The present work is a study for Spencer's Swan Upping at Cookham (Tate Gallery, London) which he started in March 1915 in the attic of Ship Cottage in Cookham and finished after he returned from the war. Swan upping is the ancient practice which takes place each August on the Thames, when The Vintners and Dyers Companies who own some of the river's swans by royal licence, collect and mark young birds.
Spencer was inspired to paint the subject one morning in church when he overheard sounds of activity on the river. From memory he composed the scene at Turk's boathouse (the Turk family held the office of Swan Keeper for much of the twentieth century) with Cookham Bridge and the Ferry Hotel beyond. While the swans are unloaded from a punt in the background, the Bailey girls carry punt cushions to the river.
Keith Bell (Stanley Spencer, A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings, London, 1992, p. 392) notes: 'In preparing the picture Spencer avoided visiting the river until he had drawn the scene from his imagination ... He first painted a small oil study [probably the present work] which was once in the Behrend collection, and made at least one drawing. This process accounts for the strange, almost surreal atmosphere of the painting which Causey (p. 24) likens to the work of Douanier Rousseau'.
Eric Newton, to whom the present work belonged, was author of a monograph on Spencer, written for the Penguin Modern Classics series, published in 1947.