“A chaffinch is singing impetuously overhead, & it is peace, absolute peace”

Sydney enjoyed a pleasant day off.

Sydney Spencer
Friday 7 June 1918

After a most beautiful night’s sleep I got up at eight o’clock. Took breakfast at my leisure & am now lying under an apple tree in an orchard with the four other men. We are sprawling on the grass in the warm sunshine & a chaffinch is singing impetuously overhead, & it is peace, absolute peace.

We are now going into Hesdin.

Went into Hesdin & bought some gloves. 22 francs. Also some cherries. Afterwards got my hair cut, & had a delicious bath in camp commandant’s enclosure. Returned to mess at 1 pm. After lunch wrote a long letter to Bertha Lamb & also to Florence.

After tea went over churchyard & church with Major Knights & Graham. Then a short walk. Finally we lay in orchard & read. I read more of Tartarin de Tarascon. Have got half way through it.

Now it is dinner time. The army chemical adviser & gas instructor has just rolled in. We start work tomorrow morning. After dinner, went to bed & read more of Tartarin de Tarascon. To sleep by about 10.30 pm. (After dinner a short walk to Barker’s billet.)

Will Spencer
7 June 1918

A letter … for me from Mother, from Florrie’s. …

Mother’s letter contained the news that Percy had received still further promotion, – that he and Horace and Sydney had not yet met in France, but hoped to do so later, – and that Stanley’s name had been suggested to undertake war pictures, & he had “accepted the offer”, & would be leaving his present position.

Diaries of Sydney Spencer in France (D/EZ177/8/15); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/29)

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Coming to life again

At last Stanley Spencer’s true talents would be used in the war.

Ministry of Information
May 10.18

Dear Sir

In connection with the Scheme for utilizing the artistic resources of the country for record purposes, it has been suggested that you should be invited to paint a picture or pictures relating to the war. It is proposed that an application be made to the War Office for your services in this connection.

Mr Muirhead Bone who takes a great interest in your work has suggested that you could paint a picture under some such title as “A religious service at the Front”. When I spoke to him on the subject he had an idea I think that you were in France. I write to ask whether in the event of this scheme maturing, you would be disposed to do such artistic work, and I should be glad to know whether you have noticed any subjects on or about Salonika which could be painted by you before you return, if desired, nearer home.

Yours faithfully

A Yockney

[Annotated with Stanley’s comments:]

It seems wonderful after being in the army nearly 3 years suddenly to get a letter such as this. It will be wonderful to be able to actually express on an ambitious scale some of he impressions that I have received in these hills: it will be like coming to life again.

This letter was sealed with the Royal Arms (I say this because you have doubts about letters of this nature).


Ministry of Information to Stanley Spencer (D/EX801/110)

‘A “fine big man” in his officer’s uniform’

Percy Spencer’s visit home on leave impressed his parents.

24 March 1918

A letter for me from Mother, dated March 18th. Father had been spending the weekend with the Shackels & taking the organ at Dropmore. Percy had been home. Looked a “fine big man” in his officer’s uniform. It was a pity, Mother adds, that the weather was too cold for her to go out with him. Stanley had received the letter which I wrote to him on Jan. 8th.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28)

Stanley Spencer “thinks the training has made him fit”

Art student Stanley Spencer had served for some time in the Royal Army Medical Corps before transferring to the Royal Berkshire Regiment.

Will Spencer
6 February 1918

A letter for me from Mother. Enjoyed reading how we spent Christmas Day. Stanley is still at the base. Thinks the training has made him fit.

Florence Vansittart Neale
6 Feb 1918

Dot Mole & I had our rendezvous at the Bull Inn, Wargrave. Discussion on Ireland & Home Rule.

Diaries of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/8); and Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/28)

News of the Spencers reaches Switzerland

Sometimes Will Spencer felt isolated from family news in his home in Switzerland. So it was good to hear how everyone was getting on.

8 April 1917

By the first post this morning we received a short letter from Father. Florrie has got a sketch entitled “Rations” into “Punch”. Percy has been offered a commission. Harold better. Stanley & Gilbert cheery. Stanley has sent Mother £5, in addition to the 3/6 a week which he allows her.

Diary of Will Spencer (D/EX801/27)

“So ravenously hungry up in these hills that I could eat a hayrick”

Hungry young art student turned medical orderly Stanley Spencer was equally desperate for food, books and art while serving in Greece.

March 27th 1917.

Dear Florence,

I am no longer in the 68th or 66th F.A., so note my new address. Simply alter number of F.Amb. to 143rd. The remainder of the address is the same as it always has been. I was sorry to lose the C.O. of the 68th and I was getting on well in the 66th. If you think you can afford it could you send me out some eatables of some kind, say biscuits or those tinned cakes – cakes in air-tight tins.

Send me one of those little 6d Gowan’s and Gray’s books of Masterpieces of Art. Send me Raphael.

