When I joined the Archive department at Tate, one of my first tasks was to catalogue a series of sketches and drawings by Stanley Spencer. This was made all the more fascinating and enjoyable by my guide, Unity Spencer who, like her father and mother, attended the Slade School of Art in London. Stanley Spencer studied fine art under the renowned Henry Tonks, just before the outbreak of World War I, famously travelling from his beloved home village of Cookham to central London each day. These were halcyon days as he mastered the technique of drawing among fellow pupils that included, amongst others: David Bomberg, Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, C.R.W. Nevinson all of whom are represented by papers in the Tate Archive. The war was to shatter many of these lives and yet by regularly receiving letters from home, Spencer, who had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps maintained a seeming sense of normality. One of Spencer’s most eagerly awaited correspondents was his sister, Florence or Flongy as he used to call her. She had been one of his teachers in a corrugated iron schoolroom next door to their home, Fernlea, teaching him all manner of subjects and taking him and his brother Gilbert on nature walks around Cookham Moor and the surrounding woods. This bond was maintained throughout the war with both sides of this remarkable correspondence preserved in Tate Archive - it is astonishing to think that letters could be ferried to and from England and Salonika, where Spencer was stationed, on a weekly basis. She would send him news of life back in Cookham, books and even loaves of bread! Napu (or no good) was Spencer’s remark when the bread arrived though he was highly appreciative of the thought. Here we see the end of one of Spencer’s letters to Flongy thanking her for a book of Crawshaw and giving wonderful vignettes of some of the people he had met when transferring to the Royal Berkshire Regiment. His description and sketch of an ex-policeman is typical of Spencer: his love of the everyday, his positive and humorous outlook, and his concern for his fellow Man.
If you were on a desert island or away from your family for a long period, what sort of things would you like them to send you? TGA 756
Written by Adrian Glew