as far afield as Cornwall
and Dorset. 6 Three months were
spent converting the institution to house up to 1,460 wounded soldiers.
Day rooms and night wards were converted into 24 medical and surgical
wards. Corridors were made ready to take a further 180 emergency
beds. Even the maximum-restraint cells - with their outward opening
doors and steeply sloping window sills -were requisitioned for use.
Throughout the asylum, rooms were adapted to act as operating theatres,
radiography departments and pharmacy stations. Despite these significant
alterations the hospital retained some of its prewar character,
and wartime photographs of thewards show them with large potted
plants and ornate furnishings, though little could disguise the
hard deal tables, the flagstone floors and the high windows with
their cast-iron glazing bars. In one memorable photograph Spencer
can be glimpsed - a diminutive, slightly dishevelled figure in an
ill-fitting tunic – surrounded by long avenues of beds, each
separated by large wooden lockers, those very same lockers that
Spencer and his fellow orderlies had to spend so much time scrubbing.
Renamed ‘The Beaufort War Hospital, for the general medical
and surgical treatment of sick and wounded soldiers’, many
of the existing personnel were given new roles in the armed services.
The Asylum Superintendent, Dr Blachford, became Lieutenant-Colonel
RAMC, his horsedrawn cab replaced with a motor car. Physicians and
surgeons arrived. A photograph from 1915 captures 19 officers, all
but one - Jarvis - sporting a rather fierce moustache (Fig.
Spencer rarely encountered the officers. Orderlies, two to each
ward, were at the very bottom of a complex nursing hierarchy - ‘onethird
housemaid, one-third waiter and one-third valet’.
7 They worked under the authoritarian
- and unchallenged - command of ward sisters drawn from the Queen
Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve, supported
by a cadre of nurses trained by the Red Cross. While no medical
officer can be found on the walls of the Sandham Memorial Chapel
at Burghclere, there are nurses
in evidence: one appears in the canvas Sorting the Laundry. She
may be the former asylum matron, Miss Dunn, whom Spencer found to
be less intimidating than many others. Perhaps because of this he
associated the laundry - which was lit from above by roof lights
- with a church-like atmosphere. Despite the bustle, the heat and
the noise, Spencer enjoyed an unthreatened peace in the laundry,
one of the few places where he could gain some personal composure
in the teeming metropolis of the Beaufort.
Veterans of the Great War had little affection for the military
hospitals: in letters and memoirs they complained of an inhumanity
that seemed to increase with distance from the battlefield.
At the front, wounded soldiers were treated by fellow-combatants
and by familiar regimental doctors. ‘The
wounded man,’ recalled one soldier,
‘is in a moment a little baby and all
the rest become the tenderest of mothers. One holds his hand; another
lights his cigarette. Before this, it is given to few to know the
love of those who go together through the long valley of the shadow
of death.’ 8
All this changed in the rear of the battle zone and in the general
hospitals back in ‘Blighty’. Given the restrictions
transport their journey from the front might be surprisingly rapid.
Spencer’s brother, Gilbert, recalled his first terrifying
moments as a medical orderly when he was confronted by a ‘ward
full of wounded Gallipoli soldiers, their skins sunburnt and their
clothes bleached and the soil of Suvla Bay still on their boots’
(Fig. 3). 9
Of course, the military had no intention of making hospitals appear
too comforting; the intention was to patch up the wounded and return
them promptly to active duty. Convalescence was not to be enjoyed;
for many it was sour recuperation in grim and loveless surroundings,
remembered bitterly for ‘Brutal injections
… People nearly crying with pain. Gloomy buildings with bathroom
taps all loose and tied to the wall with string … Meals never
hot, worse than ordinary camp food and only served at strictly regulated
There were a few diversions. Henry Williamson recollected: ‘Months
and months of pain and contentment: regular grub and fags, military
band outside once a week, and sometimes a theatre, riding in a toff’s
car’, though he also described
‘[t]he terrible silence of the white wards,
the swish of felt slippers, the terrible white walls and crying,
the strange white sheets and beds in a row’.
In the paintings at Burghclere Spencer suppressed the muffled agonies
of the hospital. His letters, though, are testimony to the casual
brutishness and the uneasy tension between the wounded and their
non-combatant guardians, with their ‘cushy’ jobs and
protected status. Duty back in the front line became something of
a release from the petty regime, harsh treatment and frustrations
of the military hospital.
