I think I was named after some man who performed a feat in a balloon.
Stanley Spencer was born on June 30th 1891 in a semi-detached Victorian villa then named Fernlea halfway along the High Street of the enchanting Thames-side village of Cookham, near Maidenhead. On that day a crow fell down the chimney of the living room and flapped about until released. The family thought it a good omen.
Here he is about 1915 with his father, William, 'Pa'. It is simpler if we just call him 'Stanley'.
Stanley was his mother Annie's tenth child, the eighth one surviving. Although she and William had been raised in the village, the Spencer family were not indigenous to Cookham. William's master-builder father Julius had moved his business there from Buckinghamshire in the mid-1800s to develop the upmarket residences which the coming of the thirty-mile branch railway from London was then injecting into this desirable dormitory countryside. For Stanley in boyhood his grandfather's imposing detached dwellings constituted an unknown world. Curious to see what was over their high walls, he ever after had what he called an over-the-wallish feeling whenever his eyes were opened to a comparably unfamiliar but intriguing experience.
William ('Pa') was as passionate about music as his son was to be about art. He made a precarious living from music teaching and church-organ playing, whereas his younger brother Julius who occupied the neighbouring semi-detachcd villa with his wife and their equally large family of girls (Stanley's girl-cousins) was more comfortably established on the staff of a London law firm.
Statements about the Spencers being lower-middle-class apple-cheeked country folk should be resisted. The family may have possessed a village practicality and, in Stanley's case, an often earthy sense of humour. But intellectually, 'Pa' had a metropolitan outlook - his music training and early teaching was done in London - and Stanley's destiny lay in an enlightened if at times straitened household which went on to produce a knight, two professors, a concert violinist, a professional stage conjurer celebrated in his day, the Director of the National Building Institute in London, an Oxford graduate cut down in the Great War, and the wife of a Cambridge don. Not bad for a so-called rustic Berkshire family!
Pa was a born educator, more radical in his Victorian outlook than most. Contemptuous of the shortcomings of the village church-school, he organised a Spencer-family dame school where Stanley and his younger brother Gilbert were among the pupils taught by their elder sisters Annie and Florence. Pa insisted his children sparkle at mealtime conversation - not difficult, as they were tireless talkers with strong opinions. He dutifully read aloud to them, often including the Authorized Version but with more concern for the language than the content. He promoted a village library based on the classic books of the Everyman edition, most of which Stanley read in his teens and early twenties. Pa in his seventies began teaching himself Latin and Greek, and wrote poetry for publication in the Maidenhead Advertiser.
Stanley, although slight in stature and wiry in build (his mother's attributes), was never one to be trifled with. He had an ebullient personality, a surfeit of energy, and an appreciative instinct (his father's gifts) which made him stand out in a crowd and welcomed as an engaging, if sometimes exhausting, guest. But his lively tongue, his ever-enquiring mind and innate sense of wonder were significant characteristics. It is sometimes overlooked that Stanley, even if largely self-tutored, was more widely read than many of his critics and commentators. In fact it can be argued that he was primarily a sensitive thinker whose devotion to art was the most effective means at his disposal of reflecting his metaphysical ideas, an attitude making him difficult at times to classify in the traditional pantheon of art. A CBE in the 1950s, Stanley was awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters by Southampton University towards the close of his life in 1959. Three days later he received his knighthood at Buckingham Palace.
It is not known if Stanley was in fact named by
his progressive father after the prominent balloonist of the day, Stanley Spencer, who
was at that time preparing to tour South Africa. If so, the only link
between them was that each in his own way travelled the heavens.