You must not think that I ask for eatables because I am not getting enough food. On the contrary, I am getting good rations, as we all are, but I get so ravenously hungry up in these hills that I could eat a hayrick. It is being out-of-doors so much.

And about books: it is impossible to get them here. A field Amb. is not like a hospital at Salonique where you can buy books, etc. Robert Louis Stevenson is a man whose writings I love.

I do not know if any parcels containing eatables have been sent to me; if so, none have ever arrived. But with the exception of the wonderful ‘Daily News’ Christmas pudding which I never got (and would like to know why), I do not think anything in that line has been sent to me ever since I left England on August 22nd last.

With much love

From your ever loving,

STAN.

Letter from Stanley Spencer to Florence Image (D/EX801/20)

Bread is better than tins

Medical orderly and artist Stanley Spencer wrote to his sister Florence asking for home made bread.

March 25th, 1917.

Dear Florence,

I have been down to Salonique in hospital again, though only for a trivial thing. I had bronchitis, but it was more really nasal catarrh. I am out again now, and after a day at the base was drafted into the 143rd field amb. so you will address me accordingly.

That is three ambs. I have been in.

The flowers are out, the primrose, violet, celandine and many other flowers unknown to me. I passed by such wonderful ones to-day.

It is getting dark and I have no candles and want my letter to go to-night, so goodnight, Flongy dear. With much love to you both,

Your loving brother

STANLEY

If you send me anything, send me some currant biscuits or bread and butter. We get bread and we get butter sometimes, but you know what a boy I am for bread and butter, and it is better to send that than these eternal tinned stuffs. Send me some of your own home made bread, Flongy dear, and I will love you forever.

Letter from Stanley Spencer to Florence Image (D/EX801/20)

“I think we must be winning”

Stanley Spencer missed the art world while serving as a medical orderly. The Raverats were French artist Jacques and his English wife Gwen, also an artist, and the grand daughter of Charles Darwin, who had been a fellow-student of Stanley and his brother Gilbert at the Slade. Their daughter Elisabeth was born in 1916.

Feb. 24th, 1917.

Dear Florence,

I do not know how many letters I owe you, but I will do my best. I got the Lond. Univ. Coll. Pro Patria and Union Magazine to-day which contained a lot of real interesting news about a lot of my old Slade friends.

I am aching and aching for a good book to read. Of course the boys have a few cheap novels, but I would rather waste my life away than read a sentence from one of these ‘books’.

Do tell me all about Mrs Raverat’s baby. Oh, what would I not give to see it. When I heard about it I laughed for sheer joy, and when the chaps in the tent asked me what I was laughing at I said “I don’t know; I think we must be winning.”

The photo of J.M.I. has not come yet, but I get mails everyday just now, so I expect it will be here soon. Much love to him and to you, Flongy dear.

From your loving brother

STANLEY.

Letter from Stanley Spencer to Florence Image (D/EX801/20)

‘He has now volunteered for Field Ambulance work at Salonika’

Will Spencer had news of several of his brothers. Stanley and Gilbert, both art students and a year apart in age, were very close to one another, and both had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps.

31 August 1916

Letters from Mother & from Florrie. Both contained the news that Gilbert had recently written from a hospital ship at Marseilles. He has now volunteered for Field Ambulance work at Salonika. Stanley hopes he may be going to Salonika, as he so much wants to be with Gilbert. Horace better, & making himself useful by making tables & chairs.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

Saying goodbye to a beloved son

Will Spencer kept in touch with his Cookham family, and had news of two of his serving brothers.

24 August 1916

Letter from Father… Had been to Aldershot to say ‘goodbye’ to ‘dear old Stan’, who had been home while Father was away, ‘& expects to be leaving England in two or three days’. Horace has had an attack of malarial fever, & is still in hospital.

Diary of Will Spencer in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

Married before heading to France

Will Spencer in exile in Switzerland was still in touch with his family in Cookham. Brother Horace had a wartime wedding when he got married just before his posting abroad.

21 March 1916
By the morning post a letter from Father. Horace has married Marjorie Hunt. They were at Fernley on March 12th. Father writes ‘She is a nice girl & we are all fond of her, but – he has been transferred to the RE & I expect will leave for some foreign part some day this week! Sydney has been promoted 1st Lieutenant. Stanley (at Bristol) has been relieved from his menial tasks & given more interesting work. He comes home for 24 hours once a month.’

[A later diary note confirms that Horace left for France on 18 March.]

Diary of Will Spencer of Cookham, exile in Switzerland (D/EX801/26)

“I suppose we must win, eventually” – but we need a dictator

Cambridge don John Maxwell Image was unimpressed by the country’s leadership, and thought Sir George Richardson, founder of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force should take over the air forces. His wife Florence, nee Spencer, of Cookham, was the sister of Percy and Stanley Spencer, mentioned here.

