Sir Stanley Spencer

Apple Gatherers


Not on display

Sir Stanley Spencer 1891–1959
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 714 × 924 mm
frame: 945 × 1145 × 70 mm
Presented by Sir Edward Marsh 1946


'This picture', Spencer wrote in 1939 in his notes about his pictures, 'was my first ambitious work and I have in it wished to say what life was' (Tate Archive 733.3.21). The subject, however, was chosen for him, as it was set by the Slade School for their annual drawing competition (see Tate N06233). Spencer's teacher, Henry Tonks, 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. In the painting Spencer sought to give form to a pantheistic vision of connection between man, woman, nature and fertility, in 1941 recording in his notebook:

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 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)

Although Spencer claims the couple 'seem not to need each other', and placed them back to back, their arms are intertwined like two trees of life grown together. Their opposite arms spread like branches above their children, who are adult but because of their disparity of size appear child-like. Such distortions of form and scale, and the eradication of perspective, demonstrate the effect on Spencer of paintings by Gauguin, which he had seen recently in London. But these 'primitive' qualities can also be connected with his passionate interest in early Italian art around this time. There are additional affinities with Jewish Family (1913 Tate N06231) by Spencer's Slade friend Mark Gertler (1891-1939). In the study for Apple Gatherers (Tate N06233) Spencer treats the figures more conventionally.

Spencer presents a timeless, golden-age scene of harmony, a rural idyll which is sacramental in its vision of harvest. Yet it seems also to be about differences between the sexes - the central figures' awkward yet firm contact contrasts with the segregation of the sons and daughters. All have their backs turned to each other. The scene was suggested by a spot on Odney Common at Cookham, although it did not have an orchard. Spencer could see it from his nursery window and perhaps this connection with childhood fuelled his ruminations on relations between the sexes and nature and his own progression to adulthood.

The picture was painted in Wisteria Cottage in Cookham, an empty house which Spencer used as a studio. Here he experienced an intense sense of connection with nature and an almost ecstatic self-awareness, recording in his noetbook in c.1948:

In the Apple Gatherers I felt moved to some utterance, a sense of almost miraculous power, and arising from the joy of my own circumstances and surroundings. Nothing particularised but all held and living in glory. The sons of God shouted for joy, the din of happiness all around me everywhere. (Tate Archive 733.8.35)

Further reading:
Timothy Hyman and Patrick Wright (eds.), Stanley Spencer, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain 2001, no.9, reproduced in colour
Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, London, 1992, pp.19-22, no.12, reproduced in colour
Stanley Spencer: A Sort of Heaven, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 1992, pp.27-8, reproduced in colour

Robert Upstone
October 2001

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Display caption

The subject of this painting was given to Spencer by his teachers at the Slade School of Art. The scene was suggested by a spot on Odney Common, in his native village of Cookham.

Spencer wrote of the painting: ‘There is no symbolic meaning whatsoever intended in Apple Gatherers and I cannot account for the fact I have divided the sexes.’ The distortions of form and scale show Spencer’s interest in paintings he had seen in London by the French Post-Impressionist artist, Paul Gauguin.

Gallery label, September 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

N05663 APPLE GATHERERS 1912–13

Not inscribed.
Canvas, 28×36 1/4 (71·5×92·5).
Presented by Sir Edward Marsh on the reopening of the Tate Gallery 1946.
Coll: Purchased by Sir Edward Marsh from Henry Lamb, who negotiated the sale on behalf of the artist 1913.
Exh: C.A.S., First Public Exhibition in London, Goupil Gallery, April 1913 (152); Twentieth Century Art, Whitechapel Art Gallery, May–June 1914 (351); C.A.S., Paintings and Drawings, Grosvenor House, June–July 1923 (86); Works of Art by Teachers and Students of the Slade School, 1871–1927, University College, June–July 1927 (11); Contemporary British Art, Whitechapel Art Gallery, October–December 1929 (263); Jubilee Exhibition, Bradford, April–July 1930 (210); Venice Biennale, 1932 (British Pavilion, 110); Contemporary Art, Leicester, May–June 1936 (60); Venice Biennale, 1938 (British Pavilion, 67); British Council, Contemporary British Art, Northern Capitals, 1939 (105); Leger Gallery, March–April 1939 (21); British Painting since Whistler, National Gallery, 1940 (132); British Council, Contemporary British Art, North Africa, 1945 (74); Tate Gallery, November–December 1955 (5, repr. pl.1).
Lit: Wilenski, 1924, p.11, repr. pl.4; E. Marsh, A Number of People, 1939, p.359; James Thrall Soby, Contemporary Painters, New York, 1948, p.123; A. Bertram, A Century of British Painting, 1851–1951, 1951, p.105; Spencer, 1961, pp.112, 115, 192; Collis, 1962, pp.36–7, 39–41, 243.
Repr: Rothenstein, 1945, pls.9–10; Rothenstein, 1963, pl.2 (in colour).

Painted at Cookham in 1912–13, ‘Apple Gatherers’ was a Slade Sketch Club subject. The artist pondered for a long time on the fact that he was to do a composition on this theme. He had no wish to produce something based directly on nature. He thought that this picture, on which he had worked for over a year, was a mysterious thing - an achievement of vision - and that it was one of his most important works. There is no conscious reference to Adam and Eve. A drawing for the whole composition now in the Tate Gallery (N06233) is probably the one done at the Slade.

Gilbert Spencer recalls (op. cit., p. 192) that just before his brother died, he told him he had painted ‘Apple Gatherers’ on top of his first attempt to paint a ‘Resurrection’. He also remarks that the right arm and hand of the boy, and the left arm and hand of the girl in the immediate foreground are drawn from the artist's own hands and arms. One might add that the hands and arms of the two apple gatherers who form the central axis of the picture also bear a family resemblance.

X-ray photographs of the painting, taken in October 1961, while not confirming the presence of an entirely different composition underneath N05663, show various pentimenti to the existing work, notably around the upraised hands and arms of the two central figures. The head of the man has also been considerably elongated, and there are minor alterations to some of the heads of the figures on the right. The left arm of the apple gatherer in the right foreground was originally dipping down into a basket instead of, as now, resting bent on the edge of a basket. There is also evidence of a considerable amount of scraping away of underpaint, and of heavy impasto over much of the canvas. This extensive reworking of the composition would also accord with the artist's statement that he spent a year finishing this picture which, with the ‘Nativity’ of 1912 in the collection of University College, London, and Lady Bone's ‘Zacharias and Elizabeth’, is one of his major figure compositions of the years 1910–13.

There appears to be a layer of white priming put over the skeleton of the earlier composition which, having a high lead content, prevents X-ray penetration beyond this priming. However, photographs of the painting taken in strong raking light have revealed the incised outline of the head and shoulders of a female figure, seen upside-down, in the area of the basket and elbow of the right-hand figure in the centre foreground. This figure, Giottesque in conception, corresponds with what Gilbert Spencer could recall of the original composition, which he told the compiler (26 October 1961) consisted of an avenue of cypress trees with the resurrected figures, rather like angels, rising from the trees. The recently discovered outline figure would have been slightly to the left of the apex of the composition. The inspiration for this composition may in part have been some illustrations by Gustave Doré for a children's Bible, which belonged to the Spencer family.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II

You might like

In the shop