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Stanley North (later Stanley Kennedy North) 1887-1942


My grandfather was an artist, illustrator, restorer, musician, philanderer and would-be urban sewage composter. He emerges from bits of his work, a Times obituary, a few photographs, a rude anecdote, an honorary mention in a memoir his friend the poet Edward Thomas and from scraps of family conversation from thirty and more years ago.

Stanley was part of the revival of the English folksong and folk dance tradition. It was a scene famous for free and easy sexual mores, and if so one can see why it might have suited him. Anyway, he eventually married a leading figure in it and had a family with her. He certainly liked the Northumberland bagpipes and often played them at picnics.

There is also the tantalising glimpse of his (possibly over-lapping) involvement with the daughters of two married women (both had distinguished husbands).

It is a story of a clever, energetic young progressive – a socialist and a bohemian – as he lives the creative life. He was as brash as my father, his first child, was quiet.

Here’s a neat portrait of him, from Eleanor Farjeon’s 1958 account of Edward Thomas’s Last Four Years [1912-1917]:

“Stanley North was a mercurial artist in stained glass whom Edward had met at [their mutual friend, the writer] Clifford Bax’s, and whose company he usually enjoyed. Stanley’s ribald songs, appalling language, and atrocious manners could be extremely amusing or quite inexcusable, as you chose to take him. At this time [1915] he was hard up, but in his successful later years his work brought him into High Society; and Princess Louise [Queen Victoria's artist daughter] was enchanted to be told by him, ‘Look here old girl, come off it, you’ve no bloody taste at all.’”

Stanley's women

Stanley had married Vera Rawnsley, an artist. Much later, she would marry Clifford Bax, the affluent man of letters and man about town, who incidentally ran a literary and artistic cricket tournament from his Elizabethan manor house in Wiltshire. Maybe that’s where Stanley became a part of that set.

Stanley was a working-class boy. He was the son of a London (horse) omnibus driver, and was born in a West London mews, probably above a stable. He was always mysterious about his parentage, liking to hint that he was the illegitimate son of an aristocrat, perhaps of the Duke of Norfolk's family. That explains the “Arundel” which he was to give my father as a middle name. (That Sussex town is the ancient seat of the Norfolks.) But he also hinted that he was the illegitimate son of Lord North.

Anyway, he was a romantic as well as perhaps a fantasist. He was drawn - like hundreds of artistic people before him - to the chivalric middle ages, whose style he would rework in stained glass, in book illustrations in the Riches Heures de duc du Berry style, and in copying 14th and 15th century paintings.

He met my grandmother, Vera Rawnsley, when she was a chic young student at the Slade School of Art. She was from a military family with connections to the Canon Rawnsley who helped start the National Trust. Her father was larky and grumpy, a retired Army colonel who was secretary of Brooks’s (the gentleman’s club). He was reportedly unamused by the liaison and marriage, and presumably also by the later defection of Stanley from the marital home and its young son, my father Paul, born in 1912. Stanley did not fight in the First World War: Colonel Rawnsley might have thought that another malfeasance.

Margaret Gardiner tells her story...

One can only guess what other women there night have been, but we next hear of Stanley from Margaret Gardiner, a radical and feminist who became famous for starting the Pier Arts Centre, an art gallery on Orkney, in the Shetland isles. She was the child of a woman with whom Stanley dallied under her husband's nose.

She died in 2005, but a couple of years before, ensconced in a perfect Hampstead house, she told me: “I adored Stanley. He was gorgeous. I wasn't a young child, I was 11 or 12 or 13. He was wonderful and he was a sort of symbol of emancipation, of freedom of speech, and learning a few swear words. He was also an introduction to ballads, for instance. He loved ballads. Things like Chevvy Chase and all that lot.”

This must have been during the First World War, granted that Margaret was born in1904. Her father was the famous (and affluent) British Museum Egyptologist, Sir Alan Gardiner.

“I was born in Berlin because my father was working there and at the beginning of the war we moved back to London and he worked as an Egyptologist at the British Museum. We were very cultured, very cultured. My mother’s name was Hedvig, she was Austrian, and her father was Jewish, but her mother came from Finland, and had an island. She never let on about the Jewish bit, I only discovered that a good deal later. My mother didn’t have any money of her own. She didn't do anything, but she was very good at decorating, and she did that quite a lot with and under the influence of Stanley. At one point he was around a great deal. He stood for imagination. He didn't dress outrageously, he dressed like most men I suppose.”

“My mother and Stanley didn’t go away together, not exactly. He joined us on holiday quite often. Yes he was around a great deal.

“My brother was often away at boarding school. There was a friend who lived with us called Hermione, in what we called the school room, where we had lessons with a governess. I remember Stanley said to her, ‘When you grow up, you're going to marry me’, and Hermione said yes, and I was furiously jealous that he was going to marry Hermione and not me.

“We had our supper in the ‘schoolroom’. It was the children’s sitting room on the fifth floor - it was a big house. The food came up on a lift on ropes, and Stanley very often shared supper with us. The servants were in a sort of way in the know that he would sleep on the floor.

