Stanley Spencer as Medical Orderly
This article is dedicated to all in the NHS, Care Sector and Military personnel who are working so hard for the benefit of us all in this Covid 19 pandemic.
Stanley Spencer was a Medical Orderly with the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War, initially at the Beaufort Military Hospital in Bristol and then with the Field Ambulance on the Salonika Front in Macedonia.
At first he found the experience a great shock. The young artist was a free spirit who naturally rebelled against the military discipline and hierarchy necessary in such a healthcare regime. The work itself was often menial and exhausting which, in addition to caring for wounded soldiers, involved a lot of cleaning and housekeeping duties. Soon however, through the help of his friend Desmond Chute, Spencer was able to find spiritual meaning in every task and fulfilment in every duty.
He even began to plan a painting of an operation, writing to Desmond of the ‘wonderfully intense’ atmosphere of the theatre and the skill of the surgeon. Whilst in reality there was no chance to paint at all during the war, Spencer was able to make pencil portrait drawings of patients and those he worked with – saying; ‘I do anything for these men. I do not know why but I cannot refuse them anything & they love me to make drawings of photos of their wives and children or a brother who has been killed’.
Right: Wounded Being Carried by Mules, Macedonia, 1918-19 (Both SSG Collection).
In Macedonia the task of transporting the wounded was exacerbated by the difficult terrain. Sure footed mules provided the answer – a stretcher being suspended between two of the animals (see sketch above) or by pulling a ‘travoy’, which had sled like runners and an orderly holding on to the other end. It is these that Spencer depicted, as an official war artist, in his masterpiece ‘Travoys with wounded Arriving at a Dressing Station in Smol, Macedonia’ 1919 (Imperial war Museum Collection). Painted back in Cookham, after demob due to recurring Malaria, this work will have been produced during the Spanish Flu epidemic that followed the war.
In this painting the wall of an old Greek church acting as temporary medical accommodation has been cut away to reveal the treatment taking place inside – at last Spencer had got to paint his operation!
In 1923 Spencer began drawing up plans for what has become one of the most poignant memorials of the Great War, and a hymn of praise to all those who serve in hospitals and the military both then and now: The Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, Hampshire (www.nationaltrust.org.uk) in which he depicted his experiences, elevates the everyday routine of care work and soldiering in a way which had never been done before. It must be the only chapel in the world to contain a painting of a hot water bottle!
Despite his depictions of such domestic scenes, Spencer will have been no stranger to the harsh realities of the situation. In Macedonia one of his duties will have been to help bury those who had died. He also lost his beloved elder brother Sydney who was killed in France during the last few months of the war.
Looking back on his wartime service in 1927, when writing to Nurse Higgs whom he had worked with at the Beaufort Hospital, Spencer however chose to remember the positive:
‘In spite of the strain and general nervous tension at that time, nevertheless there was something wonderful in our states of mind, how bright and full of fun we were…’.