The Uplifting Changi Murals and Stanley Warren

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, POW in Changi, Changi Murals artist. (Image: Jerome Lim)

Stanley Warren, POW in Changi, Changi Murals artist. (Image: Jerome Lim)

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.

Stanley Warren’s Changi Murals and their captions include:

  1. The Nativity: “Peace on earth to men of goodwill.”
  2. The Ascension: “Go and teach the nations I am with you.”
  3. The Crucifixion: “Father forgive them they know not what they do.”
  4. The Last Supper: “Of the New Testament this is my blood which is shed for many.”
  5. 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 Nativity - the first mural by Stanley Warren. (Image: Jerome Lim)

The Nativity – the first mural by Stanley Warren. (Image: Jerome Lim)

The Ascension - the second mural by Stanley Warren (Image by Jerome Lim)

The Ascension – the second mural by Stanley Warren. (Image: Jerome Lim)

The Crucifixion - the third Changi Mural which was partly damaged by a doorway made in the wall. (Image: Jerome Lim)

The Crucifixion by Stanley Warren – the third Changi Mural which was partly damaged by a doorway made in the wall. (Image: Jerome Lim)

The Last Supper – the fourth mural by Stanley Warren. (Image: Jerome Lim)

The Last Supper – the fourth mural by Stanley Warren. (Image: Jerome Lim)

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.

The Allied delegation led by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten face the Japanese delegation led by General Itagaki across the table, for the signing of the surrender at Singapore. © IWM (A 30491)

The Japanese surrender: The Allied delegation led by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten face the Japanese delegation led by General Itagaki across the table, for the signing of the surrender at Singapore. © IWM (A 30495)

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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21 thoughts on “The Uplifting Changi Murals and Stanley Warren

  1. Behind the Story

    A very touching story. It reminds me of a book I read many, many years ago: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. He noticed that the people who survived in the concentration camps had something to live for, whether it was a family to return to, a story to tell, or a scene to paint. The paintings must have given Stanley Warren something to live for.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      To have something to live for — to sustain their spirit, to give them a thread of hope.

      Thank you for recommending this book, Nicki.

      Stanley Warren’s murals and St. Luke chapel became their inmates’ sanctuary. His strength and his paintings are so humbling.



      1. Janet Williams Post author

        Thank you Brian for your comment. How wonderful it is to know that your uncle inspired you in arts.

        I’m so pleased to have found out more about your uncle through writing this blog.

        I would appreciate if you could share more story with us, what he taught you, and your time together. Did Stanley mentioned his time at Changi? I couldn’t help but wonder what impact it had had on thousands of POWs. We’d love to find out more. History remembers Stanley, Stanley’s art, and many others who lived through those dreadful years. His spirit lives with us and he continues to inspire us through his art.

        The journey back to Changi – what was it like? How did Stanley feel? I often wonder.

        I look forward to hearing from you.

      2. Clive

        I was a pupil of Mr Warren while at Sir William Collins School. He invited a few of us to his house to listen to classical music. We also visited an art gallery and visited museums complete with drawing materials during a school holiday.

        A wonderful man who inspired us all.

      3. Janet Williams Post author

        Dear Clive,

        Everyone always remembers a great teacher, the kind of teacher who loves and inspires his pupils.

        Thank you for sharing your thought with us. I’m sure you have lots of fond memories with such a wonderful teacher.

        Feel free to share with us more, so that we get to learn more of the incredible life of Mr Warren. Many thanks.

      4. Ian Charles Edwards

        I attended Sir William Collins school in the sixties and Stan or should I say ‘Mr Warren’ was head of the Art department. I have very fond memories of Stan. He was a kind gentle man with such a wonderful sense of humour. I travelled to Italy with him and Mr Dorian, a music teacher on a school trip. We talked about his time in Singapore and his love of the Renaissance Art. At the I always found it hard to understand his forgiveness towards the Jap guards. Time has taught me that lesson. As you properly know Stan was a good friend to Albert Adams, another wonderful person in that department. Stan was something special. A man I greatly admired and cared for. I think he would be pleased to know that I also managed to attend Hornsey art school…… The best!
        Regards Ed.

      5. Janet Williams Post author

        Dear Ian,

        Thank you for sharing your fond memories of Mr Warren.

        “Stan was something special” – This said it all what a remarkable teacher Mr Warren was.

        Next time I visit Changi, I’ll see the place differently – remembering the people, and Mr Warren, and also learning about the humanity that he taught us.

      6. Mrs C. Williams

        Dear Brian Warren. I have been searching for information about Stanley Warren for some time. The reason is that I am in possession of a painting that MIGHT have been his. If you could kindly reply to me I will give you my personal contact details so that I can explain more fully.

        Janet I would be happy to hear from you as well if you wish.

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  3. KL

    War memories had never been good. Mr Stanley Warren had taken tremendous courage to overcome trauma to restore the Changi Murals in 1963, 1982 and 1988. In 1988, he was too old to restore the last piece of work “St Luke in prison”. However, he managed to paint on the original sketch accidentally kept by Wally Hammond, a nursing officer serving in Robert’s Barrack at that time.

    Indeed, the Changi Murals, the St Luke Chapel and many small chapels constructed during WW2 period provided moral support to the POWs in that era. The stories touched many visitors.

    Dr Kevin Blackburn mentioned that the site was restored for tourism purpose. I do not think this is true in any sense. The actual site was within Changi Air Base, a restricted military site not opened for general public. To me it is of historical value then any thing else.

    Because the actual site was still a military camp in 1988, and still is today, Stanley Warren linked the WW2 history and the site in a nutshell:

    “There is no problem that cannot be solved without war….I hope that the Singapore Arm Forces would never have to find themselves firing the first shot in anger. War is never good.”

    Yes, my heart goes with Stanley Warren.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear KL,

      Thank you for your brilliant input.

      Dr Blackburn discussed battlefield tourism and the relationship between tourism and pilgrimages in his journal.

      I think he used David Lloyd’s analysis to discuss if the presence of tourists might trivialise the meaning of the battlefields and historic war sites, such as Changi Murals.

      There shouldn’t be glorification of wars, and war memories should not be trivialised either. I found the academic discussions in Dr Blackburn’s journal challenging. In his 1982’s visit to Singapore, Stanley Warren was worried there might be a contradiction between re-creating the Changi Murals for tourism and their role as a site of pilgrimage.

      I’m pleased to learn that the Murals are treated with respect and are in good care by the Singapore authorities. Changi Murals have served historical and educational purposes.

      1. johnbroom1970

        Hi Janet. An excellent piece about some very moving artwork. The links to the AWM piece by Dr Blackburn don’t open on my computer. I am interested in the fact that you say Stanley Warren was a devout Catholic. Is this definitely stated by Dr Blackburn as I have not seen mention of it anywhere else, including in the Peter Stubbs book I have.

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