Nearly all Spencer’s significant early paintings had been made from imagination, but once he returned to Cookham from Burghclere in the early 1930s, a high proportion of his work would be made from direct observation. From 1932 onwards, Spencer could often be found with his easel set up in the open air somewhere in or around Cookham. By 1934, he had also become involved with Patricia Preece, who was to become Spencer’s second wife in 1937, but who returned to her long-standing partner, the artist Dorothy Hepworth, very shortly afterwards. In the midst of this agonising relationship, Spencer painted an extraordinary series of ‘naked portraits’. The new attention to landscape prepared the ground for the Preece portraits - whose numb, obsessional quality becomes explicit in the Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife 1937 (no.58), probably now Spencer’s most famous picture. In Hilda, Unity and Dolls 1937 (no.60), an apparently objective depiction again embodies a personal narrative, with his estranged first wife, Hilda Carline, turning wearily away, and their daughter Unity gazing outwards, her stare echoed by the empty-eyed doll at her side.
Many of these pictures are studies in disenchantment, which seem to document a reality from which meaning has fled. Yet this loss of metaphysical vision opens the way for an interest in even the most banal, unnoticed aspects of the given world. The very pictures that are often taken to indicate a failure of vision, may actually mark Spencer’s refusal of the simplifying visions with which other inter-war figures were trying to identify the English landscape. With his eye for corrugated iron, scarecrows and modern debris, Spencer can hardly be counted among the nostalgic preservationists of his time, who preferred to concentrate on relics of the old craft-based feudal order.