Stanley Warren and the Changi Murals

Singapore Infopedia


Stanley Warren (b. 1917, London, England1–d. 20 February 1992, Bridport, England), a bombardier with the 135th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, was known as the painter of the murals in St Luke’s Chapel of the Roberts Barracks in Changi while interned as a prisoner-of-war (POW).2 Based on selected texts from the four gospels, Warren created five large murals, each about 3 m across, on the chapel walls. 

Warren was a trained artist and worked as a film poster designer for Grenada Cinemas in England. He then enlisted in the army in January 1940, a few months after the outbreak of World War II.4 Due to his artistic background, Warren was posted as an observation post assistant responsible for drawing panoramas used to plot targets.The Japanese invasion of Malaya brought Warren to Singapore in January 1942.

Internment in Changi and painting of the murals
Following the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, over 50,000 British and Allied officers and civilians were interned in Changi under Japanese orders.7 Warren was first imprisoned in Changi before being moved to a camp in Bukit Timah and put to work building roads to a Japanese war memorial in Bukit Batok.8 During this period, Warren was invited to decorate the altar area of a small, open attap-roof chapel in the camp. Drawing with charcoal on the asbestos panels, Warren thus created his first two chapel murals: “Nativity”, which features a Malay Madonna, and “Descent from the Cross”, in which soldiers were modelled on his comrades.The panels were later relocated to St David’s Church at Sime Road Camp.10 

Owing to the hard labour and poor conditions, Warren contracted amoebic dysentery and suffered from severe renal problems.11 He was admitted to the Roberts Barracks Hospital in Changi on 23 May 1942 and transferred to the Dysentery Wing at Block 151 in August.12 The building housed a chapel dedicated to St Luke in a room on the ground floor.13 Having heard of the murals at Bukit Timah, Padres Chambers and Payne approached Warren to decorate St Luke’s Chapel.14 Warren agreed and requested for the dimensions of the chapel walls, painting materials and a copy of the New Testament from which he drew inspiration.15 

Paint was not readily available in the camp, but resources and substitutes were gradually acquired thanks to prisoners who risked their lives to gather materials for the project.16 Warren thus began work on the murals with some brown camouflage paint, a tin of high-quality white oil paint, one small tin of crimson paint, and cubes of dark billiard chalk that were crushed to produce a blue colour.17  

He began the first of the murals, “The Nativity”, in September 1942. In his depiction of the birth of Jesus Christ, Warren painted the three kings as being from different racial groups – Asian, Middle Eastern and northern European – to convey a sense of universality. However, Warren and Chambers disagreed over the inscription for the Nativity mural.18 Warren favoured the wording of the 1611th King James Version of the bible, “On earth peace, goodwill to all men”, while Chambers preferred the Vulgate translation, “Peace on earth to men of goodwill”. The latter was eventually adopted.19  

Despite illness, Warren completed the mural in time for Christmas that year.20 Fearing that he might die before completing the entire project, Warren decided to paint the Ascension after the Nativity so that the chapel would at least have two murals representing the beginning and end of Christ’s time on earth.21 Fortunately, his health improved and he was able to complete the second mural on another wall within two to three weeks.22 “The Ascension” features the risen Christ saying to his disciples, “Go and teach the nations. I am with you".23 

The third mural, “The Crucifixion”, depicted the crucifixion of Christ by slaves with the inscription, “Father forgive them they know not what they do".24 Warren revealed that his decision to include slaves clad in loincloths was not only a reference to the realities of life in the POW camps, but he also wanted to show that Japanese soldiers who committed acts of violence and cruelty against prisoners had been under orders to do so.25

After completing the first three murals, Warren was left with a huge drum of grey paint and just enough blue paint to use in a few places.26 Moving on to the “Last Supper”, Christ is portrayed as a towering figure with the apostles and other objects grouped around Christ. The mural bears the inscription: “This is my blood of the New Testament which is shed for many".27 

The last mural, “St Luke in Prison”, was painted at the request of Chambers. With the inscription, “Only Luke was with me”, the mural depicts an aged St Luke in prison writing his gospel, with St Paul by his side and an angel behind him, while a Roman centurion and others watch on. The walls of the prison are broken and the iron bars bent.28

The Changi Murals were completed by May 1943. However, the chapel was converted into a storeroom when the Japanese took over the building for the construction of an air field nearby. The mural of St Luke was largely destroyed as the lower part of the wall was demolished to create a doorway, while the rest of the murals were covered with distemper. The prisoners were relocated and Warren was transferred to the Kranji POW camp, where he remained until the end of the war.29

