Sir Stanley Spencer

Jacob and Esau


In Tate Britain

Sir Stanley Spencer 1891–1959
Ink, graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 343 × 241 mm
Bequeathed by Lady Ruth Gollancz 1973


From 1908 to 1912 Spencer attended the Slade School of Fine Art, travelling by train each day from his family home in Cookham village to London. Almost all of his time at the Slade was spent in drawing. Students were encouraged to admire the high principles and techniques of the Old Masters. The Slade Sketch Club, of which Spencer was a member, was often set subjects to draw taken from the Bible or Classical myth. The assigned subject for Jacob and Essau was to illustrate the story of Isaac and Rebekah's two sons in Genesis 25:29-34:

Essau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents … Essau came from the field, and he was faint: And Essau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray … And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright. And Essau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do me? … and he sold his birthright unto Jacob. Then Jacob gave Essau bread and pottage of lentiles, and he did eat and drink … thus Essau despised his birthright.

Spencer shows Essau on the right, a dashing, rakish figure who cares nothing for the sanctity of his birthright. Jacob is stooped and cunning, and the pottage he will trade Essau is behind him. Later in Genesis Jacob tells his mother 'Behold, Essau my brother is an hairy man, and I am a smooth man' (27:11). Spencer has interpreted this to mean he was balding. On the reverse of the sheet is a crossed-out pencil drawing, apparently a preliminary study for Jacob and Essau.

The artist's brother Gilbert Spencer recalled that the drawing was made in Cookham. Spencer often tried to relate his ideas to places around the village which held particular significance for him. On 14 May 1949, Spencer recorded that Jacob and Essau was inspired by a spot near Clivedon: 'just before getting there we used to sit in among some felled trees'. Here his elder brother Sydney would 'read about Jacob and Essau or read the Song of Solomon. The land seen at the back of the figures … was what we gazed out at as we sat.' (TGA 733.3.85). Spencer wrote in May 1942 that when he made it he was not 'aware of the psychological situation of the story and yet these two figures seem very good from that psychological point of view. I remember considering the field at the back which was a field down Cliveden and the general wish for that atmosphere to unite with the bible atmosphere' (TGA733.3.40). There could well be some psychological dimension for Spencer linking a distinct memory of himself and his eldest brother with the story of the two Biblical brothers.

Soon after he made it Spencer gave the drawing to his friend Ruth Lowy, who later married the publisher Victor Golancz. She too lived in Cookham and attended the Slade at the same time Spencer was there.

Further reading:
Stanley Spencer: A Sort of Heaven, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 1992, p.25-6, reproduced in colour
Stanley Spencer RA, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1980,, reproduced
The Tate Gallery 1972-4: Biennial Report and Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1975, pp.235-6

Robert Upstone
August 2001

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Display caption

Made while Spencer was a student, this drawing shows the Old Testament story of rival brothers. The younger one, Jacob, plotted to become his father’s heir. He persuaded his older brother Esau to exchange his birth right for food when he was hungry. Jacob is likely the figure on the left. Behind him is the bowl of food with which he will tempt his brother. Spencer remembered making the drawing in the countryside near Cookham, while his eldest brother read the biblical story.

Gallery label, October 2020

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Catalogue entry

Sir Stanley Spencer 1891–1959

T01769 Jacob and Esau 1910–11

Not Inscribed.
Pen, pencil and wash,13½ x 9½(34.3 x 24.1).
Bequeathed by Lady Ruth Gollancz 1973.
Coll: Lady Ruth Gollancz (formerly Ruth Lowy).
Exh: Empire Exhibition, British Council, Johannesburgh, 1936 (702); British Paintings Since Whistler, National Gallery,1940 (325); Temple Nevvsam House, Leeds, July–September 1947 (84); Arts Council, 1955 (10);Worthing Art Gallery, 1961 (2); Plymouth City Museum, July–August 1963 (59); Arts Council, Cardiff, June1965 (1) and subsequent tour to Bangor, Haverfordwest and Swansea; Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham, June–September 1973 (addendum36).
Lit: R. H. W[ilenski], Stanley Spencer, 1924, pp. 10–11, 28; Sir Victor Gollancz, Reminiscences of Affection, 1968, p. no.
Repr: Stanley Spencer: Cookham Village. B.B.C. Television Studios film written, directed and produced by John Read, 1956.

