Joachim was the father of the Virgin Mary and stories about him are told in the apocryphal 'Infancy Gospels'. In 1911 Spencer's friends and fellow Slade students Gwen (1885-1957) and Jacques Raverat (1885-1925) gave him Giotto and his Works In Padua (published 1854) by John Ruskin (1819-1900). Spencer was greatly inspired by its illustrations of the frescoes in the Arena Chapel at Padua, and by the text accompanying the woodcut of Joachim retires to the Sheepfold:
Then Joachim, in the following night, resolved to separate himself from companionship; to go to the desert places among the mountains, with his flocks; and to inhabit those mountains, in order not to hear such insults. And immediately Joachim rose from his bed, and called about him all his servant and shepherds, and caused to be gathered together all his flocks … and went with them and with the shepherds into the hills. (E.T. Cook & A. Wedderburn (eds.), The Works of John Ruskin, London 1903-12, XXIV, p.50)
I liked to take my thoughts for a walk and marry them to some place in Cookham. The 'bread and cheese' hedge up the Strand ash-path was the successful suitor. There was another hedge going away at right angles from the path and this was where the shepherds seemed to be. We had to walk single-file along this path and the shadows romped about in the hedge alongside of us. And I liked the hemmed-in restricted area feeling in that open land …
(Richard Carline, Stanley Spencer at War, London 1978, p.28)
Emotionally the path seems to have held a memory of a specific moment when 'the shadows romped about … us', the 'us' presumably being Spencer and his family. Their fellowship and warmth may have been analogous in his mind when considering Joachim and the shepherds. Spencer's description also mentions his strong delight in form, and his lifelong fascination with barriers and boundaries. Many of his early pictures have retaining, curving walls, fences or hedges, over which the high perspective allows us to see, and these are also a typical feature of Giotto's designs. As a child Spencer imagined what might lie behind the high walls of Cookham. Penetrating such 'secret' gardens might be seen as a rediscovery or reclaiming of Eden.
Spencer made Study for 'Joachim among the Shepherds' in Cookham, after he had finished studying at the Slade School of Art, probably in September of 1912. It was in that month that he wrote to the Raverats 'Joachim is going to be very good & so's the shepherds', and illustrated the watercolour composition in the letter (Tate Archive 8116.12). The watercolour was the first treatment of a subject for which, in 1913, he made a version in oils, albeit with an adapted composition (National Art Gallery & Museum, Wellington).
Timothy Hyman and Patrick Wright (eds.), Stanley Spencer, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain 2001, no.5, reproduced in colour
Stanley Spencer: A Sort of Heaven, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 1992, p.26-7, reproduced in colour
Stanley Spencer RA, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1980, no.11, reproduced