Through the ‘Gates of Hell’
Passing through the ‘Gates of Hell’ at Beaufort signalled
a change in Spencer:
As soon as I had passed through that gate, and
was walking down the drive, all my patriotic ardour, which I had
struggled hard to retain, seemed again to leave
Some 30 years later he recalled with characteristic
clarity his initial miserable impressions of the hospital grounds:
me. A great clammy death seemed to be sitting or squatting on
all my desires and hopes. Everything seemed so false. The day
did not seem like day to me
and the men did not belong to day. I felt that these beings, should
they journey to where my home is, would evaporate into nothingness
long before they got
Even the trees & laurel hedges were affected;
they were so deadly … had someone been around in the morning
& dusted then with a duster? A cobweb had
Across a courtyard, along an interminable glazed
veranda, through a wide corridor with very ‘old-fashioned
wall-paper’, then into a ward decorated with reproductions
from the Victorian Pears’ Annual, more like a nursery than
a military hospital, the weird incongruity persisted. Spencer encountered
his new company:
been missed here & there. The ground was hard and had a ‘ring’
of iron about it, the lamp-posts, sign-posts, railings & the
trees seemed to be ‘riveted’ to the
ground: a steel-like uniformity prevailed & naught could prevail
against it. 13
A merchant’s handyman, an assistant from
the booksellers, W.H. Smith, ‘a great hulking man sprawling
on the empty bed opposite me; a man who had come
Fascinated and appalled by his new circumstances,
Spencer knew he was now trapped in a place for which he was utterly
ill-prepared. Within weeks the Beaufort would shatter the stillness
and unity of his pre-war enclosed ‘Cookham’ world, but
in so doing would stimulate the enquiring and curious side of his
mind that had remained dormant until that moment. With its ‘innumerable
unanalysable mental shocks’ 15
it felt like a prison sentence:
straight from a corn-merchant’s yard, a man used to heavy
outdoor work’. 14
It was a case of having discovered that we had
each made some awful mistake and were in a trap, and the stupefied
expression on each of our faces proclaimed
Despite this grim induction, the irrepressible
and energetic Spencer soon found his feet. Drawing on his natural
ebullience and his incorrigible interest in everything around him,
his second day found him in better spirits:
this … We had each to find our levels … in our own
way. It was a case of every man for himself, and this instinctive
feeling produced an atmosphere at once of
unfriendliness between us. We each became to each other a symbol
of our own helplessness. This consciousness, as those minutes
dragged on, of a growing
estrangement, was terrible, and all this to be happening in a
big room rather like in feeling to the coziness of one’s
own bedroom at home. 16
I had to scrub out the Asylum Church. It was
a splendid test of my feelings about this war. But I still feel
the necessity of this war, & I have seen some sights,
Fetching and carrying, cleaning and scrubbing
(always on his hands and knees, always with the brick-like blocks
of ‘Monkey Brand’ soap) were the daily lot for Spencer.
From reveille at 05:00 his long working day was spent in and around
the Male Infirmary (M.I.) Wards 4A and 4B where once male inmates
had been treated for physical illnesses. Each ward had a dayroom
- the ‘A’ section, its walls covered in wallpaper and
framed pictures - and a dormitory, the ‘B’ section.
Throughout the asylum’s long war service both sections were
crammed with beds (Fig. 4):
but not what one might expect. The lunatics are good workers &
one persists in saluting us & always with the wrong hand.
Another one thinks he is an electric
Seeing the patients in beds that were nearly
on a level with one’s eyes when seen through the door from
4A ward gave M.I. ward a feeling of looking into a chancel
Spencer committed these sensations deep into
his memory. Many years later, he was able to recall the asylum’s
minor details - the width of the stripes in the ‘old-fashioned
wallpaper’, the sheen of an enamel
bowl, the pattern on a counterpane, the fall of light on painted
tiles - though he was never quite sure why he was able to do so.
In his wartime diary he surmised that ‘at
the most important moments of my life I generally remember the least
important facts’. 19
Under the pressure of personal survival, facts - the pictorial nouns
of his art - had assumed a primacy over feeling. Allowed to marinate
during the months and years of active service that followed, this
ability to recollect
(usually a little up from the nave) … 4B was a bigger, darker
& rather more convincing ward than M.I. … 4A was a long
corridor ward with innumerable cubicles
opening into it … I rather liked this 4B ward about 3.30
in the afternoon, which was the time when I usually took the dressing
drums down to the polished steriliser
somewhere at the end of a stone passage right over in the other
wing of the hospital. When I started up this ward on this long
journey I felt like some engine of a
long train when starting to glide out of Paddington on a non-stop
Irish Mail via Fishguard journey. Somehow I felt exhilarated that
there would be no stops, & peace
at each end. 18
the minutiae of the hospital would enrich the imaginary narrative
of the Burghclere panels.
