Spencer was an English painter, born and raised in Cookham, Berkshire. He studied at the Slade School of Art and on leaving began working on biblical scenes, set in Cookham and often depicting his friends and neighbours as the Gospel characters. Spencer was skilled at organising multi-figure compositions such as in his large paintings for the Sandham Memorial Chapel and the Shipbuilding on the Clyde series, the former being a World War One memorial while the latter was a commission for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee during World War Two. As his career progressed Spencer often produced landscapes for commercial necessity and the intensity of his early visionary years diminished somewhat while elements of eccentricity came more to the fore. Although his compositions became more claustrophobic and his use of colour less vivid he maintained an attention to detail in his paintings akin to that of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Spencer’s works often express his fervent if unconventional Christian faith. This is especially evident in the scenes that he based in Cookham which show the compassion that he felt for his fellow residents and also his romantic and sexual obsessions. Spencer’s works originally provoked great shock and controversy. Nowadays, they still seem stylistic and experimental, while the nude works depicting his futile relationship with Patricia Preece, such as the Leg of mutton nude, foreshadow some of the much later works of Lucian Freud. Spencer’s early work is regarded as a combination of French Post-Impressionism and early Italian painting typified by Giotto. In later life Spencer remained an independent artist and did not join any of the artistic movements of the period, although he did show three works at the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912.