The chapel and the murals were said to have provided solace for the prisoners in the Changi camp.30 For Warren, who felt that his life and the chapel were entwined, the murals expressed his faith as well as gratitude for being alive.31 

Later developments
After the war, the barracks were leased to the Royal Air Force (RAF). Block 151, including the chapel, was used as accommodation for RAF personnel. Several former RAF servicemen stationed there in the 1950s recall that the murals were visible beneath the distemper coating. However, it was not until 1958 that the existence of the murals was brought to wider attention.32

In February 1959, Warren, then an art teacher in London, was identified as the artist.33 Warren visited Singapore thrice to restore the murals – in December 1964, July 1982 and May 1988.34 He passed away in Bridport, England, on 20 February 1992.35 

The original paintings have been preserved in situ at what is now Changi Air Base.36 Replicas of the murals are on display in the Changi Chapel and Museum located along Upper Changi Road North.37

Vernon Cornelius-Takahama & Janice Loo

1. Stanley Warren, oral history interview by Chua Ser Koon and Tan Beng Luan, 7 August 1982, transcript and MP3 audio 27:43, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000205), 1–11.
2. Stanley Warren, oral history interview by Chua Ser Koon and Tan Beng Luan, 21 September 1983, transcript and MP3 audio 27:29, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000205), 32.
3. Peter W. Stubbs, The Changi Murals: The Story of Stanley Warren’s War (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2003), 50, 57. (Call no. RSING 940.547252092 STU-[WAR])
4. Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
5. Stubbs, Changi Murals, 10; Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
6. Stubbs, Changi Murals, 10.
7. Stubbs, Changi Murals, 37–38.
8. Stubbs, Changi Murals, 38, 41–43; Stanley Warren, oral history interview by Chua Ser Koon and Tan Beng Luan, 22 September 1983, transcript and MP3 audio 23:16, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000205), 78.
9. Stanley Warren, oral history interview by Chua Ser Koon and Tan Beng Luan, 21 September 1983, transcript and MP3 audio 27:44, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000205), 54–55.
10. Stubbs, Changi Murals, 42, 105.
11. Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
12. Stubbs, Changi Murals, 47; Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
13. Stubbs, Changi Murals, 49.
14. Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
15. Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
16. Stubbs, Changi Murals, 55.
17. Stanley Warren, oral history interview; Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
18. Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
19. Stubbs, Changi Murals, 64; Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
20. Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
21. Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
22. Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
23. Stubbs, Changi Murals, 62, 64.
24. Stubbs, Changi Murals, 59;
25. Stanley Warren, oral history interview; Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
26. Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
27. Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
28. Stanley Warren, oral history interview; Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
29. Stubbs, Changi Murals, 75–81.
30. Stanley Warren, oral history interview; Stanley Warren, oral history interview by Chua Ser Koon and Tan Beng Luan, 7 August 1982, transcript and MP3 audio 27:45, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000205), 15; Stanley Warren, oral history interview by Chua Ser Koon and Tan Beng Luan, 21 September 1983, transcript and MP3 audio 24:56, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000205), 74.
31. Stanley Warren, oral history interview.
32. Stubbs, Changi Murals, 83–88.
33. Vincent Ng, “Do You Know Who Painted This PoW Camp Mural? Straits Times, 25 January 1959, 13; “Solved: Mystery of the Changi Murals,” Straits Times, 1 February 1959, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Stubbs, Changi Murals, 91.
35. “Stanley Warren,” Straits Times, 26 February 1992, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
36. “New Home for Prison Chapel, Museum,” Straits Times, 27 September 1999, 37; Krist Boo, “World War II Revisited, 60 Years On,” Straits Times, 15 February 2005, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
37. K. C. Vijayan, “War Museum Set to Open at Changi,” Straits Times, 22 January 2001, p. H6. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Hamzah Muzani and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, “Contesting ‘Local’ Commemoration of the Second World War: The Case of the Changi Chapel and Museum in Singapore,” Australian Geographer, 36, no. 1 (March 2005): 1–17. (From EBSCOhost via NLB’s eResources website)

Henry Probert, The History of Changi (Singapore: Changi University Press, 2006), 32–33. (Call no. RSING 959.57 PRO-[HIS])

John Northridge Lewis Bryan, The Churches of the Captivity in Malaya (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1946), 11, 42–43. (Call no. RCLOS 940.5472595 BRY)

The information in this article is valid as at 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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