In one of the predella panels, Washing Lockers, Spencer recalled
the vivid colours of the cavernous washroom -‘six baths, about
twenty hand basins, and a huge acreage of
floor’ 20 - where ‘the
baths were a deep sort of magenta colour and shiny, and when you
had a row of them end-view on, they looked marvellous’.
21 Spencer’s recollection
of surface and texture is quite astonishing, the passage of paint
describing the coarse sacking of the aprons a tour de force, enriched
by dense personal associations:
Whenever I had been frequently in a particular
place employed on some job, I would become so in harmony with
the place and the job, it being regular, that at last
The washrooms, wards and corridors of the Beaufort
furnished Spencer with an infinite taxonomy of pictorial forms.
Invariably he had little problem dredging them from his wartime
memory, despite the fact that he drew relatively little when based
in the hospital. Effortlessly, he could recollect the enamel finish
of the circular basins or the limp angles of the coldwater copper
taps in the washrooms, the dull gleam of a floor under one of the
verandas or the pliable surface of a hot-water bottle, but on occasion
his recall failed him:
I would discover happy, homely places in the most unlikely places.
There, only to mentally place myself between these baths and be
scrubbing the floor is at once
to feel inspired. 22
'I sat there, George, for half an hour trying
to think what a sponge looked like, but it was no good. I had
to go home and get mine.' 23
In the panel Ablutions,
the painted sponge is an extraordinary thing: beautifully described,
it hovers in mid-air, seeming to float free of all physical attachment,
except as an element in Spencer’s memory.
Possibly few other British painters of the last century have had
such an understanding of the exact identity of inanimate objects.
Peter Burra, one of the many visitors to the chapel as it was being
painted, described Spencer’s ability to bring out the uniqueness
of things as like a lover’s overpowering declaration of love
for everything they saw in their partner or, in their absence, in
their belongings. It was an intense, quite blinkered declaration
that would brook no vagueness: it required (and invariably received)
absolute clarity of visual expression. Indeed, Spencer himself believed
that ‘To see anything imaginatively
is to see a thing for the first time’.
Perhaps this explains the almost unique strangeness of Spencer’s
personal vision. He tried to capture objects in paint through the
fullest absorption of every thing ‘into’ himself. This
was coupled with the recognition that the absolute identity of things
- sheets, sponge, towels, taps, iron gates - was paramount because
in that self-identity they were revealed to him as the ‘Forms
chosen by God’.
A common eye would have missed, overlooked and neglected the everyday
things that became the spiritual nouns - the ‘burning
bushes’ - of Spencer’s pictorial
vocabulary. The Beaufort War Hospital teemed with such evocations,
indeed it still does to this day (Fig.
5). Eric Newton expressed deep admiration
for Spencer’s ability to proclaim and reclaim the distinct
value of objects - whether it be a sponge, chair, kitbag, watch-chain
or length of barbed-wire. Yet it was not just the ability to copy
or reproduce distant objects with unnerving clarity, it was Spencer’s
expression of them as ‘authentic fragments
of autobiography’. 25
Kitty Hauser understood how he was capable of absorbing the very
being of an object, its physiognomy, or the essentials of a gesture
or a sense of place, and capture its internal equivalence.
It might lie dormant for decades waiting for Spencer to retrieve
(indeed ‘resurrect’) its essence in a drawing or a painting.
26 At the chapel at Burghclere,
Spencer aimed to reconcile past and present through the act of pictorial
reunification - a kitbag is reunited with its owner, an item of
laundry with its wearer, a key for a gate, the quartermaster and
his blankets, a resurrected soldier returning his cross. The murals
are a hymn in paint to redemption and reconciliation, where the
miraculous and commonplace
are synergistic, the narrative ‘a mixture
of an ordinary circumstance with a spiritual happening’.
Yet there was one final, and curious, element that Spencer left
wholly unreconciled. Behind the altar-stone in the chapel, out of
view to all but the most inquisitive visitor, Spencer painted a
single beam of stone a yard long, lying on its side, a solitary
rectilinear column of whiteness that rests somewhat forlornly at
the foot of the great pile of crosses. Neither cruciform nor easily
seen by the passing eye, what is it meant to represent? Is it -
like the notch carved out of one of the larger crosses over the
altar - an emblem of imperfection, a small piece of Spencer’s
heaven-on-earth that would never be realised? Could this single
beam of stone be a reference to Stanley himself, whose own cross
could not have been fully formed as he was one of the survivors?