This work was executed between 1910–1911. Ruth Lowy (later Lady Ruth Gollancz), a contemporary of Stanley Spencer’s at the Slade, bought the drawing for five pounds in 1911. Sir Victor Gollancz quotes (in Reminiscences of Affection, p. 110) a letter from Spencer acknowledging receipt of payment for this work: ‘July 10th 1911… “Many thanks for the cheque. I am much to [sic] modest a kid to sign my works, nevertheless I will sign that.” In the event he didn’t.’

Gilbert Spencer wrote (letter to compiler undated but postmarked 4 April 1974): ‘I remember his doing this drawing perfectly well and the date you give it is adequately accurate. Certainly he bad left the Art Dept. under Mr Cote at the Maidenhead Technical School. It was done after he had entered the Slade I am sure.’

The choice of a fine pen line with sepia wash and formalised cross hatching together with the choice of a simple group of figures almost filling the plate suggests that it was a student exercise. Lady Gollancz said that it was ‘a Slade Sketch Club subject’ although it is not clear which club it was intended for. Gilbert Spencer records: ‘When I entered the Slade in 1913 I inherited the monthly composition, criticism by the masters. The date you give me suggests that this drawing could have been one of his [Stanley Spencer’s] contributions.’

‘There was also—what was called the Friday Club (when students used to collect together in one of their rooms with their ideas). But Stan was not very “loyal” to this, simply because he would miss his train back to Cookham in the evenings’ (same letter to the compiler, 4 April 1974).

Mrs Clare Winston who was a friend and fellow student at the Slade recalled ‘“Jacob and Esau” was one of the set subjects. Stanley was a very conventional draughtsman in the early days, as all were at the Slade, pleased with detail accuracy… The Sketch Club rules were few. These were to be on a small scale, anonymous but numbered. The professor, in this case Tonks, walked round criticising. All of us trembling in anticipation lest he missed you out as unworthy or sharply criticised’ (letter to the compiler 25 April 1974).

The subject is taken from Genesis 25, vv.29–34, which Esau, faint with hunger, sells his birthright as Isaac’s first born son to his brother Jacob, in return for ‘bread and pottage of lentiles.’ It is thought that Esau ‘a cunning hunter, a man of the field’ stands on the right talking with Jacob who sits on the left. ‘Jacob was a plain man dwelling in tents.’

Gilbert Spencer wrote ‘The vital necessity of Cookham as the backcloth for so much of his work was the fact [that it was] round the corner when he drew “Jacob and Esau” but I can find nothing characteristic in this nor an earlier one just as powerfully expressed called “Maternity”. However, wedged in with these was a small composition called “Feeding The Motherless Calf” (Amy Hatch seen through the bars of a wrought iron gate just round the corner of his beloved Mill Lane)… I have often amused myself noticing all the other material he collected in all within arms length around him. He made no on-the-spot studies for this, nor to the best of my recollections did he do so for Nativity (Slade School) which was a part of the same immediate environment which was the only place he habitually visited alone and called heaven’ (same letter to compiler April 1974).

It has been suggested that the setting is Buttercup Meadow, between Cookham Moor and the river, as it has occasional isolated trees and bullrushes such as those on the right of the picture. People occasionally tethered goats there as it was common land, and this setting might explain the passing figures in the background, but as the drawing shows so little landscape it is difficult to be certain of any particular location.
The hut on the left and the costumes of the figures are possibly the artist’s own invention.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.

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