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. Drawing was almost the exclusive focus of studies at the Slade where 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 Man Goeth to his long Home was to illustrate Ecclesiastes 12:5, in which a young man is urged to remember his creator
when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail; because man goeth to his long home; and the mourners go about in the streets.
A text often used in funeral services, 'long home' refers to the body's eternal rest in the grave. The chained-off area in the drawing represents a grave. The significance of the figure is ambiguous; he could be a traveller, a man risen from the dead or, perhaps, even death personified, considering his next destination. Spencer sought not to visualise literally the whole verse but, instead, produced an image of intense contemplation. Ecclesiastes 12 is laden with symbols and suggests the world around man should remind him of his creator and of his inevitable mortality. These were sentiments which echoed part of Spencer's own reverence for nature.
The figure in the drawing, long-haired and robed, appears Christ-like, perhaps suggesting the mortal path Jesus had to tread. The trees in the distance are bare-leafed but the exuberant, lush tree occupying much of the picture space is evergreen, an ancient emblem of eternal life in both pagan and Christian tradition, as Spencer was aware from reading the anthropological examination of syncretic myth in James Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890-1915). Religion was an active force in Spencer's family life as he grew up and he had a thorough knowledge of the Bible, gained from his father's recitations. He was also encouraged to read it by his mother who issued him with a missionary card as a child to record his textual progress.
Spencer's early visionary pictures use Cookham as the setting for extraordinary religious events or moments of spiritual revelation. For Spencer, Cookham was a kind of heaven on earth, in which the everyday coexisted with the spiritual and was a cipher for it. Although he has added the imaginary element of the grave, in Man Goeth to his Long Home, Spencer shows the view from the corner of Carter's shed in Cookham, the same vista which he used in Study for 'Joachim and the Shepherds' (Tate T00048).
Timothy Hyman and Patrick Wright (eds.), Stanley Spencer, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain 2001, cat.no.3, reproduced in colour
Stanley Spencer: A Sort of Heaven, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 1992, p.26, reproduced in colour
Stanley Spencer RA, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1980, cat.no.7, reproduced