Or maybe it is a sad reflection of his own loss of vision, his exhaustion
after a decade of working with the memory of the war, another memento
mori sent to remind us that, although the soldiers may have gained
their individual redemption, Spencer would carry the weight of the
Beaufort, Bristol and the Balkans long after he had left Burghclere.
Spencer first made a record of his war experience
in 1919 (held in the Tate Archive as TGA
733.3.28). This draft formed the basis
of a notebook written as he developed his ideas for the Oratory
at Burghclere (TGA 733.3.84). The notebook was typed up in 1948
A section was later added to this typescript (TGA
1 Stanley Spencer
to Florence Spencer, 27 June 1918, TGA
756.4 (the typescript of these letters
is TGA 733.1.753).
Donald Early, ‘The Lunatic Pauper Palace’:
Glenside Hospital Bristol, 1861–1994: Its Birth, Development
and Demise, Friends of Glenside Hospital
Museum, Bristol, 2003; see also Paul Gough, Stanley
Spencer: A Journey to Burghclere, Samson
& Co., Bristol, 2006.
1918, TGA 733.3.83.
activities at the asylum - and later while it was renamed the Beaufort
War Hospital - included concerts, amateur dramatics and dances.
The archive at the Glenside Hospital Museum, Bristol, contains several
photographs of such events.
only 520 beds were required in Bristol for war wounded; 260 of these
were to come from the Bristol Royal Infirmary; Southmead Hospital
offered a similar number in its newly built wards. As casualties
mounted these numbers had to increase, but the 1,460 beds provided
at the Beaufort was the largest single contribution made by the
the Armistice the vast number of the inmates returned from their
evacuation to Bristol.
Macdonald, The Roses of No Man’s Land,
Michael Joseph, London, 1980, p.150. Spencer wrote in one letter,
‘sweep wash & give bedpans 5 o’clock
to 8 in the evening’. He added,
‘I would give anything to belong to
the Royal Berkshires’ (TGA
Wedgwood, Essays and Adventures of a Labour
MP, HMSO, London, 1924.
Spencer, Stanley Spencer by His Brother Gilbert,
Gollancz, London, 1961, p.137.
Graeme West, The Diary of a Dead Officer,
Herald, London, 1918. Not for nothing were the RAMC sometimes known
to front-line soldiers as ‘Rob All
My Comrades’. Denis Winter suggests
that the tension was due largely to the unexpressed guilt felt by
the orderlies. Denis Winter, Death’s
Men: Soldiers of the Great War, Penguin,
Harmondsworth, 1987, p.202.
Williamson, The Patriot’s Progress,
Geoffrey Blies, London, 1930,pp.189-91.
Glasgow, 1944, TGA 733.3.86, in Richard Carline, Stanley
Spencer at War, Faber and Faber, London,
1915-18, TGA 733.3.83.
1944-5, TGA 733.3.85.
Spencer to Jacques and Gwen Raverat, July/August 1915, TGA
1915-18, TGA 733.3.83.
Spencer 1961, p.139.
Spencer to Richard Carline, 1928, in Carline 1978, p.182.
Spencer to Richard Carline, 1929, in Carline 1978, p.182.
Behrend, Stanley Spencer at Burghclere,
Macdonald, London, 1965, p.8.
733.2.3. Peter James Salkeld Burra left
a short typescript that relates his experience of the chapel as
it neared completion in the early 1930s. Given the title ‘Spencer’s
Oratory’ by Richard Thompson of
the Burra-Moody Archive, a copy is held at the Sandham Memorial
Chapel. Though Burra writes with great beauty and insight, Spencer’s
voice is also clear throughout.
Newton, Stanley Spencer (Penguin Modern Painters),
Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1947, p.9.
a fuller exposition on the 'phenomenology of equivalence' see Kitty
Hauser, Stanley Spencer, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2001, pp.73–4.
Spencer to Richard Carline, 1928, in Carline 1978, p.184.
exacting was Spencer about the architectural detail of the chapel
that as late as 1933 he was still fussing about small aspects of
the design, writing to Mary Behrend in January 1933 that he still
wanted a painted line to be added to the surface of the dado rail
in lieu of a groove that could not now be cut into the plaster:
‘The grooves or lines divide the six
feet widths of the predella picture into seven spaces.’
Stanley Spencer to Mary Behrend, 16 January 1933, TGA
882.8. See ‘The Holy Box’
in Gough 2006, p.196.