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 Woman feeding a Calf:
A farmer's daughter used to let me come to an old school yard just inside a big rusty iron gate, the knobs of which were acorns in design, in which shed was a calf. It had just been taken from its mother & was being weaned, so that the girl bent forward tilting the bucket with one hand & putting her other hand in the milk, so that the calf was able to suck the milk off her fingers. The calf spread out its front legs & the sloping backs of the calf on one side & the girl on the other was very good. I was struck with the amount of meaning that could be conveyed by certain relationships.
(TGA 733.3.6; c.1938)
The 'amount of meaning that could be conveyed by certain relationships' strikes at the heart of Spencer's art, in which pose or expression could suggest emotive state. In a letter to his future wife Hilda Carline (1889-1950) in about 1924, Spencer recalled that the making of Woman Feeding a Calf marked a watershed in his perception of the world, writing 'It was when I did the calf picture that Jas had, that I became aware of the miraculousness of things' (TGA 825). Spencer had given the drawing, along with The New Shawl (Tate T07795), to his friend the 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