Spencer spent almost four years away at war, first as an hospital orderly in Bristol, and later in the Macedonian campaign. Returning to Cookham and the end of 1918, he painted Travoys, a major testimony to the recent war, but he also experienced a ‘loss of Eden’ in his homecoming, intensely felt as a personal disaster but actually shared by thousands trying to pick up the threads in a broken, post-war world.
The repatriated Spencer was inclined to resist the consolations of the rural picturesque. Typically, he even filled the foreground of Durweston, Hod Hill 1920 (no.28), with the much-hated weed charlock. The Garage 1929 (no.41) presents an image of rude exuberance, and does not depict the car as the evil machine that will bring about the death of rural England.
Yet Spencer was concerned to save the appearances of the fallen world from a sense of meaninglessness. His best post-war religious paintings achieve an enigmatic settlement between the particularities of a disenchanted Cookham world, and the Biblical narratives being enacted within it (nos 26, 27 and 32). The failures become awkward, mannered, even embarrassing - whimsical juxtapositions of the kind that eventually prompted Wyndham Lewis to remark of Spencer that ‘even his angels wear jumpers’. The tiny Resurrection, Cookham of 1920 - 21 (no.33) may seem unworldly in its pastoralism, but by 1927, in the six-metre long work of the same title (no.35), reality was breaking into the garden of Eden. Spencer married Hilda Carline in 1925, and they had been engaged while he was planning this vast painting. The traditional treatment of the Resurrection, where the dead rise up from their graves, is here infiltrated with a personal narrative of Spencer’s newly-discovered physical love. Painted in Hampstead, the picture made Spencer famous and was purchased for the Tate Gallery.
Spencer’s murals for the specially-built Oratory of All Souls at Burghclere (shown here as a short film) were painted over five sustained years (1927–32). They celebrate the unheroic aspects of military service - relishing the depiction of mosquito-nets, duckboards, bandages, shampoo, even a hot-water bottle. The effect is cumulative and subversive: anti-war but also against social and institutional hierarchy.
The post-war years were crucial to Spencer’s intellectual development. While lodging with the trade union lawyer Henry Slesser at Bourne End in 1920–1, he moved among a Christian Socialist circle that included the writer G.K. Chesterton. In London, he and his brother Gilbert met at least monthly with a group of painters that included the Nash brothers, Mark Gertler, William Roberts, C.R.W. Nevinson and Henry Lamb, as well as the Carline family, who hosted their gatherings. Lamb wrote in 1924 of ‘the astounding novelty of such a personality stepping in… to restore narrative art to its primitive purity’. In 1922 Spencer had journeyed with the Carlines to Munich and Vienna, and his encounters there with the work of Northern masters such as Cranach and Breughel helped reconcile him to a less idealised reality.