“The first floor was my father's study, and two drawing rooms and a grand piano. And the next floor was my parent's bedroom - they had separate bedrooms after a while - and my younger brother and his nurse. And then, up a floor, was my elder brother and I and anyone who came to stay. When my brother was away at boarding school Stanley would use his room. And above that the school room which was really our sitting room, and there was a scene there once with Stanley and my father.

“He was a friend and/or a lover of my mother. I don't know the details of that, but they were great friends and my father obviously didn't like him and at one point there was a scene. Stanley said something which annoyed my father very much and he lost his temper which he very rarely did. And Father said in a very loud voice: ‘Get out of my house.’ And Stanley replied, ‘Certainly Alan, I will get out of your house. Goodbye Margaret and goodbye Heddy’. And he bowed to us and left. I was horrified. I was so ashamed at my father losing his temper and thinking that Stanley might go for good and knowing how it would upset my mother. He probably came back in a day or two or even the next day.

“To begin with Stanley was like any other guest, he was a scholar and working very hard all the time and she loved going to private views and galleries and it was nice for her that here was a person who liked to take her. He decorated a room for my mother in London and that is being now reset up in my nephew's house in Dorset. It wasn't a difficult situation. My father and Stanley didn't get on. They didn't have the same interests. But it wasn't difficult. There wasn’t, ‘this bloody man’ and so on. Not until later on anyway. There were always people around, children, friends staying. We lived separate lives so much in our house, there were even different floors, for my parents and my younger brother and his nurse. And then there was a different thing going on with the servants, in what was called the servants hall. It was a big house.

“Stanley was rather left wing. I remember him saying he would, and I think he actually did, go to a very posh-looking man and say, ‘Excuse me, sir, but are you anyone of great importance?’ That was very Stanley.”

Liza Banks tells her story.....

Liza Banks was born a few years before Margaret but had a very similar account of Stanley to give. She told me that Stanley was, “gorgeous. And he taught us how to swear. He didn't teach us 'f**k', but he taught us nearly everything else”.

Liza's father was the painter and illustrator, Sir William Nicholson (father of Ben and grandfather of Rachel). According to Sanford Schwartz’s “William Nicholson”, Stanley may have first met William’s wife Edie before the First World War when the painter and his family were at their country home in Rottingdean, East Sussex. Stanley apparently spent time there, not least organising some sort of folk music entertainment. In the 1930’s, Stanley wrote a rather good account of William and his work, and for this or some other reason, Stanley was a fixture at the London and Wiltshire houses of the family. In time, William and his wife separated, and according to the impression received by the teenaged Liza, a liaison between Stanley and the wife may have been part of the cause.

“Stanley always smelled wonderful”, says Liza, now in her mid 80s. “He must have anointed himself in sandalwood. And he wore lovely clothes. He also loved to have everything around him beautifully made.” In her airy fourth floor flat, she has a couple of tables, a Heals glass-fronted cabinet and a high-class “utility”-style kitchen dresser, all inherited from her mother but originally owned by Stanley. They seemed to have changed hands as her mother paid some of Stanley's debts, perhaps to save him from bankruptcy. He draped the walls of his restoration studio in flax sheets, hand woven specially for him (perhaps for temperature and dampness control). The trays he used for his plant propagation work were made beautifully in teak.

Stanley's professional life

Here’s the bit I know least about. Stanley seems to have been some sort of organic pioneer and when he died was in the late stages of persuading some London authorities that they should be composting waste. Weird, really, that interest in waste disposal should bind us together.

His restoration work led him to become the “Keeper of the King's Pictures” a semi-formal role which later the disgraced spy and art historian, Sir Anthony Blunt was to fill. In the 70s (a few weeks before he was finally exposed as a spy for the Soviets), Sir Anthony told me that Stanley's restoration of the Hampton Court Mantengas, his most famous work, was not a bodged job, as I had rather gathered. Sir Anthony said that Stanley's restoration, involving a wax treatment of his own devising, had preserved the painting, grime and all, and that made it easier for later restorers to apply their own much more thorough techniques. Stanley was an enthusiastic experimental chemist and physicist: he devised, for instance, unique X-Ray equipment with which to examine paintings, and may have given himself the cancer which killed him by careless use of the apparatus (that or his constant smoking).

Stanley's profanities

Blunt also told me that sometime between the wars (I forget if he told me more precisely when) he (Blunt) was wandering around a show at the Royal Academy when he saw the director of the Academy and Stanley deep in conversation before a picture. Blunt told me that Stanley was dressed in a rather stylish, if loud, check tweed suit. “That’s how I knew it was him”, said Blunt. “Anyway, the director asked Stanley what he thought of the painting and Stanley said, ‘Poor old Boucher, he can only paint c**t, but it’s the kind of c**t I rather like’”.

It was a perfect Stanley story but not one I felt I could tell my father. All my life I have sworn like a trooper and been prone to an almost Turettes utterance, though I curbed it a bit when with Stanley’s son, whose style was gentler.


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