This drawing was made while Spencer was still a student at the Slade School of Art in London, to which he travelled each day from his family home in the Berkshire village of Cookham. 'Apple Gatherers' was a subject set by the Slade Sketch Club, and it is likely that this was the drawing for which Spencer was awarded its £25 prize. His teacher, Henry Tonks (1862-1937), 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. Spencer used the drawing as the basis for his painting Apple Gatherers (Tate N05663), started in 1912, and the study is squared for transfer to canvas. The oil, Spencer wrote in 1939, 'was my first ambitious work and I have in it wished to say what life was'. He sought to give form to a pantheistic vision of the connections between man, woman, nature and fertility, writing in 1941:
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 central two figures are still related in this universal sense, not this time so much through any specified religion but through a consciousness of all religions … 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)
Spencer presents a timeless, golden-age scene of harmony, a rural idyll which is sacramental in its vision of harvest. In his mind Spencer connected the subject with Odney Common at Cookham, although there was no orchard there. He could see it from his nursery window. Perhaps this connection fuelled his ruminations on relations between the sexes and nature and his thoughts about his progression to adulthood.
The study differs from the painting based on it; for the finished oil Spencer exaggerated the scale of the central figures and compressed them together to form a tighter composition. In both works Spencer shows his delight in formal, geometric compositions - the strong diagonal of the line of males, the curve of the women; the horizontal of the principal woman's arm, and the more serpentine am of her partner. At this time Spencer admired the Pre-Raphaelites, and the male diagonal is reminiscent of the line of brothers in Isabella (1848-9, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) by John Everett Millais (1829-96).
Timothy Hyman and Patrick Wright (eds.), Stanley Spencer, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain 2001, no.8, reproduced in colour
Stanley Spencer: A Sort of Heaven, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 1992, p.27, reproduced
Stanley Spencer RA, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1980, no.14, reproduced