The Second World War returned Spencer to an engagement with the outside world, and to a more public art. Commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee to record the building of tramp-steamers in a Clydeside shipyard, Spencer conceived a sequence of altarpieces. The first two parts, Burners 1940 (no.97) and Welders 1941 (no.100), were painted in sections in his small bedroom above a Gloucestershire village pub. Spencer makes us share his wonder at the infernal glare and dazzle of these industrial processes.
Spencer’s later religious paintings are full of compositional invention and interest, but their handling of paint is disappointing. In this exhibition, we have selected only The Resurrection with The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter 1947 (no.104). By contrast, several much smaller paintings focus on normally disregarded places and are extraordinarily compelling. As Spencer wrote, ‘I am always taking the stone that was rejected and making it the cornerstone in some painting of mine.’ At the core of his vision is the belief that every material thing, however insignificant, will ultimately be redeemed. To paint The Scrapheap 1944 (no.105) or Goose Run 1949 (no.107) was to enact a kind of resurrection.
Love Letters (no.109), Spencer’s last great couple-image, commemorates the thousands of pages of letters that passed between himself and Hilda. Designated as the altarpiece for the chapel dedicated to Hilda in the Church-House, the image presents the pair together as eternal children, though she was by now dying of cancer. Spencer’s later work shares with Pierre Bonnard, Max Beckmann and other twentieth-century painters (though not with any of his English contemporaries) a quest to understand the self; not only in the self-portraits, but also in such autobiographical narratives as Hilda and I at Pond Street 1954 (no.111).
Spencer’s last words – written, since he was unable to speak – were ‘sorrow and sadness is not for me’.