29 Barton Road
20 Feb. ‘16

Here is a story I heard from our Cook [aged 21] yesterday of her brother. Poor fellow, he has been killed since – but he was in the retreat from Mons, and he wrote home that for 5 days they had no food if any kind. The letter contained a snowdrop which the writer had picked from the top of his trench and sent to his mother, writing “I hope the base censor will not take it”. Letter and snowdrop arrived safe: and underneath this passage was written “The Censor has resisted the temptation”.

I suppose we must win, eventually. We want the elder Pitt. If such a man exists among us now, he is not allowed a chance. The Air Service! And my pupil unshamed preaching that we must take the butcheries lying down, for babes and women are of no importance. In no branch was the personal superiority of the British men more marked than in this of the air. But it needs a dictator. We have such a man – not Curzon – or Winston – but him who made the Ulster army. He mayn’t know much of Aeronautics, but he “can make a small State great”. I don’t suppose the “terrible Cornet of Horse” knew much of the Art Military, but see what he did in 1759, by Land and Sea – with a fleet and army emasculated by 40 years of peace.

My wife (she has a brother in Salonica, and another in Flanders, “mentioned in despatches”) begs me to send her kindest wishes along with mine to both.

Ever your loving
Bild

Letter from John Maxwell Image to W F Smith (D/EX801/2)

Delighted with the honour

William Spencer of Cookham wrote to his married daughter Florence with news of her brothers.

4.I.16

Mr & Mrs Fuller have written congratulating on honour conferred on [William’s son] Percy. We are delighted. It was in the ‘Times’ on Jan. 1. They are sending us their copy. This should help him in the matter of a Commission I think. …

Stan: [son Stanley, the artist] writes that the Sergt at Beaufort War Hospital has just heard that all the R.H.M.C men who left with Gil: [another son, Gilbert] for Salonika are quite well.

F[ather].

Postcard from William Spencer of Cookham to his daughter Florence Image (D/EZ177/1/7)

A delightful spot behind the lines

Percy Spencer was in a cheerful mood as the summer started in France. He wrote to his sister Florence to describe the area he was based, a short way from the front lines, and to comment on his brother Stanley’s joining the RAMC:

June 5, 1915
Dear Florrie

We are having the most glorious weather and we are in a most delightful spot.

Today the peasant girls have been mowing the lawn – how Stan would love to draw them, rough, bronzed lassies with their large handkerchiefs over their heads and shoulders and tied under their chins.

The miners too are great. One I met the other day was particularly remarkable in his bronze blue overall and black [illegible] cap. He was a tall spare man with coal begrimed face, hands and clothes; only one thing was clean – a kind of cerise coloured scarf. I daresay the colouring sounds awful, but take it from me, he looked fine.

I see you are going to send me more bread. Don’t trouble to; we can obtain any we want from the village as a rule.

Stan’s idea of bargaining where he will go is rather pathetic – he’d better know that it’s utterly futile. But this he can do under existing orders. If he is not sent to join Gil, he or Gil can apply to their Commanding Officer for a transfer and it must be sanctioned on the grounds that they are brothers and wish to serve in the same unit of the same branch of the service [in the RAMC].

Yes, our fellows have done well, very well, and so their pictures are appearing in the paper, as you say. Curiously enough, the photos of the 24th are the photos of our boys of the 22nd, and you may be interested to know the leading boy in the picture of a company led by a bearded officer has been wounded in the eye, but is still with us. Again a picture of the answer to K. of K.’s appeal for men up to 40 is that of our own men who were sent back to the second line unit when we came out.

Love to all
Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/33)

Hope for the best and be prepared for the worst

Percy Spencer wrote to his sister Florence again. He was not very flattering about artist brother Stanley’s potential as a soldier, but was concerned about newly commissioned brother Sydney.

June 4, 1915
Dear Florrie

Here we are after a night move two days ago, a little move to the south and west. Jack Jackson’s regiment went by me in the dark but I didn’t catch sight of him. I expect he’s all right still as I believe our brigade has done most of the serious work so far.
This is a delightful and wealthy place – with a more glorious garden still than the last, and all the peace of a private farm, and all the joy of peasant men and women working about the place. But we are under the eye of the enemy so all our movements are dark and clandestine.

Mother’s letter was quite good. The artful touch about Edith French was very amusing. Edith will look perfectly charming in a nurse’s uniform, I agree. Tell mother I’m sure she’ll be wrapped up by the first sensible fellow fortunate enough to be wounded and nursed by her, and that I’ll try hard for the post.

By the way, the sweet little lady had written me a charming letter which I hope to answer. Why on earth isn’t she married? The men of her own wealth must be blind, or is it because she lives at the end of the world?

I do hope Stan will stick by the home. He really isn’t of much account for military purposes, but of course I understand it’s hard for him to remain out of this business, and he might be useful in the medical way.

Of course Sydney if he gets a commission and comes out soon will have the worst of it, and take exceedingly serious risks of at least being winged. Nobody except those who have been through it knows the cost and danger of an attack, and I don’t want him to be told, but, Flo dear, if he comes out as a subaltern, hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.


Yours ever
Percy

Letter from Percy Spencer (D/EZ177/7/4/32)