'This picture', Spencer wrote in 1939 in his notes about his pictures, 'was my first ambitious work and I have in it wished to say what life was' (Tate Archive 733.3.21). The subject, however, was chosen for him, as it was set by the Slade School for their annual drawing competition (see Tate N06233). Spencer's teacher, Henry Tonks, had arranged for him to spend part of the 1911-12 Christmas holiday with an old Slade student near Taunton. The surrounding orchards must partly have been an inspiration. In the painting Spencer sought to give form to a pantheistic vision of connection between man, woman, nature and fertility, in 1941 recording in his notebook:
The apples and the laurel and the grass can fulfil themselves through the presence in their midst: the husband and wife of all places and elements of the picture … The couple in the centre here seem not to need each other in any personal way or even be aware of each other. They seem only co-existent with each other like earth and water, yet it seems a vital relationship.
(Tate Archive 733.2.85)
Although Spencer claims the couple 'seem not to need each other', and placed them back to back, their arms are intertwined like two trees of life grown together. Their opposite arms spread like branches above their children, who are adult but because of their disparity of size appear child-like. Such distortions of form and scale, and the eradication of perspective, demonstrate the effect on Spencer of paintings by Gauguin, which he had seen recently in London. But these 'primitive' qualities can also be connected with his passionate interest in early Italian art around this time. There are additional affinities with Jewish Family (1913 Tate N06231) by Spencer's Slade friend Mark Gertler (1891-1939). In the study for Apple Gatherers (Tate N06233) Spencer treats the figures more conventionally.
Spencer presents a timeless, golden-age scene of harmony, a rural idyll which is sacramental in its vision of harvest. Yet it seems also to be about differences between the sexes - the central figures' awkward yet firm contact contrasts with the segregation of the sons and daughters. All have their backs turned to each other. The scene was suggested by a spot on Odney Common at Cookham, although it did not have an orchard. Spencer could see it from his nursery window and perhaps this connection with childhood fuelled his ruminations on relations between the sexes and nature and his own progression to adulthood.
The picture was painted in Wisteria Cottage in Cookham, an empty house which Spencer used as a studio. Here he experienced an intense sense of connection with nature and an almost ecstatic self-awareness, recording in his noetbook in c.1948:
In the Apple Gatherers I felt moved to some utterance, a sense of almost miraculous power, and arising from the joy of my own circumstances and surroundings. Nothing particularised but all held and living in glory. The sons of God shouted for joy, the din of happiness all around me everywhere. (Tate Archive 733.8.35)
Timothy Hyman and Patrick Wright (eds.), Stanley Spencer, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain 2001, no.9, reproduced in colour
Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, London, 1992, pp.19-22, no.12, reproduced in colour
Stanley Spencer: A Sort of Heaven, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 1992, pp.27-8, reproduced in colour