Throughout the years in which he attended art school in London (1908 –12), Stanley Spencer travelled back each evening to the Berkshire village of Cookham, to the house he had grown up in and his large and gifted family. To the young artist, Cookham was a kind of Eden in which every detail of life was enfolded with Christian meaning.
Raised in a religious if not denominationally strict household, by parents with connections to both Anglican church and Methodist chapel, Spencer nevertheless proved immediately responsive to the ferment of early modernist painting that he encountered at the Slade. By 1909 he was attending Roger Fry’s lectures, reflected in the formalised design of John Donne Arriving in Heaven 1911 (no.4). He probably saw Fry’s first Post-Impressionist exhibition and, in 1912, John Donne was included in the second.
Since formal teaching at the Slade was restricted to drawing, all Spencer’s early paintings were completed in the corners of sheds, barns and often-crowded rooms in Cookham. He was by now part of a Slade grouping known as the Neo-Primitives, alongside Mark Gertler, William Roberts and C.R.W. Nevinson - each of whom were working towards creating a synthesis of contemporary French and early Italian painting.
Already visible in The Nativity 1912 (no.7), that sense of a mysterious world out of time and clothed in grace, where every particular is touched with divinity, was confirmed in Zacharias and Elizabeth (no.14), set in a Cookham landscape of extraordinary intensity.
Spencer’s compelling 1914 Self-Portrait (no.13) established him as the most wide-ranging talent of his generation, even if he stood increasingly far apart from his avant-garde contemporaries. In 1915, with Swan Upping (no.18) still only half-completed, Spencer enlisted in the Royal Medical Corps.