From 1908 to 1912 Spencer attended the Slade School of Fine Art, travelling by train each day from his family home in Cookham village to London. Almost all of his time at the Slade was spent in drawing. Students were encouraged to admire the high principles and techniques of the Old Masters. The Slade Sketch Club, of which Spencer was a member, was often set subjects to draw taken from the Bible or Classical myth. The assigned subject for Jacob and Essau was to illustrate the story of Isaac and Rebekah's two sons in Genesis 25:29-34:
Essau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents … Essau came from the field, and he was faint: And Essau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray … And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright. And Essau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do me? … and he sold his birthright unto Jacob. Then Jacob gave Essau bread and pottage of lentiles, and he did eat and drink … thus Essau despised his birthright.
Spencer shows Essau on the right, a dashing, rakish figure who cares nothing for the sanctity of his birthright. Jacob is stooped and cunning, and the pottage he will trade Essau is behind him. Later in Genesis Jacob tells his mother 'Behold, Essau my brother is an hairy man, and I am a smooth man' (27:11). Spencer has interpreted this to mean he was balding. On the reverse of the sheet is a crossed-out pencil drawing, apparently a preliminary study for Jacob and Essau.
The artist's brother Gilbert Spencer recalled that the drawing was made in Cookham. Spencer often tried to relate his ideas to places around the village which held particular significance for him. On 14 May 1949, Spencer recorded that Jacob and Essau was inspired by a spot near Clivedon: 'just before getting there we used to sit in among some felled trees'. Here his elder brother Sydney would 'read about Jacob and Essau or read the Song of Solomon. The land seen at the back of the figures … was what we gazed out at as we sat.' (TGA 733.3.85). Spencer wrote in May 1942 that when he made it he was not 'aware of the psychological situation of the story and yet these two figures seem very good from that psychological point of view. I remember considering the field at the back which was a field down Cliveden and the general wish for that atmosphere to unite with the bible atmosphere' (TGA733.3.40). There could well be some psychological dimension for Spencer linking a distinct memory of himself and his eldest brother with the story of the two Biblical brothers.
Soon after he made it Spencer gave the drawing to his friend Ruth Lowy, who later married the publisher Victor Golancz. She too lived in Cookham and attended the Slade at the same time Spencer was there.
Stanley Spencer: A Sort of Heaven, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 1992, p.25-6, reproduced in colour
Stanley Spencer RA, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1980, cat.no.4, reproduced
The Tate Gallery 1972-4: Biennial Report and Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1975, pp.235-6