From 1908 to 1912 Spencer attended the Slade School of Fine Art, travelling by train each day from his family home in the Berkshire village of Cookham to London. Almost all of his time at the Slade was spent in drawing, rather than painting, and students were encouraged to admire the high principles and techniques of the Old Masters. The Slade School taught a technique of dispassionate life study, but in this early drawing Spencer displays how his art was much concerned with its subject and the places around him, and was always conveyed within a graphic medium that seems to convey most of its message in the one act of original perception.
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. Spencer wrote of The New Shawl:
This was a scene I tried to conjure up for myself of a homely scene occurring in an empty cottage I was allowed to occupy in the daytime by some kind village relations. The wife is standing holding a baby who is hidden by a shawl which is not wrapped round it, but hangs in folds spreading out from the child's head. The father stands at the side of the shawl & I think holds out the shawl and examines it.
(TGA 733.3.6; c.1938)
The boy who continues drawing at the table in the scene must be a characterisation of Spencer himself. The figures were evidently not drawn from life, and were very unlike the kind of drawing encouraged by the Slade, though quite similar to Victorian illustrations. It is likely that the cottage Spencer referred to is Wisteria Cottage in Cookham, an empty house which Spencer used as a studio. Here he painted Apple Gatherers (N05663) in 1912-13, in a solitude that prompted an intense sense of connection with nature and an almost ecstatic self-awareness. Spencer gave The New Shawl, along with Woman Feeding a Calf (Tate T07794), to his friend and fellow artist James 'Jas' Wood, (1889-1975), from whose daughter they were acquired by Tate.
Timothy Hyman and Patrick Wright (eds.), Stanley Spencer, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain 2001
Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, London, 1992
Stanley Spencer RA, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London, 1980