Stanley Spencer was born in Cookham in 1891. He attended the Slade School of Art, London, with his brother Gilbert, under the tutelage of the highly influential Frederick Brown and Henry Tonks. It was here that Spencer developed both as a draughtsman and a painter in oil, a medium that he taught himself how to use, it not forming part of his training at the Slade – ‘In the four years I was at the Slade’, Spencer recalled, ‘I did about three days’ painting from one model – three days out of four years! Tonks taught me how to draw and was very critical of it’ (Richard Carline, Stanley Spencer at War, 1978 p.29).
Spencer evolved a sense of immediacy and transcendent intensity in these early paintings. They invariably present his home village of Cookham – from which he commuted to the Slade every day – and the feelings of connection that it evoked in him. A fervent Christian, Spencer had frequently used his native Cookham as the setting for miraculous scenes from the Bible. In the 1930s he conceived the theme of Christ appearing on regatta day, preaching to those gathered there. In 1950 he returned to the idea, intending a sequence of canvases to form the river aisle of ‘Church House’, the architectural setting for his paintings Spencer hoped might one day be realised, that were partly inspired by the presentation of Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. The Church House scheme laid out the themes of sexual and religious love, and of domestic harmony.
Spencer’s intense, visionary connection to Cookham did not however make him isolated from avant-garde developments in the London art world. Spencer attended the lectures given by Roger Fry at the Slade from 1909, and it is almost certain that he saw the exhibition of modern French painting Manet and the Post-Impressionists that Fry staged at the Grafton Gallery in November 1910. Spencers saw his own work as wholly original, and indeed he merged a plethora of influences into his distinctive, individual style.