In 1958, there was an international search for a mysterious artist. The only clue was that the artist was a prisoner of war in Singapore after the Fall of Singapore in February 1942, which was described by Winston Churchill as the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.
Five large murals of scenes from the New Testament were discovered in Changi prisoner of war camp in Singapore. These murals touched many hearts and shocked the world. Who was the artist who painted the near life-size murals in the chapel of St. Luke there? Who was the artist who yearned for hope and peace in the darkest days of despair through his biblical paintings?
Last week, Lorelle vanFossen highlighted an extensive search using satellite images in Google Earth for the aviator and balloonist Steve Fossett, after he was reported missing flying his plane over the Nevada desert in 2007. In the non-digital age in 1958, the search for the prisoner-of-war artist proved difficult. He could have been any of the 50,000 allied soldiers detained by the Japanese. Was the artist British, Australian, Dutch, or Indian? Was he still alive? Did he later get sent to build the Death Railway in Thailand and Burma and manage to return?
The search for the Changi Murals artist extended to the news report from the British newspaper Daily Mirror. Finally, the artist was found. His name was Stanley Warren from Dorset, a British Bombardier of the 15th Regiment of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. When Mr Warren was tracked down, he was a quiet art teacher in a secondary school in north London. Having been suddenly exposed, Stanley Warren was forced to confront the trauma of World War II again.
Stanley Warren painted the murals on two of the chapel’s walls between September 1942 and May 1943. These murals were originally located in Roberts Barracks Block 151 at the Changi Military Base, the former Changi Royal Air Force (RAF) base.
- The Nativity: “Peace on earth to men of goodwill.”
- The Ascension: “Go and teach the nations I am with you.”
- The Crucifixion: “Father forgive them they know not what they do.”
- The Last Supper: “Of the New Testament this is my blood which is shed for many.”
- St. Luke in Prison: “Only Luke is with me.”
Singaporean blogger and photographer Jerome Lim visited St. Luke chapel recently where in 1942, Stanley Warren was “weakened by a severe bout of renal disorder and dysentery, drew on whatever reserves he had left in strength, to decorate, remarkably, two of the chapel’s walls with five paintings of biblical scenes from the New Testament which along with the chapel became a light in the darkness of days uncertain.”
Jerome Lim’s description encapsulates the spirit of Changi Murals so beautifully. Jerome’s blog The Long and Winding Road was named Best Photography Blog at the Singapore Blog Awards in the past two years. He wrote a sombre account of his visit in A light where there was only darkness: The Changi Murals. Jerome kindly shares the precious Changi Murals images he took in my post:
The murals were forgotten after the Japanese surrender at Singapore on the 12th of September 1945. Stanley Warren thought his paintings had been destroyed. Who would have expected his paintings to survive the heavy allied bombing towards the end of the war? The murals came to light only in 1958 during the British re-occupation of Singapore. The discovery changed the life of Stanley Warren forever.
I learnt of two fascinating facts about the Changi Murals from Dr. Kevin Blackburn, in his in-depth journal of the Australian war memorial: The historic war site of the Changi Murals: a place for pilgrimages and tourism.
Did the Japanese guards share a common humanity with POWs?
First, Dr. Blackburn reported that Stanley Warren, a devout Catholic, wanted to show the universality of Christianity through his work. In his Nativity scene, Stanley Warren wanted to say “Peace on earth and goodwill to all men” instead of “Peace on earth to men of goodwill.” However, did the Japanese guards, who tortured the POWs and deprived them of food and medical supplies, share a common humanity with the sick and the dying men? Stanley Warren had a disagreement with the priest of the chapel, Padre J.G.M. Chambers, and eventually Stanley Warren was forced to compromise.
What should Jesus’s disciples look like? The second poignant point was that Stanley Warren used his fellow POWs as models for the disciples, drawing them in the rags they were dressed in and showing their emaciated bodies.
According to Dr. Blackburn, over the Christmas holidays of 1963, Stanley Warren was brought out from England to restore the murals. The trip was a pilgrimage, and he was compelled by a sense of duty.
Stanley Warren knew that his paintings saved his life. In 1943, Stanley Warren was malnourished, and critically ill with renal disease. His commanding officer, Colonel Roberts, valued his artwork and kept him behind to uplift the morale of his comrades in Singapore. However, hundreds of his comrades in Singapore were sent to build the Burma-Thailand Railway, and they never returned.
Through Dr. Blackburn’s research, now we know that in an interview with National Archives of Singapore, Stanley Warren revealed restoring the murals was “repaying a debt for the life that I have lived since”.
“It’s an awfully long time to wait to expect death.”
From the National Archives of Singapore, Stanley Warren revealed his thought on restoring the Changi Murals, in his second trip back to Singapore in 1982:
“I didn’t immediately want to come. I felt that there would be some sort of trauma. I didn’t know. I had so much hesitation. I thought I am trying to forget this. I had tried so hard immediately after the war. I mean my wife had to wake me up, you know, with terrible nightmares in which you were running away, of being pursued. It went on for years. You never really recovered, you know. It took years really to eliminate the memories and the fears. It’s very easy I think to have an action like physical battle, and if you survive it’s over. But the long drawn out experience and really waiting for death over three and a half years. It’s an awfully long time to wait to expect death. And I really tried to forget. I wanted to dissociate myself in a way. But of course, I was never able to do that.”
By Stanley Warren, Changi Murals Artist.
Source: Dr Kevin Blackburn, National Archives of Singapore via Journal of the Australian War Memorial from Australian War Memorial
Stanley Warren carried a huge emotional burden to visit Singapore three times, in December 1963, July 1982 and May 1988, to restore his Changi Murals. It took courage to visit the very place of harrowing wartime experience, to re-live the captivity that he fought so hard to try to forget.
The Murals of inspiration and refuge
On 20th December 1963, Stanley Warren visited Singapore for his first restoration work to the murals. He still kept with him most of the original sketches he made for the painting of the murals. Stanley Warren was immediately transported to history’s darkest hours. He sat down and wept.
Stanley Warren restored four murals in three difficult visits to Singapore. The mural of St Luke in Prison was not fully restored. Stanley Warren lost his original tracing of the drawing, and he could not remember the details of the missing portion.
Changi Murals are important World War II artifacts. They are painful reminders of the war and the loss of thousands of lives. They also symbolise hope, peace and forgiveness. I’m most touched by the Crucifixion mural: “Father forgive them they know not what they do.” In the depth of sorrow and misery, Stanley Warren found faith and courage. His Changi Murals brought peace and consolation to hundreds of comrades, soothing their souls during their unspeakable ordeal. Today, Stanley Warren’s Changi Murals inspire us to ponder about suffering and transcendence.
Stanley Warren passed away on the 20th of February 1992, at his home in Bridport, England, aged 75.
I came across this moving 3-minute video clip in memory of Stanley Warren. It traced Stanley Warren’s very first trip back to Singapore in 1963 to restore his Changi Murals. In this film, the traumatised Stanley Warren was being driven in a taxi to Changi, and his flashbacks of his captivity in Changi Prison were heart-rending. You will see Stanley Warren working with very limited materials, and his paints, pigments, and brushes for his murals were difficult to come by. Yet through compassion and loyalty from his comrades, his strength, and his faith from God, Stanley Warren left the most treasured artifacts to the world. Many hearts are comforted.
The Changi Murals film is made by Boo Junfeng, and cinematography by Sharon Loh.
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